When you drive into a shopping center in Bogotá, it is most likely that a security guard, dressed in uniform, will ask you to turn off the engine and open the doors and trunk to search it, with the help of a trained dog. , to see if there is a bomb inside.

“But what if it is necessary?” BBC Mundo asked a few days ago a security guard at the Retiro shopping center, in the north of the Colombian capital.

“Well, don’t you see that five years ago the guerrillas planted a bomb in the front (of the Andino shopping center) that killed three people?”

Colombian society is in a state of alert. It is not clear whether this is due to trauma inherited from the war, which peaked in the 1990s, because the war continues in some way, or because crime has taken over the social sphere, as also happens elsewhere. Or if it’s a little bit of all those things.

The security measures, which may be unusual in other countries in the region, which are also plagued by crime, are in any case not limited to watchdogs: here it is common for them to search you to enter a shopping center on foot or for the police. you stop and do a random inspection.

We advise

War in Ukraine: the fierce battle for the city of Bakhmut, crucial to dominate the Donbas region

Foreigners are forced to fight in the Russian war in Ukraine

“I gave birth and kept walking”: the mother who escaped Sudan and tried to save her children who had not yet been killed

“Let’s stop this nonsense that we are doomed to repeat history in an effort to strive for something better”

It is also common to see soldiers armed with guns patrol the streets and highways. And the private security industry, which includes escorts, guards and monitoring systems, is bigger than the police.

Today, Colombia is not much more violent than other countries in the region. Although the number of murders increased last year, the rate of 26 murders per 100,000 inhabitants – the main criterion commonly used to measure insecurity – is no higher than that of Ecuador or Mexico and lower than that of Venezuela and Honduras.

In Bogotá, the rate of 12.8 murders per 100 thousand inhabitants is comparable to that of Medellín, close to that of Uruguay or Panama and lower than that of Brazil or Guatemala.

So Colombia was no longer an unusually violent country in Latin America. Especially in big cities. And yet here we see measures that reflect a special sense of insecurity, characterized by a traumatic history and also: by a huge private security industry.

Photo: BBC World

‘The war is over, but the crime is not’

It is difficult to know which of these measures are unique to Colombia. Insecurity is a problem across Latin America and the solutions are generally the same.

Guard dogs and anti-explosive dogs, which in the case of shopping centers live and sleep in the same building for years, emerged in the 1980s and 1990s, when the bombs of first drug traffickers, and then guerrillas, became relatively common in neuralgic areas. sectors of cities.

Such dogs also exist in Mexico.

In 2019, the presence of soldiers on the streets to fight crime was made official and regulated in that country. This happened in Colombia in the 1970samid a wave of presidential emergency decrees called martial law.

There is also the example of private security, industries that in both Mexico and Colombia represent 1.5% of GDP and are the largest in the region, although these figures do not include informal private security, which can be as large or larger are then the legal one.

The legal sector in Colombia has at least 800 companies and 400,000 employees: security guards, escorts, drivers, trainers. This concerns a quarter of the employees of the National Police.

Photo: BBC World

José Rivera is a union leader at the Fortox company, one of the largest. As an ex-military man, he has been working as a security guard for 27 years. And for him the measures are justified.

The war is over, but the crime is not and crime is also harmful“, says. “I don’t see a problem with it if, for example, they conduct a fair trial against people when entering a building, with proof of identity and registration.”

In Colombia it is customary to report to a security guard when entering a building. Common in office buildings, even at universities, but also in residential buildings.

But nothing is more difficult than entering closed residential complexes as a visitor, a phenomenon that architect and urban planner Fernando de la Carrera considers the most transcendental product of this ‘society of fear’.

They swarm in rich and poor parts of cities, especially in Bogotá. They include several towers, are surrounded by bars and monitored by cameras on every corner. They are managed by watchmen and watchdogs. They take up entire blocks.

Photo: BBC World

40% of Bogotá’s 9 million inhabitants live in a closed community. Ciudad Verde alone, a neighborhood of gated communities in the south, is home to 200,000 people: it is a private city.

“The success of the closed complex model is fueled by fear and its growth coincides with the rise of violence that took over the country from the 1980s,” writes De la Carrera in Rejalópolis, a study he co-authored with the University of Andes published.

Fear led us to sacrifice public space and the social and economic interactions it generates.” says. “The spatial segregation that motivates closed complexes increases the feeling of fear, isolation and promotes more of the same: mistrust, insecurity, more fear and more bars.”

Because extreme security measures speak not only of a violent present, but of a past that is relived every time violence occurs. The past, that is, is lived in the present.

There aren’t as many bombs as there were in the 80s, but they are there. Photo: Getty Images Photo: BBC World

Escorts and Toyotas

The National Protection Unit is the state organization that ensures the safety of Colombians at risk: government officials, members of Congress, peasant leaders and a long list of vulnerable communities.

The entity has almost 2,000 bodyguards and another 8,000 that it hires from private security companies, as well as trucks and weapons.

About 10,000 formal bodyguards in the country are comparable to what is reported by the Federal Protective Service, the equivalent agency in Mexico, a country twice the size.

“Protection must be deliverance from fear, but it’s actually a business” says Augusto Rodríguez, director of the UNP. “And there are people who play with that, who shift the risk up or down according to their interests, because fear is the breeding ground for corruption.”

Rodríguez accompanied the president, Gustavo Petro, throughout his career: they were together in the guerrilla, in Congress and in the mayor’s office of Bogotá.

“Protecting life is the central political line of this administration,” he says, explaining why someone so close to the president is leading a generally secondary entity.

Since his arrival, Rodríguez says he has uncovered several corruption schemes: idle and stranded cars charging gasoline quotas, vehicles trafficking drugs, schemes to sell legal weapons to illegal groups and embezzlements in the civil servants’ salary structure . .

We want to detoyotize Colombia“, he assures, referring to the Toyota trucks that arrived in the country in the 80s, they were a symbol of drug traffickers and today – almost always armored and white – they are a status instrument.

Augusto Rodríguez is one of the politicians closest to Petro and that was precisely why he put him in charge of the Life Protection Unit. Photo: BBC World

Rodríguez does not believe that security measures in general are excessive: “Violence continues as inequality and land problems persist. (…) Many do not need safety arrangements, they have more of a mobility problem than a safety problem, but the majority do.”

In any case, it seems that there is a discrepancy between the reality of crime, which today is less than before, and the measures that Colombians are taking to protect themselves, which are only increasing.

But for Luis Ignacio Ruiz, a criminologist and social psychologist at the National University, there is no such thing as “unwarranted fear.”

“The fear of crime brings with it many other emotions that are not just about insecurity,” he says. “From various studies we have found that people declare themselves insecure when in reality their fear is poverty, lack of education or hunger.””.

“And you must add that the insecurity figures are never complete, because they omit a number of crimes that go unreported, in addition to the fact that the media, which prioritizes crime, and now also social networks, have an effect of repeating the event.”

Most of Colombia’s territory is no longer at war. But remembering them is not just a mental exercise: it has material implications for the present.

And it scares Colombians. And they protect themselves from guard dogs to defend themselves.

Explosion-proof dogs were introduced during wartime. Photo: Getty Images