Meet Meidy Saputra Salmon. This 35-year-old father of two is currently trying to start a used car business, but for the bulk of his career he's specialized in roughing up people who owe money. He got into the racket by accident. Around ten years ago, Salmon had an acquaintance who was having trouble paying him back, so he hired some thugs to grease the wheels. He saw how effectively this worked and decided to take on some clients of his own.
Today Salmon's employers range from individuals, businesses, and even law officers—basically anyone who needs to outsource some quasi-legal stand over tactics. You don't really need any qualifications to work for Salmon either. Most of his guys get paid by the job, with cash. He tells me he considers most of his colleagues good friends.
Debt collectors such as Salmon work around the law, which clamped down in 2011 when a debtor died during a Jakarta Citibank "interview." Now bank collectors can't do anything beyond softly reminding clients to pay back their debts.
Salmon, for his part, says he knows the ins-and-outs of the Indonesian legal system and pushes laws around debt collection as far as he can. It helps that he has contacts within the system, giving him some buffer when he needs the law to look the other way.
To find out what sort of tactics Salmon employs to get his cash, we sat down at his favorite coffee place in Jakarta. There we talked about debt, violence, and feeling like you're the good guy.
VICE: Take me through the process of getting a job. What's the first thing you do?
Meidy Saputra Salmon: We do our research, which is easy as most debtors have some sort of social media account. We consider their financial conditions and what kinds of relations they have, mainly so that we can make sure we don't confront someone when they're surrounded by their goons. This would result in a fight, which I try to avoid. I've got about 30 guys working for me, and I rotate between guys depending on the needs of the different debtors.
How much of your collecting experience has involved actual physical confrontation?
About 20 percent. Most of the time persuasion is the best approach. You talk to them, persuade them to pay and hint at the consequences if they don't. That and embarrassing someone really works. Everyone has got a sense of shame, so if you shame them, they'll break down and pay.
What are some examples of the shaming techniques? I've heard of calling a debtor's neighbors and relatives and airing his or her dirty laundry.
No, that's a stupid method used by official bank guys. Let me give you a better example: There was an ex-army general who didn't want to pay the money he owed my client, so I told my guys to get a bullhorn. We then walked around his neighborhood and loudly shouted, this guy owes this amount of money . It only took a short stroll before he gave up and paid his debts. Sometimes we also put up a huge banner on a debtor's front yard with their name and the amount they owe. I actually learned that this method was OK from a law officer.
What's something violent you've done while collecting?
I once shoved an ashtray into somebody's mouth. He owed my car business money, and went into hiding when we took back the car. Two of his friends came and tried to get the car back, but I told them to beat it. Then we brought him down to the office and asked him for the money, but he kept babbling nonsense. That made me lose it so I shoved an ashtray into his mouth. That got him to pay.
What are some of the more extreme places you've visited to collect money?
I've collected money from guys who are locked up behind bars. You just have to have contacts within the jail system to get inside. Another time I went over to a debtor's spiritual advisor and hinted that 'If we don't find this guy everyone related to him will get in trouble.' I got home and the shaman called me up, ratting out this guy's whereabouts. Turns out he was hiding in the jungle in the mountains. We went up there and got him.
What's the usual amount of money that your debtors owe?
I only take jobs where it's up from millions of rupiah ($7,100 USD) to billions of rupiah (over $71,000 USD). Right now I'm tackling someone who's in jail and owes ($248,000 USD) to my client, but the client hasn't yet paid my five percent fee so I'm just letting it simmer.
Have you ever chased a smaller amount of money?
Yeah, once a guy owed my wife three million rupiah (roughly $220 USD). I was getting a headache because my wife was frustrated, you know how it is. Usually I wouldn't go after such small amount, but when it's the wife…
How do you make sure you're not actually breaking the law?
If it comes down to physical confrontation, I make sure that whatever we're doing is in self-defense. So the debtor has to make some sort of first strike, whether it's hitting me or chucking something onto the floor, or spitting at me, or maybe even just shouting at me. I mean, the law isn't specific about what kind of "attack" you are rightfully allowed to defend yourself against. Usually I can justify anything as provocation.
Do you ever feel bad for the people you're beating up?
Of course. I often know it's difficult for them to get the money. That's why I try to take only jobs where I feel like the debtor isn't a good guy. It's also why I start off talking to everyone as a human being.
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