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When States Kill

When States Kill
Latin America, the U.S., and Technologies of Terror

Thirteen essays exploring state-sponsored terrorism in Latin America and its connection to the U.S.

July 2005
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388 pages | 6 x 9 | 1 graph, 11 tables |

Since the early twentieth century, technological transfers from the United States to Latin American countries have involved technologies of violence for social control. As the chapters in this book illustrate, these technological transfers have taken various forms, including the training of Latin American military personnel in surveillance and torture and the provision of political and logistic support for campaigns of state terror. The human cost for Latin America has been enormous—thousands of Latin Americans have been murdered, disappeared, or tortured, and whole communities have been terrorized into silence.

Organized by region, the essays in this book address the topic of state-sponsored terrorism in a variety of ways. Most take the perspective that state-directed political violence is a modern development of a regional political structure in which U.S. political interests weigh heavily. Others acknowledge that Latin American states enthusiastically received U.S. support for their campaigns of terror. A few see local culture and history as key factors in the implementation of state campaigns of political violence. Together, all the essays exemplify how technologies of terror have been transferred among various Latin American countries, with particular attention to the role that the United States, as a "strong" state, has played in such transfers.

  • Acknowledgments
  • Part I. Introduction
    • Chapter 1. State Terror in the U.S.-Latin American Interstate Regime by Cecilia Menjívar and Néstor Rodríguez
    • Chapter 2. Operation Condor as a Hemispheric "Counterterror" Organization by J. Patrice McSherry
  • Part II. Central America and Mexico
    • Chapter 3. "The Blood of the People": The Guardia Nacional's Fifty-year War against the People of Nicaragua, 1927-1979 by Richard Grossman
    • Chapter 4. The Culture and Politics of State Terror and Repression in El Salvador by Aldo A. Lauria-Santiago
    • Chapter 5. Caught in the Crossfire: Militarization, Paramilitarization, and State Violence in Oaxaca, Mexico by Kristin Norget
    • Chapter 6. Bloody Deeds/Hechos Sangrientos: Reading Guatemala's Record of Political Violence in Cadaver Reports by M. Gabriela Torres
    • Chapter 7. U.S. Militarization of Honduras in the 1980s and the Creation of CIA-backed Death Squads by Joan Kruckewitt
    • Chapter 8. "No Hay Rosas Sin Espinas": Statecraft in Costa Rica by Annamarie Oliverio and Pat Lauderdale
  • Part III. South America
    • Chapter 9. The Colombian Nightmare: Human Rights Abuses and the Contradictory Effects of U.S. Foreign Policy by John C. Dugas
    • Chapter 10. The Path of State Terror in Peru by Abderrahman Beggar
    • Chapter 11. Turning on Their Masters: State Terrorism and Unlearning Democracy in Uruguay by Jeffrey J. Ryan
    • Chapter 12. Producing and Exporting State Terror: The Case of Argentina by Ariel C. Armony
  • Part IV. Conclusion
    • Chapter 13. New Responses to State Terror by Cecilia Menjívar and Néstor Rodríguez
  • About the Contributors
  • Index

Cecilia Menjívar is associate professor in the Department of Sociology and the School of Justice and Social Inquiry at Arizona State University.

Néstor Rodríguez is Professor and Chair of the Department of Sociology at the University of Houston, where he is also Codirector of the Center for Immigration Research.


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What causes the state-directed political violence that has characterized political culture in much of the Latin American region since the mid-twentieth century? What motivated the campaigns of terror that "disappeared" thousands throughout the region? That practiced genocide of whole villages in Guatemala and El Salvador? That continued to repress indigenous peasants in Mexico? Is the source of this violence found in the Latin American psyche? Is it in Latin American culture?

Some observers view Latin American political violence as part of the heritage of the brutal European conquest of the region. Rosenberg (1991, 17), for example, answers the question of what underlies the growth of Latin American political violence as follows: "If I had to give just one answer, it would be: history. Most of Latin America was conquered and colonized through violence, setting up political and economic relationships based on power, not law. These relationships still exist today—indeed, in some countries they are stronger than ever." From this perspective, Latin American political violence represents an atavism that harkens back to the origins of countries that today are ruled by law.

