Opinion–De minimis non curat lex: Our moral hazard

By Sergio Guzman October 16, 2018

Photo courtesy of Pixabay

The Latin principle de minimis non curat lex suggests that the law cares not for small matters. However, it is how countries treat these small matters that end up as key determinants of the culture of legality. Colombia suffers from a culture of moral flexibility which renders laws in the books irrelevant. However brazen episodes of laxity, prominently featured in social media, can trigger a harsh moral sanction and efficient actions by authority. In his latest column, El Mohan* argues that Colombia needs to change from a culture that admires chicanery and rule-breaking, to one that looks up to hard work and boring normality.      

It is often joked that there is no Colombian as well-behaved or submissive as when they stand before a foreign customs agent. Before having lined at immigration, however, a Colombian will probably have cut in line, cursed at a Colombian police officer, stashed food and other items in their baggage, and/or run a stop light. I’m being facetious obviously but my point is that Colombians widely perceive that foreign authorities, be it customs agents, police officers, tax collectors will actually do their jobs and apply the law. It’s as if the concept of enforcement of the law abroad makes Colombians civilized.

Why then are we Colombians so hesitant to follow the law in our own country? I argue that the inability of the legal system to effectively punish matters, big and small, creates a culture of moral relativism. Moreover, we are unable to morally sanction others to do what is right when the stakes are low. Our hypocrisy is particularly horrifying when politicians or exemplary Colombians are caught committing the same peccadilloes most Colombians seem to commit on a day to day basis. We pound our fists and call for greater law and authority to punish law-breakers, but we are unable to live by the same code.


Let’s be honest, it felt good when it was discovered that Mayor Enrique Peñalosa had lied in his resume and does not have a Master’s or a Doctorate from a university in Paris. It also felt good that the Attorney General’s anti-corruption prosecutor Luis Gustavo Moreno was charged with corruption and then extradited to the US. What I felt at that moment is best described as schadenfreude – to find joy, pleasure, or self-satisfaction in another person’s misery, troubles, failures or humiliation. These cases make me feel good because they are rare, it is rare to see justice or social sanctions on powerful individuals.

It is also interesting to see how society becomes so enraged when there are cases of inappropriate behavior that receive exemplary punishment. For instance when internet celebrity “Epa Colombia” spat on a police officer and was later detained, or when wealthy businessman Nicolás Gaviria drunkenly claimed to be a CIA officer to justify carrying an unlicensed firearm. Public condemnation, in these and many other cases, has been swift. The uproar around disrespecting police and the authority forced the protagonists of these stories to publicly repent and apologize for their actions. However, there is no doubt that their actions would remain anonymous and unpunished if video evidence was lacking.

So, the laws on the books to respect the country’s authorities are better enforced thanks to YouTube? For sure a sense of accountability makes citizens uphold laws, but certainly there is a deeper problem in the way the culture relates to authority.       

At the same time, it is a culture where misbehaving and rule breaking happens constantly. One must only visit a Transmilenio bus station to realize how many people cut in line, jump the conveyor, or simply cross the street to avoid paying the USD $1 fare.

This is clearly an issue and it is not to do with the price of the fare or the design of the stations. It is a culture of disregard for the norms and casual disorder. Notice the video above is from 2013, the problem is not different today. The response from the local administration has been to create campaigns to promote civility and following the law, but they are evidently not enough.    

The relativity of peace

Unfortunately, the peace process between the government and the FARC has served as a way to make relative all sorts of crime. All infractions when compared to the major human rights violations and atrocities committed by the FARC and other groups during the conflict seem trivial. Drug possession – the FARC sold hundreds of thousands of tonnes of cocaine to the US and they will not go to jail. Sexual assault – the FARC and the paramilitaries used sex as a weapon of war committing abuses against thousands of women and minors during the conflict. Murder – the conflict has left a death toll of more than 250 thousand, the vast majority of whom were innocent. Enforcing the law becomes much more difficult when people don’t see there are consequences for breaking the law in the first place.

Although the peace process with the FARC did contribute to a reduction of violence in rural areas, which has been hailed as a success by many, the partial impunity given to members of the FARC creates a moral hazard that the country will be dealing with for decades to come.        

Easy out

Politicians will continue to eagerly pass laws to address the scandal of the day and give police more or less authority (depending on the scandal) and call it success. However, the more important issue is creating a culture that respects the rule of law and abides by it. A culture where those who write the laws are the first ones to respect it. A culture which does not praise and reward law breaking, rule bending and line cutting.

As Colombians, we have a lot of work to do to restore our culture of legality than to complain when people don’t follow the laws, record it on video, write columns about it, and get angry about it. We must take ownership of our own actions and aspire to lead better lives. It sounds like a rant, and in many ways it is. But unless we Colombians are able to understand and recognize our own hypocrisy with the law, we will not be able to build a culture of lawfulness and respect.

Sergio Guzmán is the Director of Colombia Risk Analysis, a political risk consulting firm based in Bogotá. Follow him on twitter @serguzes and @ColombiaRisk

This opinion column is intended as a space to discuss some of the most pressing issues faced by Colombia and the region in these uncertain times. All opinions and content are solely the opinion of the author and do not represent the viewpoints of The Bogotá Post.

*El Mohán is a Colombian mythological figure. He is described as a hairy humanoid figure associated with natural forces such as great rivers and the mysteries lying within the forests. It is said, El Mohán was a shaman who had an anticipated vision of the arrival of the Spanish conquerors and the terrors they brought along.