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Rethinking Death Squads


There is a lot of killing going on in the Global South.


Most readers know about the gangs.


Most readers know about the ethnic violence.


Most readers do not know about death squads.


People who come from countries with death squads know about death squads.


Ex-pats who live in countries with death squads know about them – sometimes.


Some academics, journalists, and political activists in the North know about the death squads.


Death squads are a widespread phenomenon in the Global South.


They are just as violent as the name suggests.

*  *  *

The formal and technically correct name for death squads is paramilitaries. Paramilitaries are armed groups comprised of off-duty soldiers, off-duty police officers, and general volunteers. They are the armed wing of local business. Sometimes they are the armed wing of individual generals or government officials – representing those officials’ business interests as well as their personal political interests. They do the dirty work that police officers and soldiers are officially “not supposed to do”. The work is done “off the books” by people “wholly independent” of the local government.


Typically, the death squads eliminate anyone who is a political threat to the development projects of the local elite. Ecological protesters protesting deforestation or a dam. Indigenous rights protesters protesting the displacement of local peoples. Labor organizers trying to unionize workers. Death squads can also “clear land” of residents who do not to leave land that is to be used for a development project. A few skull and crossbones warnings for residents who refuse to sell and leave. A few drives through the town by men brandishing automatic weapons. If need be, a few executions of stubborn non-movers. The rest of the residents of the town will see the wisdom of moving on.


* * *

There is a new book out that calls for a rethinking of the death squad phenomenon. It is an edited collection by Jasmin Hristov, Jeb Sprague, and Aaron Tauss. Paramilitary Groups and the State Under Globalization: Political Violence, Elites and Security. (Routledge, 2022). Most edited collections do not call for a reconsideration of anything. A standard edited collection is a hodge-podge of essays, some wonderful, some less than wonderful, that represent what the editors could throw together for a book out of their circle of friends.


Paramilitary Groups and the State Under Globalization is much, much better than that.


The larger logic was to collect descriptive essays on death squads from all over the world. The literature on death squads is heavily dominated by casework from Latin America – generally Colombia, and Central America. The question was whether the general portrait of death squads that comes out of places like Honduras changes when you go to other parts of the world.


Answer: Everything does change.

*  *  *

The definitive portrait of Latin American death squads came from Jasmin Hristov’s early work. She found that death squads were instrumental to the development of capitalism. Latin American paramilitaries exist for the purpose advancing the agendas of the rich. Death squads eliminated organized resistance to capitalist projects. This includes labor organizers, protests against dispossession, protests in favor of indigenous rights and ecological protests. Death squads were also a major force in dispossessing the poor. Land was acquired for plantations, dams, mines, and urban projects such as shopping centers.

*  *  *

What changes when you go around the world?


Here are some snapshots from three regions.


The Balkans and the Caucasus. Essays by Maria Vivod about Serbia and Shukuko Koyama about Georgia address death squads in Southeastern Europe. The Southeastern European story is about statelessness. Countries both in the Balkans and the Caucasus had to fight civil wars to determine state boundaries. The combatants did not go away when the civil wars came to a close. Many civil war resolutions resolved very little. There would be a government in a capital city that controlled that capital city and the region around it. The government would provide negligible services to the rest of the country – and often would have only tenuous political control of the outlying regions. The absence of state power meant the effective absence of both police and courts. In most rural regions and in provincial cities on frontiers, the ex-commandos from the previous civil war were the de facto government. In many cases, the official national government was also run by ex-commandos and often subject to the same corruption, rent-seeking and misuse of authority that applied to free-standing ex-military forces in the interstices.


What does this imply?

a. Smuggling is a major activity for Balkan and Caucasus paramilitaries. Weak governments struggle to collect taxes from their populations. So, they turn instead to taxing goods that enter or leave the country at national frontiers. This is an open invitation for smuggling. The mountainous terrain of both the Balkans and the Caucasus facilitate clandestine trade. Widespread corruption allows the commandos to pay off customs guards on the frontier or even just take customs guard jobs on the frontiers. Smuggling becomes a raison d’etre for European death squads.

b. Commandos become the de facto government in the stateless zones.  Citizens in the stateless zones need police protection. Citizens in the stateless zones need adjudication of disputes. The commandos provide these services because the national government can’t or won’t. It goes without saying that the commandos charge the locals for the provision of public service.

c. Commandos engage in “pro-capitalist” violence which is ethnic and political, rather than violence which follows “repress protesters/seize land” formula of Central America. Widespread corruption means that government officials have their hands in all sorts of economic activities – often as a form of taking their cut. Violence is not quite so much about taking land or assets from generic “people” and more about cutting rival military groups out of the action. Ethnic violence is particularly salient here. Battles for control generally crystallize around dispossessing other ethnic groups.  Looting and seizure of small-scale assets are a frequent byproduct of these ethnic struggles.