Most of the chapters in this book take an opposite perspective: that is, that state-directed political violence developed as a product of a regional political structure in which U.S. political interests have weighed heavily. According to this view, contemporary Latin American states have practiced different forms of terror, including torture and physical punishment, not in a primitive or "traditional" manner, but in a politically rational, calculated, modern fashion.1 The use of terror by modern Latin American states in a Weberian, bureaucratized manner therefore is not a remnant of a past colonial experience. As Rejali (1994) observes, state-sponsored terror is part of a modern political system based on the same rationality that characterizes modern, bureaucratic societies.

The perspective that sees Latin American state terror as a derivative of a U.S.-dominated regional system is not meant to reduce all explanations of Latin American political violence to a one-dimensional causality of U.S. involvement, nor is it meant to claim that systemic causes underlie all cases of political violence in Latin America. As Smith (1986) reminds us, not everything that developing countries do or can do should be attributed solely to the international system or to the powerful core countries that dominate it. Some cases of politically related violence have been instances of local violence perpetuated within a larger arena of national violence to settle land disputes or old family scores. Members of Guatemalan civil defense patrols, for example, sometimes used their new paramilitary capacity during the civil war of the 1980s and 1990s to attack families with whom they had land disputes or grudges. While larger geopolitical developments led to the creation of the civil defense patrols, it would be farfetched to attribute conflict over land plots among villagers in remote corners of the Guatemalan highlands to the workings of a world system.

In addition, cases of political violence have had varied causes in the geographically large and socially diverse Latin American region. Some groups who oppose the states in power also have been protagonists of political violence in their own countries or regions. In Peru, for example, Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path), led by Chairman Gonzalo (Abimael Guzmán), was a prime example of such groups, as the movement used violence against all sectors of Peruvian society in an attempt to bring down the state (Poole and Rénique, 1992). Rather than focusing on the actions of leftist or rightist political actors who have engaged in destructive violence to overthrow established power structures, this volume deals primarily with the regime of terror organized by those who are already in control of institutions of power but who, rather than relying only on formal authority, rules, laws, and legitimate means, resort to systematic violence, coercion, fear, and technologies of terror to exert control in the larger regional political system.

The case studies of state terror presented in this book indicate a clear and persistent pattern of U.S. influence over the political violence conducted by Latin American states. In some cases, Latin American governments enthusiastically received U.S. support for their campaigns of terror, and in other cases U.S. state agencies pressured "weaker" states to undertake such campaigns. Cardoso and Faletto (1969) argue that developed or powerful states could implement certain policies in weaker states only when a local elite with similar interests could support them. Thus, the United States did not unilaterally implement a system of terror across the continent but was able to do so with the cooperation and, to a large extent, due to a coincidence of interests and objectives with the local military, and with political and economic elites.

Taken by themselves in their national contexts, the cases of political violence affected by U.S. influence may appear unique and fashioned only for particular situations, but when examined together across national boundaries they constitute a regional pattern—one integrated within the geopolitical contours of larger U.S. political interests in Latin America. As the chapters demonstrate, in some cases U.S. involvement was indirect and conveyed by third-party allies; in other cases involvement was direct, as in the case of Nicaragua, where the U.S. military organized la Guardia (the national guard), which from its beginning used violence against political opponents and at times against the population in general. A U.S. institution that figures prominently in the involvement of the United States with military bodies in Latin America is the U.S. Army School of the Americas (SOA). As we describe below, this institution provided training for many Latin American military officers associated with major cases of violence and human rights abuses.

A number of works have described U.S. involvement in state-sponsored terror in Latin America in past decades (see, for example, Burbach and Flynn, 1984; Lernoux, 1980; Klare and Arnson, 1979). So why is it important to compile a book on the topic in the early twenty-first century? The answer to this question is at least threefold. First, U.S support for state tactics of terror in Latin America continues, and thus the issue remains relevant. Indeed, if anything, with the availability of huge computer databases and high-tech tracking and surveillance systems, support for state terror has become much more sophisticated than during the era of gunboat diplomacy in the opening decades of the twentieth century. Second, the rise of global theories in the social sciences enables greater theoretical comprehension of the U.S. systemic involvement with state methods of coercion in Latin America. Third, the use of terror and violence by political actors has increased, not lessened, in the early twenty-first century (see Dugas, this volume). Indeed, as we discuss in the concluding chapter, a feature of the new age of political violence is that its practice has become greatly dispersed among new regions and political groups, and the capacity for political violence among new political actors outside the state is greatly enhanced as they obtain access to more efficient and effective means of terror, as developments since the beginning of the twenty-first century have demonstrated.

