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  • Paul Anthony Jones

Lima syndrome

(n.) the opposite of Stockholm syndrome: a situation in which hostage-takers become sympathetic to their hostages

On 23 August 1973, Jan-Erik Olsson walked into a branch of the Swedish bank Kreditbanken in Stockholm and attempted to rob it. In the resulting stand-off with the Swedish police, Olsson took four people in the bank hostage, barricading them in the bank’s vault. As the situation played out, Olsson requested that his friend (and fellow convicted bank robber) Clark Olofsson be brought from jail to the bank, along with 3 million Swedish kroner, guns and other weaponry, and a fast car in which they could escape.

Olofsson—whom the police believed could act as a mediator—was fetched, as was a suitable car. But when Olsson was told that he would not be able to take the hostages with him, he reacted angrily and threatened to murder the four captives he had with him in the bank. Relations with the police negotiators promptly broke down.

As the situation escalated, Olsson was granted a telephone call to the Swedish prime minister, Olof Palme, during which he reiterated his threat. As the situation rumbled on, the following day Palme again received a phone call from inside the bank—but this time spoke to one of the hostages, Kristin Ehnmark. In this conversation, it was becoming clear that circumstances were starting to change.

As well as reiterating Olsson’s demands, Ehnmark openly professed her concern not with Olsson’s behaviour, but with the Swedish police’s handling of the situation. “I think you are sitting playing chequers with our lives,” she memorably explained to the prime minister, adding that she fully trusted her captors but was scared of what the police’s actions might lead to.

Despite Ehnmark’s concerns, when the situation once again failed to be resolved, the police resorted to drilling a hole through the wall of the vault, through which they began pumping tear-gas in an attempt to subdue all inside. Five days after the siege began, Olsson and Olofsson were apprehended, the hostages were released without serious injury, and the entire situation finally came to a dramatic end.

Olsson went on to be sentenced to ten years in prison for the robbery, while Olofsson had his convictions quashed when the court agreed that he had indeed merely been trying to act as a go-between.

In the aftermath of the Stockholm siege, the behaviour of those involved on all sides in the Kreditbanken robbery was analysed forensically. The curious sympathy the hostages appear to have developed towards Olsson and Olofsson fell under especial scrutiny, and led Nils Bejerot—a leading Swedish criminologist and psychiatrist—to coin the term Stockholm syndrome: the psychological condition by which hostages come to sympathise with their captors. This phenomenon was further expounded by the American psychologist Frank Ochberg, who identified Stockholm syndrome as almost a defence-like mechanism that kicks in in traumatic situations. Essentially, it is a survival technique, driven by the belief that if the hostages are close to their captors, they are less likely to come to harm.

So if that is Stockholm’s contribution to the language of psychology, what about the Peruvian capital, Lima?

Well, at a little after 8pm on 17 December 1996, members of a Peruvian radical socialist group known as the Túpac Amaru Revolutionary Movement stormed the residence of the Japanese ambassador in Lima, during a high-profile party celebrating the birthday of Emperor Akihito. Everyone attending the party—several hundred diplomatic workers, businessmen and government officials—was taken hostage.

Within 24 hours, around half of those hostages had been released. Three days later, another 38 were freed. And on 22 December, another 255 hostages were released.

Many of those freed during these first few days of what would eventually be a prolonged ordeal were women and officials with little to do with the Peruvian government, but the reasoning behind their release is said to have been that the captors took pity on them, and regretted that they had become embroiled in actions they had little to do with.

The Lima siege would eventually go on to last a staggering 126 days, after which the ambassadorial residence was finally stormed by Peruvian special forces. One hostage, two Peruvian commandos, and all fourteen Túpac Amaru insurgents were killed. But this violent end to the events wasn’t the only difference between this and the Stockholm incident.

The apparent sympathy the hostage-takers had exhibited to many of the people they had taken captive led to the coining of the term Lima syndrome to describe the very opposite of Stockholm syndrome: the loss of resolve among the hostage-takers, who come to view those they have taken captive sympathetically.

The term has not quite gained the academic acceptance that Stockholm syndrome has (and unlike its Swedish equivalent, has yet to become much more widely known outside even the most obscure psychiatric journals). Nevertheless, the events that took place in Lima over the winter of 1996–7 helped to establish this little-known converse of Stockholm syndrome in the language, and earned Peru an intriguing place in the dictionary.

Taken from Around the World in 80 Words, OUT NOW

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