The Culture of Fear
by Noam Chomsky, May 1995
from New World Media / ZNet
This essay is the introduction to Colombia: The Genocidal
Democracy, a 125-page book by Javier Giraldo S.J., written in
Two facts should be uppermost in the minds of North American
readers of Father Giraldo's documentation of the reign of terror
that engulfed Colombia during the "Dirty War" waged
by the state security forces and their paramilitary associates
from the early 1980s. The first is that Colombia's "democra-tatorship,"
as Eduardo Galeano termed this amalgam of democratic forms and
totalitarian terror, has managed to compile the worst human rights
record in the hemisphere in recent years, no small achievement
when one considers the competition. The second is that Colombia
has had accessories in crime, primary among them the government
of the United States, though Britain, Israel, Germany, and others
have also helped to train and arm the assassins and torturers
of the narco-military-landowner network that maintains "stability"
in a country that is rich in promise, and a nightmare for many
of its people.
In July 1989, the U.S. State Department announced plans for
subsidized sales of military equipment to Colombia, allegedly
"for antinarcotics purposes." The sales were "justified"
by the fact that "Colombia has a democratic form of government
and does not exhibit a consistent pattern of gross violations
of internationally recognized human rights."
A few months before, the Commission of Justice and Peace that
Father Giraldo heads had published a report documenting atrocities
in the first part of 1988, including over 3,000 politically-motivated
killings, 273 in "social cleansing" campaigns. Political
killings averaged eight a day, with seven people murdered in their
homes or in the street and one "disappeared."
Citing this report, the Washington Office on Latin America
(WOLA) added that "the vast majority of those who have disappeared
in recent years are grass-roots organizers, peasant or union leaders,
leftist politicians, human rights workers and other activists,"
over 1500 by the time of the State Department's praise for Colombia's
democracy and its respect for human rights. During the 1988 electoral
campaigns, 19 of 87 mayoral candidates of the sole independent
political party, the UP, were assassinated, along with over 100
of its other candidates. The Central Organization of Workers,
a coalition of trade unions formed in 1986, had by then lost over
230 members, most of them found dead after brutal torture.
But the "democratic form of government" emerged
without stain, and with no "consistent pattern of gross violations"
of human rights.
By the time of the State Department's report, the practices
it found praiseworthy were being more efficiently implemented.
Political killings in 1988 and 1989 rose to 11 a day, the Colombian
branch of the Andean Commission of Jurists reported. From 1988
through early 1992, 9,500 people were assassinated for political
reasons along with 830 disappearances and 313 massacres (between
1988 and 1990) of peasants and poor people.
Throughout these years, as usual, the primary victims of state
terror were peasants. In 1988, grassroots organizations in one
southern department reported a "campaign of total annihilation
and scorched earth, Vietnam-style," conducted by the military
forces "in a most criminal manner, with assassinations of
men, women, elderly and children. Homes and crops are burned,
obligating the peasants to leave their lands." Also in 1988
the government of Colombia established a new judicial regime that
called for "total war against the internal enemy." It
authorized "maximal criminalization of the political and
social opposition," a European-Latin American Inquiry reported
in Brussels, reviewing "the consolidation of state terror
As the State Department report appeared a year after these
events, the Colombian Minister of Defense again articulated the
doctrine of "total war" by state power "in the
political, economic, and social arenas." Guerrillas were
the official targets, but as a high military official had observed
in 1987, their organizations were of minor importance: "the
real danger," he explained, is "what the insurgents
have called the political and psychological war," the efforts
"to control the popular elements" and "to manipulate
the masses." The "subversives" hope to influence
unions, universities, media, and so on, and the government must
counter this "war" with its own "total war in the
political, economic, and social arenas."
Reviewing doctrine and practice, the Brussels study concludes
realistically that the "internal enemy" of the state
terrorist apparatus extends to "labor organizations, popular
movements, indigenous organizations, oppositional political parties,
peasant movements, intellectual sectors, religious currents, youth
and student groups, neighborhood organizations," indeed any
group that must be secured against undesirable influences. "Every
individual who in one or another manner supports the goals of
the enemy must be considered a traitor and treated in that manner,"
a Colombian military manual prescribes.
The manual dates from 1963. At that time, violence in Colombia
was coming to be "exacerbated by external factors,"
the president of the Colombian Permanent Committee for Human Rights,
former Minister of Foreign Affairs Alfredo Vasquez Carrizosa,
wrote some years later, reviewing the outcome. "During the
Kennedy administration," he continues, Washington "took
great pains to transform our regular armies into counterinsurgency
brigades, accepting the new strategy of the death squads."
These initiatives "ushered in what is known in Latin
America as the National Security Doctrine, . . . not defense against
an external enemy, but a way to make the military establishment
the masters of the game . . . [with] the right to combat the internal
enemy, as set forth in the Brazilian doctrine, and the Colombian
doctrine: it is the right to fight and to exterminate social workers,
trade unionists, men and women who are not supportive of the establishment,
and who are assumed to be communist extremists."