Sub-Saharan Africa. Sub-Saharan Africa is simple. Friedarike Santner has a first rate essay on Uganda and Zimbabwe including explicit contrasts with Colombia. In Uganda and Zimbabwe, “paramilitary activity” devolves into the orthodox depiction of warlordism and ethnic warfare that is the standard material of analyses of African warfare done by political scientists. Few Africanists would be terribly surprised at ex-policemen, ex-soldiers or present- day policemen and soldiers, striking out on their own account working with a warlord or with a rebel faction. Few Africanists would be surprised at such informal forces seizing economic assets in their territories for the benefit of the relevant warlord or for the soldiers themselves. Paramilitaries are nothing new in Sub-Saharan Africa. They are also not particularly pro-capitalist. They are pro-themselves.

Southeast Asia. The Sub-Saharan Africa situation is simple. The Southeast Asian situation is mind-bogglingly complex. There are dozens and dozens of variations on the theme of death squads – and they all operate in different ways. Shane Barter’s essay covers the Southeast Asian nations. There are eighty pages of information packed into that essay’s tightly written twenty pages. Private armies, and paramilitaries are all over Southeast Asia. Barter identifies no fewer than 72 different groups.

These include:

a. Armed religious activists such as Aceh, Indonesia’s Sharia Police – who not only have religious agendas but help the local governor on political issues.


b. Pro-Government Anti-Rebel forces – such as the groups the Indonesian government organized in East Timor to undercut the independence movement or the Red Bulls who attack leftist students and protesters in Thailand.


c. Armed supporters of individual politicians with no other agenda. One example would be the Pekida in Malaysia.


d. Village guards to protect villagers against other armed groups. These include such as the Pyusawhtis in Myanmar, or Vietnam’s national militia program. Such village groups often have an anti-crime agenda.

e. Private armies controlled by warlords such as the Godfathers in Thailand or the Betawi Brotherhood Forum in Indonesia.

f. Ethnic militias such as Laskar Pangsuma, a Dayak group in Kalimantan, Indonesia which fights Kalimantan Chinese.

g. Latin American style land seizure and protest repression groups such as the private armies of the Phillipines.


h. Clan armies – often with Latin American economic agendas as well. In countries with ethnic tensions, such as the Philippines, these are linked to ethnic militias as well.

I would add to Barter’s already extensive list

i. Drug gangs which are non-trivially active in Southeast Asia’s Golden Triangle. Southeast Asia in the nineteenth century had a rich and extensive opium trade, which was carried out by local Secret Societies. These groups often fought over non-drug-based economic assets. They evolved into anti-Japanese forces in World War II and anti-Communist forces in the late 1940’s and 1950’s. In many Southeast Asian settings, the drug gangs never went away and continue to the present day.

*  *  *

 The major contribution of the new Hristov et. al collection is that

a.  Paramilitaries are widespread throughout the underdeveloped nations of the world and

b. There are many different logics that determine the behavior of individual paramilitary groups.


There is a lot left to understand.


But there is one thing that is eminently clear.


There is the potential for a lot of blood-letting in the Global South.


The paramilitaries are not going away. Paramilitaries depend on force and intimidation to maintain their position in society.


There are going to be a lot of victims.


And in many cases, you won’t hear about any of these slaughters – which are of little interest to the American mass media.


The slaughters are of great interest to the families of the people who are killed.

For More Information

For the traditional account of paramilitaries – and the traditional account is still of great value – see Jasmin Hristov. Blood and Capital: the Paramilitarization of Colombia. Ohio University Press. 2009.

For a fascinating account of paramilitary Chinese Secret Societies in nineteenth century Malaya, see Wilfred Blythe’s Impact of Chinese Secret Societies in Malaya: a Historical Study. Oxford University Press. 1969.

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