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Death squads flourish where government represents interests of only a minority

Edited by Bruce B. Campbell and Arthur D. Brenner
St. Martin’s Press, 364 pages, $45


As editors Bruce Campbell and Arthur Brenner note in the preface of this book, most people associate death squads with Latin America. They constitute, however, a more widely distributed phenomenon. In almost all cases, they flourish in the context of a government that represents the interests of only a minority of its people, a typical post-colonial situation. The characteristic of such governments is that they must use force to repress popular movements. Where such force openly identified with the government might create internal or international problems, a death squad offers “plausible deniability.”

While death squads as an instrument of public policy are usually associated with weak states, the phenomenon is more extensive. The earliest case cited in this book is the Ku Klux Klan, which was a secret society created by former Confederate soldiers just after the Civil War. For nearly a century, it conducted death-squad-like killings and other terrorist acts against freed slaves and their descendants, as well as others thought to collaborate with the agents of the victorious federal government. Also noted briefly are the private detective and security guard firms that fought the nascent labor movement in the United States from the middle of the 19th until well into the 20th century, carrying out at times deliberate murders of labor organizers and union members.

Another type of death squad developed in Germany after its defeat in World War I. When the 1919 Treaty of Versailles imposed harsh restrictions on German sovereignty, including limitations on its armed forces, groups came together with government connivance to arm secretly. Death squads, some of them formed within government agencies, soon emerged to dispose of anyone suspected of revealing the illegal activities, helping to create an atmosphere that was soon to facilitate the ascent of Hitler to power.

One premise postulated by the writers in this book is that “death squads are by definition appurtenances of modern states,” particularly of post-colonial states in which a minority monopolizes economic and political power. Some states openly encourage them. An example cited here is the Philippines during the Aquino presidency in the late 1980s when both the military leaders and Aquino herself praised the anticommunist vigilantes who were engaged in death-squad killings.

Even states in which public opinion would not tolerate the activities of death squads within their own borders are often prepared to collaborate with regimes they know are using death squads. Using U.S. official documents declassified under the Freedom of Information Act, Cynthia Arnson describes how the U.S. government in El Salvador financed and defended Roberto D’Abuisson and other death-squad leaders known to them as having planned and ordered the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero in 1980. It was not any change of heart but only the public revulsion in the United States caused by the killing of six Jesuits and two women helpers almost a decade later that forced a change of policy. U.S. complicity with regimes in other South and Central American countries that encouraged death squads is also noted here.

The authors believe that death squads will proliferate in the 21st century, as growing social imbalance tends to make states ungovernable. In this area, as in so many others, they see states “privatizing” or subcontracting the task of maintaining order without justice. Martha Huggins writes, “Death squads are part of a decentering of authority that, in all market societies, grows out of a privatizing and commodifying of social control.”

The academic robes of several of the 11 authors are showing. Almost 100 pages of notes (dispersed between chapters) and end matter do not encourage the general reader. But the issue is an important and continuing one, much closer to home than we think.

Gary MacEoin’s email address is gmaceoin@cs.com

National Catholic Reporter, December 15, 2000