The "Dirty War" escalated in the early 1980s --
not only in Colombia -- as the Reagan administration extended
these programs throughout the region, leaving it devastated, strewn
with hundreds of thousands of corpses tortured and mutilated people
who might otherwise have been insufficiently supportive of the
establishment, perhaps even influenced by "subversives."
North Americans should never allow themselves to forget the
origins of "the Brazilian doctrine, the Argentine doctrine,
the Uruguayan doctrine, the Colombian doctrine," and others
like them. They were crafted right, then adapted by students trained
and equipped right here. The basic guidelines are spelled out
in U.S. manuals of counterinsurgency and "low intensity conflict."
These are euphemisms, technical terms for state terror, a
fact well known in Latin America. When Archbishop Oscar Romero
wrote to President Carter in 1980 shortly before his assassination,
vainly pleading with him to end U.S. support for the state terrorist,
he informed the rector of the Jesuit University, Father Ellacuria,
that he was prompted "by the new concept of special warfare,
which consists in murderously eliminating every endeavor of the
popular organizations under the allegation of Communism or terrorism
. . ." So Father Ellacuria reported shortly before he was
assassinated by the same hands a decade later; the events framed
the murderous decade with the symbolism as gruesome as it was
The agents of state terror are the beneficiaries of U.S. training
designed to ensure that they have an "understanding of, and
orientation toward, U.S. objectives," Defense Secretary Robert
McNamera informed National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy in
1965. This is a matter of particular importance "in the Latin
American cultural environment," where it is recognized that
the military must be prepared to "remove government leaders
from office, whenever, in the judgment of the military, the conduct
of these leaders is injurious to the welfare of the nation."
It is the right of the military and those who provide them with
the proper orientation who are entitled to determine the welfare
of the nation, not the beasts of burden toiling and suffering
and expiring in their own lands.
When the State Department announced new arms shipments as
a reward for Colombia's achievements in human rights and democracy,
it surely had access to the record of atrocities that had been
compiled by the leading international and Colombian human rights
organizations. It was fully aware of the U.S. role in establishing
and maintaining the regime of terror and oppression. The example
is, unfortunately, typical of a pattern that hardly varies, as
can be readily verified.
As the "Dirty War" of the 1980s took its ever more
grisly toll, U.S. participation increased. From 1984 through 1992,
6,844 Colombian soldiers were trained under the U.S. international
Military Education and Training Program. Over 2,000 Colombian
officers were trained from 1990 to 1992, as "violence reached
unprecedented levels" during the presidency of Cesar Gaviria,
WOLA reported, confirming conclusions of international human rights
President Gaviria was a particular favorite of Washington,
so admired that the Clinton administration imposed him as Secretary-General
of the Organization of American States in a power play that aroused
much resentment. "He has been very forward looking in building
democratic institutions in a country where it was sometimes dangerous
to do so," the U.S. representative to the OAS explained --
not inquiring into the reasons for the "dangers," however.
The training program for Colombian officers is the largest in
the hemisphere, and U.S. military aid to Colombia now amounts
to about half the total for the entire hemisphere. It has increased
under Clinton, Human Rights Watch reports, adding that he planned
to turn emergency overdrawing facilities when the Pentagon did
not suffice for still further increases.
The official cover story for the participation in crime is
the war "against the guerrillas and narcotrafficking operations."
In its 1989 announcement of new arms sales, the State Department
could rely on its human right reports, which attributed virtually
all violence to the guerrillas and narcotraffickers. Hence the
U.S. is "justified" in providing military equipment
and training for the mass murderers and torturers.
A month later, George Bush announced the largest shipment
of arms ever authorized under the emergency provisions of the
Foreign Assistance Act. The arms were not sent to the National
Police, which is responsible for almost all counter-narcotic operations,
but to the army. The helicopters and jet planes are useless for
the drug war, as was pointed out at once, but not for other purposes.
Human rights groups soon reported the bombing of villages and
other atrocities. It is also impossible to imagine that Washington
is not aware that the security forces it is maintaining are closely
linked to the narcotrafficking operations, and that exactly as
their leaders frankly say, the target is the "internal enemy"
that might support or be influenced by "subversives"
in some way.
A January 1994 conference on state terror organized by Jesuits
in San Salvador observed that "it is important to explore
. . . what weight the culture of terror has had in domesticating
the expectations of the majority vis-a-vis alternatives different
to those of the powerful." That is the crucial point, wherever
such methods are used to subdue the "internal enemy."
Israeli physician Ruchama Marton, who has been at the forefront
of investigation of the use of torture by the security forces
of her own country, points out that while confessions obtained
by torture are of course meaningless, the real purpose is not
confession. Rather, it is silence, "silence induced by fear."
