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Inside a debtor's mind

In Mexico, there are no institutions providing psychological assistance to those unable to pay their debts; experts agree it's necessary to promote a financial culture since childhood
Illustration: Rosario Lucas
Gabriel Moyssen
Mexico City
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Ricardo L, his family, and neighbors who were living in an apartment in the Clavería quarter, in Mexico City, awoke with a jolt that Saturday morning upon listening to the sound of what they would later discover was a mallet banging on their door. The neighbors were shocked, but Ricardo understood his luck had run out. His son Luis ran to the entrance, bat in hand, only to see the mallet bringing down the door lock and workers of the real estate company which had sold them the house 15 years ago pouring inside, followed by cops and a lawyer.

Ashen, the young man of 18 understood it was pointless to resist against the battalion which had begun to remove the furniture of the living room and the dining room. Some of the inscrutable workers unplugged the refrigerator and other kitchen appliances while others dismounted the wall-mounted cabinets.

Dressed only in a robe, Paquita, Ricardo's wife, had a nervous breakdown upon seeing the parade of their belongings marching towards the first-floor hallway while her daughters Clara and Paula insulted the sour-faced men between sobs.

Ricardo, however, took the eviction with resignation. It was seven in the morning and after over two years of not paying the monthly installments of the 120-square-meter apartment – which he had to pay in Investment Units (UDIS) due to a contract restructuring – the legal and collection departments of the company had warned him that if he didn't pay the accrued interests and reach a new agreement, they would take action pursuant to the Law. And the time had come.

Although their current problem began to gradually spiral out of control, Ricardo, 55, wasn't a stranger to debts, loan maturity dates and the harassment of collectors. As an engineering student who never obtained his degree and who only worked for a short time with a group of designers, Ricardo earned the nickname “Coyote” because he learned to survive working as a “manager” and “advisor” taking advantage from the fact Paquita worked for several government offices in Mexico City.

Their middle-class lifestyle didn't stop, not even when hardships kept them from paying their home; they became acquainted with formal and informal loans, they maxed out their credit cards, and they began to pay off debts with loans or credits, until the point when, certain that thanks to their contacts the real estate company wouldn't manage to evict them, they bought new furniture for their living room in installments they soon stopped paying for.

Almost everything they bought with credit and used cash to eat out once or twice per month. Among the neighbors, it was told how Ricardo had ordered – and convinced with MXN$200 – the security guard of his building to deny Ricardo was living there to any stranger who came asking about him or his family. Hidden behind concrete columns of his parking lot, Ricardo watched carefully the streets each morning before he went to “work” in his used car.

How many years did Ricardo spend in debt? What drove him to live a lifestyle beyond his means, to unplug the phone in order to avoid the constant calls of the collection departments of banks and shops?

Encapsulated memories
From a psychological point of view, according to expert Adelina Rosas, the inclination towards debt is a defense mechanism of an individual, which can be defined as a “repetition compulsion” arising from unresolved matters in the past. “It's as if the unconscious were a file where the memories are encapsulated, triggered by certain elements which relive worries from our childhood,” says the psychotherapist.

“It's a defense mechanism which represents atonement, a way to assume the blame, and it begins to develop since birth when our moral conscience is formed. It's a way to remain in debt to pay for the things we've done in our past, which could be related to the Edipo complex, which comes around the two years, followed by the phallic stage in which the individual falls in love with his mother or father and develops feelings of guilt; it's all about being in debt as a defense mechanism which allows people to have the feeling that there's something they need to atone for,” details Rosas to EL UNIVERSAL.

She adds that the repetition compulsion is driven by death (Thanatos) and can be found in alcoholics, drug addicts or in people who constantly choose abusers for partners. The treatment is to discover “the fault, restructure it, and release it.”

In Mexico, there are no official institutions providing psychological support to debtors. “This reflects how bad we are as a society and our socioeconomic conditions. There is also the media bombardment,” which incites consumerism, she says, as well as “the oral factor during the first year of life, because whenever there was something lacking, it is said the libido remains inactive and it leads to addictive behaviors such as drinking or eating in excess, hoarding disorders, and consumerism as a stress reliever, because the past is remembered though a phenomenon called transference.”

Javier Villarreal, psychiatrist, and psychoanalyst, cautions that: “Since people are frustrated with 'not having', they take advantage of marketing operations” such as Black Friday, which in Mexico begins this Thursday in shops across the country. “Even if they know they have debts, they are in denial, similarly to someone who starts smoking when they are 15 and is told that by 50 they will get emphysema; they don't care because the damage is slow; they don't internalize it, they know the consequence and they keep acting a certain way.” The expert denies this is about compulsive consumerism, for him, it's all about a lack of culture which creates an illusion and, then, leads to depression.

It would be necessary, he thinks, to educate children so they can avoid unnecessary indebtedness because in capitalist societies, buying and consuming lead to pleasure. “The limbic system at the center of the brain is the one responsible for pleasurable emotions, which is why it is very hard to give up on them while the individual is unaware he doesn't have to stimulate them,” says Villarreal.

From another perspective, Ángel González Badillo, general director of the Debtor Defense ONG says “unfortunately, there are no organizations besides the National Commission for the Protection and Defense of the Users of Financial Services (CONDUSEF) and us providing support to debtors. Some cry, others have even thought about suicide, and we tell them they can reach an agreement before a legal entity, that it is a matter of discipline, perseverance, and that there are no magic solutions but that it is possible to live debt-free.” He says that in the first quarter of the year they had an increase of 23% in the cases they receive, which “doesn't mean there is a general increase in debtors.”

“We have to understand that regardless of what authorities say, in reality, it is becoming harder to buy things and pay debts. This forces people to use credit and many do not understand exactly how credit works. If we make a survey, we'll see there's no financial culture. Nine out of 10 don't know how to use credit lines and this is vital in avoiding over-indebtedness," he claims.

González Badillo considers preventive rather than corrective actions are required, because this is a good business for banks, to have people paying minimums instead of settling their debts. “A financial education is needed. People don't know how to use credit, they fall in debt with credit cards, with promotions, they see it as an additional income and later on, we discover the items bought through credits were, in 99% of the cases, short-term items like parties or trips; afterwards they prefer to leave their homes because they cannot pay, they can't afford lawyers, and this creates a bigger problem.”


Regarding Black Friday, he claims this is “a niche of over-indebtedness. We have performed surveys at shopping malls when it is taking place and people reply they don't know what they're going to buy; this is extremely dangerous, they buy out of impulse, without thinking beyond the now and if we add to all this that they already have other expenses, other debts...”

González Badillo adds that between February and April the number of people who go to the Debtor Defense seeking help increases. “These are the hardest months, even more than the period after holidays and back to school.” he points out.


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