The moral economy of a floating crate of cash

I had dinner in Comayagüela with Ángela, two of her cousins from Ceiba, and a baby. The conversation ranged from national university policies to our various health issues to the drug war. There was a lot of doting over the infant and passing it around. At some point one of the cousins brought up the recent visit of Mario, the second eldest of Ángela's 9 siblings. "Have you called him? He's waiting for you to call him. He has money." "Yeah, he flew in to Tegus from Ceiba, stayed in a nice hotel for three nights, and flew back on an airplane." "He's giving money to everyone. You have to call him!" Ángela nodded and said her mother had also been on her case and agreed, she should call Mario. The conversation continued along its path.

A couple days later we met for coffee and I brought it up. "So," I said, "that money…?"

She chuckled. "Oh yeah, I was meaning to tell you about that."

"Drugs, right?" I asked.

"Yeah, it has to be drugs."

She explained to me how among fishermen like Mario and her other older brothers, floating boxes of cocaine are not entirely uncommon finds. As I wrote about earlier this year, people who find bags of drugs on the northern coasts or waters of Honduras all know whom to bring them to, and those capos amply compensate the act, usually to the tune of 50K, US dollars, cash. To not do so would to be to risk death, and in any case would be stupid. Why turn it in to the police when the police are involved in trafficking themselves, and when they're helping the DEA to kill people who are suspected of having any drug connections? And why forgo the reward when there's so little paying work?

Within Ángela's community, at least, such finds are necessarily redistributed in a way that strengthens, reaffirms, and creates kinship ties. In her poor extended family—ranging from extremely poor to middle-of-the-road, getting-by-fairly-well and university-educated poor like Ángela—a Limited Good model of wealth distribution seems to guide the discourses of the poorest family members, who see the relative wealth of their less-poor kin as having been accumulated at their expense. Meanwhile, the less-poor family members tend to employ a Protestant ethic/developmentalist logic, blaming the extreme poverty of their family members on poor choices, bad morals, a disdain for formal education, and excessively high fertility.

In Foster's Image of Limited Good theory, the only legitimate way for Tzintzuntzeños to become rich was out of nowhere: to win the lottery, or discover buried treasure. In a sense, that is true here too. Of all the money distributed among the family, Mario kept the largest share for himself, and with it bought a house. In so doing he not only shifted his position within the range of familial poverty from more- to less-poor; he also strengthened the networks of familial solidarity, and in particular dyadic ties between himself and each family member through their acceptance of and thus complicity in his dangerous gifts. To not have distributed the money would have been looked upon very harshly, and could easily have caused irreparable rifts within the family.

I asked Ángela how accepting this money fit within the seemingly strict, religious mores of her family. I had heard her parents speak disparagingly of drug users. Her father, a retired public sector worker, goes to church every night. Her mother is one of those people who obsess about gang violence, not letting a conversation go by without two or three warnings to not go here or there, and to not associate with these or those people. Ángela chuckled again and said "They need the money. They look the other way."

"But," she told me, "It was different when [her eldest brother] Jorge actually got involved in dealing. It's one thing if they just find the drugs and turn them in to the capo for their reward. That's not really dealing. But when Jorge was actually in the business for a while, my mother went crazy. She was panicked, and was sure Jorge would get killed, and wouldn't shut up about it."

"Why did your mother know?" I asked.

"Of course she knew," she told me. "How was she not going to know?"

"But, I mean, couldn't Jorge just not have told her?"

Ángela rolled her eyes at me, as if to say "Ay, Adriana."

She explained further about the familial drug money redistribution scheme. "I've been aware of this dynamic within the family since I was, like, 11 years old. Most of the time we were poor, often hungry. But then every so often there would be a sudden influx of cash, and for a while, everyone in the family would be well-off. It's a tradition within our community to share." She told me she estimated it happened every couple years or so in her family.

Another couple weeks later, just before I was about to leave the country, I met up with Ángela again. "You won't believe this," she said in a low voice with a twinkle of clandestine thrill in her eyes as we sat in the mall cafeteria sipping our overpriced café drinks (my treat). "It wasn't drugs."

"What was it?" I whisper-shouted.

"It was a crate full of cash."

"What?!"

"Yes, a crate of cash. They found it wrapped up and floating off the coast of Trujillo. The captain gave Mario and all the other fisherman each a million lempiras [around USD $51,000]. So if he gave each of them a million, imagine how much he must have kept for himself!"

We laughed at this development, at the possible puns—"That's one way to wash your money!"—and at the fact that we'd never really thought before about how all those $20s were moved around outside of the banking infrastructure. Since it is a largely cash economy, after all, it makes sense that the same channels (in this case, ocean channels) that transfer the cocaine would also transfer the cash.

I asked Ángela if she had called Mario. She answered that she hadn't, and said she didn't know why. She didn't really have a moral objection, she told me. She actually seemed quite happy about the various purchases her family members had made- a computer for her younger sister's university studies, long-overdue healthcare treatments for her grandmother, Mario's house, etc. She just didn't want to take the money. I scolded her, saying she should at least give him a call to say thanks for thinking of her. It seemed (given the insistence of her cousins and mother) like a snub. More than a snub, it seemed to me that Ángela's refusal to participate in the redistribution scheme rendered her suspect, and put everyone at risk. "Huh," she said, with apparently genuine interest. "I hadn't thought about it that way." Then, just as she had told her cousins a few weeks earlier, she assured me she'd call Mario.

I thought for a long time about whether to write up these field notes. There's a lot of reflection that went into my ultimate decision to post them that I won't detail here (but hopefully will at some point). But the moral economy of a crate of cash is just too much of an ethnographic treasure chest to let float by.