Geopolitical Systemic Context

We see the occurrences of state terror described in the following chapters as outcomes of a common policy affected by a larger system of interstate relations concerned with maintaining and reproducing a particular political and economic framework that governs the Latin American region. Many analysts have described how U.S. and Latin American state interests have joined to promote social conditions favorable to capitalistic development and an accompanying supportive political order (see, for example, Green, 1995; Rosen and McFadyen, 1995; Frank, 1969). Instead of taking a single-country perspective, we focus on the regime of terror in the region, uncovering powerful supranational links and ideologies that are crucial to understanding state terror in the region but that would have eluded single-country analyses. As Walter (1969, 3) observed, to study regimes of terror is to study power in extremis, and when extreme situations are examined in depth, the inquiry can shed new light and reveal features that are ordinarily invisible under less extreme conditions.

As theorists have commented concerning the larger world-systems framework, the international system of states is a fundamental structural feature of the world economy (Lunday, 1981). It is within the interstate system that states are defined (as, for example, "strong" or "weak") and limitations are made on their modes of political behavior (Wallerstein, 1985). That is to say, states do not operate as independent, sovereign equals but as members of a system in which relations among the states affect the limits and definitions of state functions. At first this may be readily evident in the international dealings of a state, but it eventually also becomes clear in its domestic affairs as well, such as in the interstate pressure for a state to initiate economic austerity programs (see, Green, 1995; Rosen and McFadyen, 1995). Moreover, when a state declares itself outside the interstate system or unwilling to abide by its rules and expectations, a crisis emerges in the political world order.

During three periods in the development of the capitalist world economy a single state has enjoyed unrivaled dominance in the interstate system and the world economy. These are periods of hegemony, in which the dominant power "imposes its rules and its wishes" in the economic, political, cultural, and military arenas of the world system (Wallerstein, 1985, 38). The most recent hegemonic period, marked by domination by the United States, occurred in the period from the end of World War II to the intensification of the Vietnam War, which the United States failed to win militarily. While world-system theorists have done much to explain how hegemony functions globally, they have done less to explain how it functions regionally, a problem, no doubt, that is a consequence of their taking the entire world system as the unit of analysis. The end of hegemony by a state in the world system, moreover, may not necessarily mean the end of its dominance in a regional interstate system.

The geopolitical history of the global system in the latter half of the twentieth century indicates that regional international systems serve as basic blocs or regimes that configure the larger global system. The Soviet bloc and the NATO alliance are prime examples of such groupings, but other regional interstate regimes exist, even as they may be identified less definitively in political or ideological terms. Some regional interstate regimes may be formally organized but have little political potency, such as the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), which primarily seeks economic integration, while other regional interstate regimes may depend less on formal organization and more on a tradition of patronage, such as in U.S.-Latin American state relations, to implement a zone of strong political influence.

Ultimately, the strength of a regional interstate regime depends less on formal organization and more on established practices of influence in an identifiable political space. The geopolitical framework of regional interstate regimes helps to explain in part why the United States takes a harsh view of Communist-led Cuba, while it takes a cooperative view of the Communist-led states of Vietnam and China. The former is found inside the U.S.-dominated sociospatial regime, while the latter two are not. In the early twenty-first century, the actions of militant Muslim groups to unite Muslim populations against Western intervention in the Middle East indicates that regional political regimes need not be initiated necessarily by state apparatuses alone, as ethnic movements acting with religious authority also can attempt to develop political suprastructures.

Broadly speaking, various structural conditions can set in motion actions of terror in a regional international system. Social inequality, conflict of interest, and systemic imperatives have been central catalysts in this regard. The role of social inequality in stimulating state terror as a response goes beyond the demand for a redistribution of wealth. Social inequality contains ideological foundations, which the state supports but which are invariably challenged by dissidents at one degree or another. Operating within the context of a global system, regional state regimes have to negotiate their interests with other powers and interests. At times this negotiation occurs by means of conflict with domestic groups perceived to be allied with foreign interests.

Formation of the U.S.-Latin American Interstate Regime

The cases of state violence described in this volume occurred during a particular moment of the political development of Latin America. It was a moment of political trial and crisis for the U.S.-led regional interstate regime in the area. Whether the political developments indeed were as threatening to the regime as they were perceived to be is an academic question, since perception carried the political day and motivated the political responses of those in power. W. I. Thomas's maxim that things perceived as real are real in their consequences had no truer moment. It is important to review briefly U.S. political involvement in Latin America in order to understand better the nature of the state-sponsored political repression that visited the Latin American region in the late twentieth century. The history of this involvement created the relations that later promoted the establishment of the regional political regime.

