Death Squads

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Death Squads

Death squads appeared in Latin America in the late 1960s as a clandestine way to confront increasing revolutionary activity. The aim of death squads is to destroy an opponent's infrastructure through terrorism. Although death squads exist on the left and on the right of the political spectrum, they are most often associated with extreme rightists. Members of right-wing death squads are often recruited from police and military forces, or from paramilitary organizations. Rightist death squads are usually financed by wealthy conservatives and work closely with repressive national governments and their security forces in an alliance that has allowed them to operate with impunity.

Death squads were originally associated mainly with political instability in Central America, but they have been active in South America too. In the late 1960s, the military government in Brazil gave covert approval for the use of death squads against real or suspected opponents of the regime. In the 1970s and early 1980s, death squads of both the Right and the Left operated in Argentina, but the military regime's use of death squads in its dirty war against suspected leftists was especially brutal. Victims of Brazilian and Argentine death squads included intellectuals, students, journalists, workers, priests and nuns, and common criminals. A late twentieth-century trend in Brazil was the use of death squads by businessmen to murder orphaned street children.

The Andean countries of Colombia and Peru were plagued by death squads in the 1980s. In 1987 there were 137 active paramilitary death squads in Colombia. The most notorious in Colombia is the right-wing death squad MAS, or Death to Kidnappers. Formed in 1981, MAS has links to the drug cartels and the armed forces, and is believed to have committed some 500 murders by decapitation of peasants and left-wing leaders, including the country's only Indian priest. In 1987 priests advocating liberation theology were killed at the rate of one each month. The most famous case of right-wing death squad brutality was the October 1987 murder of presidential candidate Jaime Pardo Leal, who had identified retired and active military officers as ringleaders of Colombian death squads.

Peru's state-sponsored police antiterrorist unit Sinchis also has gained notoriety. Founded in 1984 to combat leftists, especially the Marxist group Send-ero Luminoso (Shining Path), Sinchis conducted summary executions of suspects with little fear of official condemnation. Sendero death squads were active during the 1980s and early 1990s, as were a variety of peasant groups who have committed retribution killings. Equally well known among government-funded death squad activities were the massacres at La Cantuta University and Barrios Altos during the early 1990s. Both of these were clandestinely committed by the infamous Colina Group, perhaps with the complicity of the highest levels of Alberto Fujimori's government. All told, some twenty-five people, including a small child and a professor, "disappeared" at La Cantuta University and Barrios Altos.

The most notorious death squads operated in Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador. The Honduran Anticommunist Movement, known by its Spanish acronym MACHO, appeared in 1982 and targeted liberal politicians, students, labor leaders, and Indians suspected of leftist tendencies. Emerging in the 1960s, the Guatemalan Organized National Anticommunist Movement murdered leftists and peasants suspected of being guerrilla sympathizers. Another Guatemalan group that appeared in the late 1970s, the Secret Anticommunist Army, specialized in the assassination of union leaders, students, politicians, and professionals who questioned the status quo. Until their exposure in the 1980s, urban death squads in Guatemala were controlled directly from the National Palace.

El Salvadorian death squads of the Left and Right have achieved special notoriety due to their violent acts. The Farabundo Martí Front for National Liberation (FMLN), a leftist organization, engaged in the murder of military and political leaders and their U.S. advisers, while rightist death squads retaliated by killing intellectuals, clerics, and anyone else suspected of supporting the FMLN. In 1966 police and army officers joined with the National Liberation Movement, an extreme-right political party, to create the Mano Blanca (White Hand) death squads. When Mano Blanca's close association with the government and the police became public and embarrassed the regime, it was replaced by Ojo por Ojo (Eye for Eye). In 1977 the White Warriors Union became known for terrorism against Jesuits, and in 1980 the Max-imiliano Hernández Martínez Brigade organized to assassinate Christian Democrat and Marxist leaders. Many of the recruits for El Salvador's death squads came from ORDEN, a paramilitary organization founded by ex-army major Roberto D'Aubuisson. It is believed that D'Aubuisson and the death squads associated with ORDEN were responsible for the murders of Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero, four American Maryknoll nuns, and a group of Jesuit priests in 1980. Though the precise number of deaths in Latin America attributed to leftist and rightist death squads is unknown, some place the death toll at more than 100,000.

See alsoGuatemala, Terrorist Organizations: Mano Blanca; Guatemala, Terrorist Organizations: Ojo por Ojo; Terrorism; Truth Commissions.


Peter Flynn, Brazil: A Political Analysis (1971).

Gary E. McCuen, Political Murder in Central America: Death Squads and U.S. Policies (1984).

Report of the Archdiocese of São Paulo, Torture in Brazil (1986).

David Rock, Argentina, 1567–1987: From Spanish Colonization to Alfonsin (1987).

Amnesty International, El Salvador Death Squads, a Government Strategy (1988).

Javier Torres, The Armed Forces of Colombia and the National Front (1990).

Martha K. Huggins, ed., Vigilantism and the State in Modern Latin America: Essays on Extra-Legal Violence (1991).

Debrah Poole and Gerjerdo Renikue, Peru: Time of Fear (1992).

Additional Bibliography

Burt, Jo-Marie. "Quien habla es terrorista": The Political Use of Fear in Fujimori's Peru." Latin American Research Review 41: 3 (2006), 32-62.

Godoy, Angela Snodgrass. "La Muchacha Respondona: Reflections on the Razor's Edge Between Crime and Human Rights." Human Rights Quarterly 27: 2 (May 2005), 597-624.

Grandin, Greg. The Last Colonial Massacre: Latin America in the Cold War. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004.

Interamerican Commission on Human Rights. Report No. 42/99: Case 11.045. Washington, DC: Organization of American States, March 11, 1999. Online at:

Menjívar, Cecilia, and Néstor Rodriguez, eds. When States Kill: Latin America, the U.S., and Technologies of Terror. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2005.

Saavedra, Alfredo. El color de la sangre: 40 años de represión y de resistencia en Guatemala. Guatemala: Grupo de Apoyo Mutuo, 2001.

Taussig, Michael T. Law in a Lawless Land: Diary of a "Limpieza" in Colombia. New York: New Press, 2003.

                                       Sonny B. Davis