Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Fighting for the Right to Sell Cellphones

No to monopoly!
Cell phone merchants marched thru downtown Bogotá today protesting a new decree tightening controls on celular telephone sales.

Stolen or just pre-owned? Phones and parts for sale on a
Bogotá sidewalk. One of these guys ran after me, angry
about the photo. I guess he had something to be worried about. 
According to the government, the decree will make stolen cellular phones useless and thus less appealing to thieves. Cell phone theft is a big problem - reportedly, 1.5 million cellphones are stolen every year in Colombia. And the thefts sometimes even turn deadly - recently the chaplain of a Catholic university was murdered by thieves who stole his phone. That crime probably provided the impulse for this decree's issuance.

An acquaintance who sells new and used cellphones guesstimates that half the used phones he buys are stolen. But it sure would be a pity if used cellphones could not be resold and had to be trashed, with all of the environmental and economic impacts of that. Under the new decree, cellphones reported stolen must be turned off permanently, making them useless.

A Blackberry for 230,000 pesos - negotiable! And it appeared to work. 
However, owners of small cell phone stores suspect that the law's goal is to give the cell phone operators - Comcel, Movistar and Tigo - a monopoly on phone sales.

I've heard a saying in Latin America: 'Hecha la ley, hecha la trampa' - 'For every lie, there's a trick.' It's hard to imagine that someone won't find a way to rejig stolen cell phones for reuse, if only in a different country.

Is this another example of legal magical realism? A bill now in Congress would create a punishment of 6 to 8 year in prison for reprogramming stolen cellphones. One has to ask whether such a draconian punishment will be enforced at all. That's a much harsher punishment than that for drunken driving! (Here's a news piece about a drunk driver who killed someone and got sentenced to only a little more than four years in prison.)

Window shopping for phones in a San Andresito. 
Call for 200 pesos per minute. Seems as tho almost everybody has a cellphone - but many people  use them only to receive calls, and save money by calling from rented public phones, which are much cheaper.  
Police following the march. 

In the afternoon, these women police were still lined up near the closed San Andresitos, as tho violence might break out at any minute. 
By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours




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