The United States intervened militarily in Latin America frequently from the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt in the opening decade of the twentieth century to the mid-century presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, especially in the Caribbean region (Barton, 1997). Theodore Roosevelt's ambition to build the United States into a major world power had special designs for Latin America under the Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine. In 1903 he helped Panama separate from Colombia, and in 1905 he forcibly installed an American "economic advisor" in the Dominican Republic. As Grossman points out (this volume), the U.S. Marines first landed in Nicaragua in 1909 to support the Conservative revolt against the Liberal presidency of José Santos Zelaya. The Marines returned in 1912 and maintained a presence in the country until 1927, helping to establish the Nicaraguan national guard.

Franklin Roosevelt's Good Neighbor Policy, initiated in 1933, brought a welcome change for Latin American countries, as it formalized the U.S. transition from "big stick" interventionism in the presidencies of Teddy Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and Woodrow Wilson to one of persuasion through diplomacy combined with various aid programs (Grieb, 1976). But this policy change had started with the presidency of Warren G. Harding in the early 1920s. Harding strove for amicable solutions to conflicts in Latin America as a means to enhance trade relations and, no doubt, to lessen the cost to U.S. taxpayers of interventionist practices (Gellman, 1979). While the Good Neighbor Policy emphasized mutual agreements and goodwill in U.S.-Latin American relations, no one doubted that the United States represented the senior partner in the Western Hemisphere.

In 1940, after the outbreak of war in Europe, the U.S. government launched its first comprehensive intelligence gathering and training effort in Latin America. The endeavor was organized through the development of the Special Intelligence Service (SIS), which was authorized by President Roosevelt to gather information on Axis agents and sympathizers from Japan, Germany, and Italy who were active outside of their home countries. Responsibility for SIS nonmilitary intelligence work in the Western Hemisphere was assigned to the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) under Director J. Edgar Hoover (Whitehead, 1956).

Working undercover as salesmen, stockbrokers, reporters, as well as in other occupations, and as "legal attachés" to U.S. embassies, FBI agents tracked down Nazi and other Axis agents in Latin America and compiled a blacklist (given the cover name, "The Proclaimed List of Certain Blocked Nationals") of Latin American business firms and individuals who were thought to support the Axis powers. At times the covert FBI agents worked with national or local police agencies in Central and South American countries and provided training to these agencies on countering espionage and sabotage. Argentina refused to cooperate with the undercover FBI program until 1944 when it severed relations with the Axis powers. Prior to 1944, Argentine agents trailed suspected FBI agents and arrested FBI informants, supplementing their interrogations with use of the picana eléctrica, a device that caused much pain when placed in sensitive parts of the body (Whitehead, 1956).

A second wartime measure that formally brought together the United States and several Latin American countries on issues of regional security was the formation in January 1942 of the Emergency Advisory Committee for Political Defense. This body, which developed a permanent office in Montevideo, consisted of representatives from the United States, Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Mexico, Uruguay, and Venezuela, developing programs that targeted Axis nationals (Report of the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians, 1997). Acting under policies established by the advisory committee or in response to U.S. security requests, sixteen Latin American countries interned at least 8,500 Axis nationals during World War II, and twelve Latin American countries—Bolivia, Colombia, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Nicaragua, Panama, and Peru—sent about 3,000 Axis nationals in total (mainly Japanese nationals and their families) to the United States (Report of the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians, 1997).

The SIS program in Latin America represented a significant new development in interstate relations for the Western Hemisphere; it was the first U.S.-led program for the comprehensive monitoring and neutralizing of suspects across Latin America through bureaucratic coordination with national and local police forces. Although U.S. agents likely trailed Communist agents in Latin America (such as Leon Trotsky in Mexico) soon after the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, there are no records to indicate that these earlier activities were as comprehensive as was the wartime SIS program.

