#12 power
Gloria Ortega Pérez

Fear: A Most Destructive Weapon

For decades Colombians have been ruled by fear. They are now breaking free.

"Love casts out fear; but conversely fear casts out love. And not only love. Fear also casts out intelligence, casts out goodness, casts out all thought of beauty and truth. What remains is the dumb or studiedly jocular desperation of one who is aware of the obscene Presence in the corner of the room and knows that the door is locked, that there aren’t any windows." (Aldous Huxley)

In this world, there is a lot to be afraid of: unemployment, poverty, financial crises, terrorism, chemical warfare, the South, the North, the stranger, the Other. In Colombia in particular, with its years of civil war and its high crime rate, people live in the constant fear of being assaulted, violated or killed in any space. We are afraid that the bus or train we take might be hijacked or blown up; we are afraid of being labelled a subversive element if we speak our minds; we are afraid that anything we own or love could be taken from us in a split second. All of this reinforces mutual distrust and encourages the spread of fear.

“Fear is a cognitive distortion,” explains biopedagagy specialist Eduardo Vargas. “It is a thought that disguises reality in a way that paralyses the individuum.”

Andrés Gómez, freelancer: “Fear of love, fear of destruction, fear of the Other, fear of the unknown, fear of being happy.”

The strongest human emotion

Throughout history, from the Middle Ages to today, fear has been an effective social device used by the military, by political tyrants, by conquerors or religious communities to implement a permanent state of instability, uncertainty, and a collective paralysis of the people. It is the most destructive weapon that does not kill, but rather annihilates people’s ability to act. It is the greatest enemy of and obstacle to happiness.

Fear is the most destructive weapon that does not kill. It is the greatest enemy of and obstacle to happiness.

"Behind every conflict there’s fear," writes poet and essayist Santiago Trancón [1]. "Fear is the strongest human emotion – even stronger than sex – and therefore the most dangerous one. The worst thing is that fear suppresses the attack instinct. Escape and paralysis are left as the last resorts."

Álvaro Moreno Hoffman, biologist, psychologist, researcher and artist: “In traditional and natural societies, fear is the instinct that makes you run. It helps with hunting, it gives a shot of adrenaline which helps us react effectively in case of immediate danger. But in urbanised, mediatised, human societies, fear doesn’t really lead to effective reactions; it results in blockages, and in the inability to react adequately.”

Fear manipulates minds and wills. "Today, more sophisticated methods of spreading fears exist, mainly through mass media," highlights psychoanalyst and neurologist Jorge L. Tizón [2]. "Every government tries to manage these media because it understands their power to control citizens."

Fernando López, geography student: “I think there are strategies that use terror, for instance in wars. They demonize others and their cultures. No doubt, there is a powerful and macabre alliance between the state, private entities and the media, which undoubtedly use terror policies.”

After September 11th, professor of linguistics and American critic Noam Chomsky warned that the world powers could use the fear created by "the threat of terrorism" for their purposes. His warnings have become reality in many countries.

A society rent by fear

Colombia has also not been immune to this “crusade against terrorism”. Between 2002 and 2010, Álvaro Uribe Vélez [2] (alleged by the Colombian court Tribunal Superior de Medellín to have been involved in paramilitarism) [3] implemented the so-called democratic security policy [4]. It was aimed at eliminating the oldest guerrilla group in the world, the FARC, by any means – without rules or limits. All the secret security agencies and the State Armed Forces were ready to use dispossession, forced internal displacement and extrajudicial killings. They intimidated and illegally persecuted citizens, journalists, trade unionists, and human rights defenders, and committed thousands of extrajudicial killings of intimidated and helpless civilians.

However, those eight years are only one part of Colombia’s [5] long, 50-year history marked by the horrors of civil war. The battle has raged between various conflicting forces: the regular army of the state, the guerrillas, the drug [6] traders, paramilitary groups, armed common criminals, and emerging gangs [7]. This has caused immense suffering, leaving hundreds of thousands of battered and sexually abused widows and orphaned children in the wake of the violence.

“26 people were displaced every hour, and 1 person was kidnapped every 12 hours.”

1,982 massacres were perpetrated over the past three decades. 26 people were displaced every hour, and 1 person was kidnapped every 12 hours. 81% of the victims were civilians, mostly farmers and indigenous people. According to the report “¡Ya Basta! [8] Colombia: memorias de guerra y dignidad” (Colombia: Memories of War and Dignity, Official Report) published by the Centro Nacional de Memoria Histórica, 220,000 civilians were killed during the internal armed conflict between 1958 and 2012, while only 40,000 combatants lost their lives.

The “law of the machete” and the “law of the gun” are nothing new to Colombians. Fear and threat have been their constant companions through these years. Targeted assassinations, massacres, terrorist attacks, torture and forced disappearances were tools powerful enough for panic to get a firm hold.

