Thinking global, living local: Voices in a globalized world

The Many Good and Bad Uses of Cell Phones in Central America

Written by on . Published in Africa's mobile future

You see it every day: people with a cell phone to their ear, talking everywhere, on streets, cafés, elevators, taxis, airplanes, in a loud voice, making you part of their conversations, blurring the line between private and public matters.

Cell phones are here to stay and, as many people view them, they have become an essential part of our daily lives. But on a recent trip I made, sitting in an airplane about to take off, listening to the Captain’s instructions to turn off all electronic devices (including phones), and watching how people turned them off – or not – I wondered why are people so attached to their devices? Has communication among humans actually improved in the last years? Are cell phones really helping to elevate production rates or deliver specific results to our jobs? Is the world a better place thanks to these devices?

In Latin America, prices for these devices are very low and telephone companies normally offer packages where internet and phone services are delivered for an average of 30 dollars. The cheapest telephones can cost up to 15 dollars, if you’re lucky sometimes even less. Pre-paid cards allow to control the expense and the use, though most important is the availability of the person who owns one. You are never “gone” anymore.

In El Salvador, where there are more cell phones than inhabitants, there are positive and negative uses for a cell phone. In the 2001 earthquakes from January and February, survivors could be rescued from under the rubble thanks to a call made from within the wreckage itself.

Entire families depend on cell phones to communicate with relatives that have migrated to the USA or Canada. In fact, this is such a popular use for the devices in El Salvador – and in most Central American countries – that telephone companies offer special low cost rates to talk to these countries, sometimes at prices even lower as a local call.

Alongside the Panamerican Highway, on Sundays, it’s not unusual to see people hanging out on the street talking by phones. They are mostly people who live in the isolated towns or houses nearby and go to the street to receive or make calls to their relatives outside the country, because the signal along the highway is the best available.

But there’s a dark side to cells phones too. Their availability and uncontrolled sale is taken advantage of also by criminals. Dozens of these devices are smuggled in jails from where calls are made to give instructions to gang members on actions to be taken or to extort money from people on the outside.

No wonder then that cell phones are one of the most beloved articles for robbers, who chase and even kill their victims just to steal their phones. Because of how common it is, telephone companies include an “insurance rate” that ranges from 2 to 5 dollars in case your cell phone gets robbed, with which they will replace your device, after the usual police procedures.

This form of telephonic extortion has been the hardest to control and the government has implemented plans to stop this, starting with the installation of special antennas to neutralize and avoid the emission of signals for cell phones in prison areas.

This type of measure is of course one that requires millions of dollars to be implemented. In fact, it is part of a broader scale security plan for Central America, announced by President Barak Obama in his visit to El Salvador in March this year. Two hundred million dollars will be received by the region to support the fight for security, including local criminal gangs that may act as support groups for international drug trafficking.

Cell phones have a dark and a bright side to them, without doubt. And all depends on what type of use we give to these devices and to what extent we allow them to reign over our daily lives. There are people who seem obsessed with them and seem to never be able to disconnect or prefer them instead of establishing direct human contact.

What kind of cell phone user are you? Try to turn yours off while you think of an answer…


Jacinta Escudos Twitter: @jacintarioJacinta

Writer, columnist and blogger from El Salvador. With 8 published books and an op-ed column on the Sunday magazine of the country’s main newspaper, La Prensa Gráfica. I'm interested in literature, culture, the rescue of historical memory and how these can be used to transform reality, construct a better society and improve individual lives.