Indeed, in a 1946 letter to FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover concerning the SIS program, Assistant Secretary of State Adolf A. Berle stated, "Told or not, it is the story of a great piece of work. I do not think a similar operation has ever been carried on; and I can personally attest to the brilliance of the results" (Whitehead, 1956, 210). The bureaucratic aspect of the SIS program itself represents a noteworthy modernization of surveillance and coercive social control within the U.S.-Latin American interstate regime. The SIS program put in place a new science and technology of surveillance and social control, a bureaucratic method of following "suspects," gathering information from "informants" or "interrogations," keeping "files," constructing "lists," and centralizing "data" at high administrative levels to develop counteraction strategies for lower-level agency personnel to carry out. Writing in the early twentieth century, Max Weber described bureaucracy as being the most highly developed and efficient form of organization, one that can create great power in the hands of its controllers, who seek superiority by keeping secret their knowledge and intentions. According to Weber, as highly rationalized structures, bureaucracies have no personal regard in their objectives—they conduct tasks based solely on official rules and duty (see Weber, 1978).

Crisis in the U.S.-Latin American Interstate Regime

U.S. hegemony after World War II did not go unchallenged, as Communist movements gained major ground across different world areas. The Soviet Union expanded to cover the eastern half of Europe and the northern third of Asia, and in East Asia the Chinese Communist Party and the People's Liberation Army took control of the Chinese mainland. Throughout Europe, Asia, and Latin America, a number of Communist political parties also surfaced or strengthened.

In addition, a large number of social movements worldwide challenged both the capitalist world order as well as established Communist parties in the 1960s and 1970s. In the United States, such movements included those promoting civil rights, black power, Chicano power, Native American power, women's power, and welfare rights, and those engaging in activities against the war in Vietnam. The U.S. movements were not simple matters of emerging social identities; in several cases, police and military units were used to put down urban revolts with lethal force (Feagin and Hahn, 1973).

In Europe, workers, immigrant workers, students, women, and peasants prompted significant episodes of social unrest, in France bringing the country to the verge of social revolution or a military takeover in May 1968. In France and Italy in the 1960s and 1970s autonomous worker struggles and student movements confronted the Communist Party and the Communist-dominated trade unions in order to escape their control (Cleaver, 1979). On the periphery of the world system, as in Vietnam, Mozambique, and Algeria, national liberation movements struggled to oust Western colonizers. Even the Communist states of the Soviet Union and the People's Republic of China experienced social outbreaks by national or ethnic groups in the 1960s and 1970s (Banister, 1987; Cleaver, 1979).

In Latin America, opposition to the established social order of the U.S.-Latin American interstate regime expanded rapidly. The use of a common language in most of Latin America facilitated circulation of the ideas that served as the foundations for shared social struggles. Concientización of social injustices and the need for social action resonated throughout the region's Spanish-speaking populations as well as in Brazil. In the late 1960s, a common Catholic heritage among many Latin Americans also enabled a liberation theology to spread widely, promoting concepts of religion-based collective action directed against structures of violence and injustice (Lernoux, 1980).

What was seen by U.S. and Latin American officials as a monolithic threat of Communist world domination was in fact a collection of diverse popular movements. Some of these movements were aligned with Communist interests abroad, such as with the Cuban Communist government (Castañeda, 1993), but many were local autonomous struggles waged without external support. According to Jorge G. Castañeda, the diverse movements represented a "grass roots explosion" and were the result of new poverty in Latin America. The struggles of church groups, urban residents, women, students, and human rights activists were "organized and mobilized along lines of issues, not class" (Castañeda, 1993, 205). In the 1950s and 1960s, many social movements were concerned with land reform, since the majority of Latin America's population was concentrated in rural areas, and the region had notoriously unequal land tenure systems (which it continues to have today).

In the 1970s, and continuing into the twenty-first century, social movements and protests also surfaced to oppose increases in the costs of living and state austerity programs (Gilbert, 1998), particularly those identified with the International Monetary Fund (IMF)(Walton and Seddon, 1994). Such movements included aggressive but usually nonviolent collective actions by poor populations seeking survival in conditions of misery, such as land takeovers by poor peasants seeking land to farm, and land invasions on urban fringes by poor workers wanting to built shanty housing (Kowarick, 1994). The 1970s also saw an increasing expansion of social movements into armed struggle (see Eckstein, 2001).

Some of these movements sought a reordering of society through the appropriation of private wealth by the state, land re-distribution, and greater roles for urban workers and peasants in the administration of state institutions. In Peru, starting in the Ayacucho region in the early 1970s, the guerrilla movement Shining Path violently attacked all sectors of society, including leftist groups, in an effort to bring down the state and rebuild society through the principles of "Gonzalo Thought" (Poole and Rénique, 1992).