Yesika Toro, domestic servant: “We live in a world and in an environment where fear is all around. Because of the political situation and lacking security, we always need to be careful. We are in fear of so many things, fear of war, fear of dying, fear of losing a loved one – or fear of losing the children, who are most important to me.”

Emilia Batista, displaced person due to political violence: “The war, the armed conflict – I come from a region that is exceptionally terrible. It is very difficult to understand it all. To understand… the humans.”

None of the traumas and injuries have healed. Colombian society is still ruled by terror. Injustice and insecurity create an atmosphere of demoralization and silencing among the victims of human rights violations and war crimes, claims lawyer and university professor Mario Madrid-Malo.

Forced internal displacement was used as a war strategy. 266,480 families were forced to abandon their lands from 1995 to 2010 alone. At the same time, many peasants decided to voluntarily leave their lands for fear of being robbed and killed. According to historian and researcher Martha Ines Villa, this created an internal exodus of millions of peasants, mostly women and children, desperately looking for a place to live in their own country.

Álvaro Moreno Hoffman, biologist, psychologist, researcher and artist: "We are facing all kinds of fears. The fear of being spied on, fear of being monitored, the fear of being touched, the fear of being caught with strangers in too close spaces, fear that they will interfere in our personal and intimate affairs. Fear has become a kind of contagious disease. So there is the fear of getting to know someone, the fear of falling in love, the fear of growing up, the fear of learning, the fear of being conscious, the fear of change... a fear of everything has emerged, and that blocks us completely."

The business behind fear

Fear is also the raw material of the prosperous, growing and lucrative industries that sell private security solutions and social control. These include cars, buildings, doors, and armored bunkers against criminal attacks, as well as armored clothing and intimate apparel, weapons, home arsenals, security cameras and all kinds of other devices.

In an extremely disturbing comment, the Minister of National Defence emphasised that in Colombia, the security industry’s products “are tested on the battlefield.”

The products manufactured by the Colombian military industry include river boats, rifles, flight simulators and bombs for aircrafts. In an extremely disturbing comment, the Minister of National Defence emphasised that this industry’s products “are tested on the battlefield.”

“The market for private police forces and private prisons is growing, while all of us, some more, some less, are becoming the surveillants of our neighbors and the prisoners of fear.”

Columbia spends 13 billion dollars annually, and is by far not the biggest market for the security and defense industry in Latin America [9]: Brazil spends a whopping 30 billion dollars a year. The security business "is growing as fast or even faster than the crimes that generate it, and experts say that this trend will continue," claims Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano. "The market for private police forces and private prisons is growing, while all of us, some more, some less, are becoming the surveillants of our neighbors and the prisoners of fear."

The truth is that in Colombia, the use of weapons is not under the control of the government. Arms are in the hands of the war lords and the various warring parties. This is why the "Unidad Nacional de Protección" (National Protection Unit) exists. It spends more than 1,500 million dollars annually to protect the lives of nearly 1,000 people in mortal jeopardy. They protect entire villages and activists groups with armored cars, bodyguards and security schemes.

Álvaro Moreno Hoffman, biologist, psychologist, researcher and artist: "Societies have been silenced. Fear makes people incapable of criticising, thinking, acting. Fear makes them think or feel that they are impotent and that they will be mistreated or end up losing. Fear has conquered us."

“Fear will switch sides”

Suddenly, however, things have changed. Colombians are standing up. Between August and the first weeks of September, they came together in mass protests. People awakened from decades of apathy, “took fear by the horns”, as we say in Latin America, and ended their silence.

“We are tired of them depriving us of our lands; we are tired of exchanging hoes for rifles; we are tired of our children going to war; we are tired of giving birth to warriors – we have to do something," says Eduardo Vargas.

“We are tired of them depriving us of our lands; we are tired of exchanging hoes for rifles; we are tired of our children going to war; we are tired of giving birth to warriors.”

The whole country has arisen in protest [10]. The constant fear of being branded a terrorist or a guerrillero for taking to the streets and the strong fear of repression were left behind for a few days. Or perhaps even forever.

Students were not the only ones who took to the streets and squares of major cities: Farmers too loudly voiced their just demands, protesting against the abandonment of fertile land due to the North American Free Trade Agreements. They were spontaneously supported by students, teachers, workers, and housewives. This also encouraged the lorry drivers and miners to protest.

People have finally begun to act. They refuse to continue to play only a supporting role in their own lives. They don’t want to be passive anymore just to ensure that "nothing happens to us". The dictatorship of fear has ended in Colombia.

Fear can rule our minds. It eliminates confidence and happiness.
But in Colombia, fear will now switch sides.

"@ValenciaCalle World News. Colombians want peace. But they are at war because they are afraid to live in a peaceful country."

Header image © bunkerglo