"Fear is contagious," she continues, "and spreads
to the other members of the oppressed group, to silence and paralyze
them. To impose silence through violence is torture's real purpose,
in the most profound an fundamental sense." The same is true
of all other aspects of the doctrines that have been devised and
implemented with our guidance and support under a series of fraudulent
To impose silence on the internal enemy is necessary in the
"democra-tatorships" that U.S. policy has sought to
impose on its domains ever since it "assumed, out of self-interest,
responsibility for the welfare of the world capitalist system,"
in the words of diplomatic Gerald Haines, senior historian of
the CIA, discussing the U.S. takeover of Brazil in 1945---and
indeed before, with important echoes at home as well. It is particularly
important to impose silence in the region with the highest inequality
in the world, thanks in no small measure to policies of the superpower
that largely controls it.
It is necessary to impose silence and spread fear in countries
like Colombia, where the top three percent of the landed elite
own over 70% of arable land while 57% of the poorest farmers subsist
on under 3% -- a country where 40% of the population live in "absolute
poverty," unable to satisfy basic subsistence needs according
to an official government report in 1986, and 18% live in "absolute
misery," unable to meet nutritional needs. The Colombian
Institute of Family Welfare estimates that four and a half million
children under 14 are hungry, half the country's children.
Recall that we are speaking of a country of enormous resources
and potential. It has "one of the healthiest and most flourishing
economies in Latin America," Latin Americanist John Martz
writes in Current History, lauding this triumph of capitalism
in a society with "democratic structures" which, "notwithstanding
inevitable flaws, are among the most solid on the continent,"
a model of "well-established political stability" --
conclusions that are not inaccurate, if not quite in the sense
he seeks to convey
The effects of U.S. arms and military training are not confined
to Colombia. The record of horrors is all too full. In the Jesuit
journal America, Rev. Daniel Santiago, a priest working in El
Salvador, reported in 1990 the story of a peasant woman who returned
home one day to find her mother, sister, and three children sitting
around a table, the decapitated head of each person placed on
the table in front of the body, the hands arranged on top "as
if each body was stroking its own head." The assassins, from
the Salvadoran National Guard, had found it hard to keep the head
of an 18-month-old baby in place, so they nailed the hands to
it. A large plastic bowl filled with blood stood in the center
of the table.
Two years earlier, the Salvadoran human rights group that
continued to function despite the assassination of its founders
and directors reported that 13 bodies had been found in the preceding
two weeks, most showing signs of torture, including two women
who had been hanged from a tree by their hair, their breasts cut
off and their faces painted red. The discoveries were familiar,
but the timing is significant, just as Washington was successfully
completing the cynical exercise of exempting its murderous clients
from the terms of the Central America peace accords that called
for "justice, freedom and democracy," "respect
for human rights," and guarantees for "the endless inviolability
of all forms of life and liberty." The record is endless,
and endlessly shocking.
Such macabre scenes, which rarely reached the mainstream in
the United States, are designed for intimidation. Father Santiago
writes that "People are not just killed by death squads in
El Salvador -- they are decapitated and then their heads are placed
on pikes and used to dot the landscape. Men are not just disemboweled
by Salvadoran Treasury Police; their severed genitalia are stuffed
in their mouths. Salvadoran women are not just raped by the national
guard; their wombs are cut from their bodies and used to cover
their faces. It is not enough to kill children; they are dragged
over barbed wire until the flesh falls from their bones while
parents are forced to watch." "The aesthetics of terror
in El Salvador is religious." The intention is to ensure
that the individual is totally subordinated to the interests of
the Fatherland, which is why death squads are sometimes called
the "Army of National Salvation" by the governing ARENA
The same is true in neighboring Guatemala. In the traditional
"culture of fear," Latin American scholar Piero Gleijeses
writes, peace and order were guaranteed by ferocious repression,
and its contemporary counterpart follows the same course: "Just
as the Indian was branded a savage beast to justify his exploitation,
so those who have sought social guerrillas, or terrorists, or
drug dealers, or whatever the current term of art may be."
The fundamental reason, however, is always the same: the savage
beast may fall under the influence of "subversives"
who challenge the regime of injustice, oppression and terror that
must continue to serve the interests of foreign investors and
Throughout these grim years, nothing has been more inspiring
than the courage and dedication of those who have sought to expose
and overcome the culture of fear in their suffering countries.
They have left martyrs, whose voices have been silenced by the
powerful -- yet another crime.
But they continue to struggle on. Father Giraldo's remarkable
work and eloquent words should not only inspire us, but also impel
us to act to bring these terrors to an end, as we can. His testimony
here contains an "urgent appeal." It should be answered,
but it does not go far enough. Our responsibilities extend well
beyond. The fate of Colombians and many others hinges on our willingness
and ability to recognize and meet them.
Noam Chomsky, Cambridge, MA, May 1995
The English version of Colombia: The Genocidal Democracy is
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