Latin American armed struggle did not always occur in areas far from the United States. The Cuban Revolution of the late 1950s was one case in point, but perhaps equally significant to U.S. state security agencies was the emergence in 1965 of armed struggle in areas of Mexico near the U.S.-Mexico border and adjacent to the growing Chicano movement in the southwestern United States. On September 23, 1965, an armed group of young professors and students attacked a military installation in the northern Mexican state of Chihuahua (Poniatowska, 1980). The suicidal attack failed, but it motivated the formation of the September 23 Communist League and numerous other revolutionary groups that began to operate in urban areas near the U.S.-Mexico border.

Fighting the Cold War in Latin America

In the Cold War, marked by political posturing, perceived threats, and localized conflicts, the security of the United States and maintenance of the U.S.-Latin American interstate regime was a high priority (Hendrickson, 1988; Whitehead, 1956). A secret report prepared for President Dwight Eisenhower in 1954 expressed the concern of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) regarding the perceived Communist threat and advised the president to respond with a no-holds-barred approach:

It is clear that we are facing an implacable enemy whose avowed objective is world domination by whatever means and at whatever cost. There are no rules in such a game . . . long-standing American concepts of "fair play" must be reconsidered. We must develop effective espionage and counterespionage services and must learn to subvert, sabotage, and destroy our enemies by more clever, more sophisticated, and more effective methods than those used against us. It may become necessary that the American people be made acquainted with, understand and support this fundamentally repugnant philosophy. (Quoted in Olmsted, 1996, 13)

The tense days of the Cuban missile crisis in October 1962 dramatically showed how far the U.S. state was willing to go to oust a foreign Communist power from its Latin American zone of influence.

In September 1947, at the beginning of the Cold War, the United States and Latin American countries signed the Rio Pact to ensure mutual protection against a Soviet attack, and in 1951 the U.S. Congress passed the Mutual Security Act to work toward the modernization of the military forces of Latin America. By the time of the Kennedy presidency in the early 1960s, however, the military strategy had changed from preparing for an external attack to organizing for counterinsurgency against internal movements, primarily those movements considered to be communist inspired and supported (Klare and Arnson, 1979). Additionally, U.S. state planners gave greater attention to conditions of poverty and underdevelopment as causes of insurgency.

In 1961, President John F. Kennedy launched the Alliance for Progress to improve Latin American economic conditions and spread a pro-U.S. ideology in the region. The Alliance for Progress had a parallel program of military assistance to promote the internal security needed for stable economic development. Money from the Military Assistance Program (MAP) paid for equipment and training for Latin American militaries to enable them to conduct counterinsurgency activities. In addition, the Office of Public Safety (OPS) within the Agency for International Development provided funds to enhance the intelligence, communication, and mobility capacities of Latin American police forces to wage counterinsurgency work, primarily in the cities (Klare and Arnson, 1979). A systematic process was developed in which Latin American military and police personnel trained in a variety of counterinsurgency methods, including interrogation, assassination, and torture, at U.S. installations or in their own countries.

From their beginnings, U.S.-led efforts in counterinsurgency planning for Latin America involved high-level officials in a number of U.S. federal agencies. In the early 1960s, U.S. counterinsurgency planning involved an interagency committee, under the direction of a high-ranking army general and including the director of the CIA, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the deputy secretaries of state and defense, the foreign aid administrator, and the director of the U.S. Information Agency (Klare and Arnson, 1979). By the 1970s and 1980s, counterinsurgency techniques taught to Latin American militaries and police forces were informed by the United States's experience in the Vietnam War. Some of the U.S. advisers, for example, who helped set up the Salvadoran intelligence apparatus that operated death squads in the 1970s and 1980s had backgrounds in U.S. covert political work in Vietnam, such as in the Phoenix Program, which systematically targeted Vietnamese civilians for interrogation, torture, and assassination (Valentine, 1990). But the U.S.-trained Latin American forces did not always operate with the pinpoint precision of covert operations. On December 11, 1981, the U.S.-trained Atlacatl Battalion of the Salvadoran Army killed hundreds of men, women, and children in one blow in the village of El Mozote in El Salvador (Danner, 1993). The soldiers of the elite Atlacatl Battalion decapitated villagers, raped young girls before killing them, and massacred men, women, and small children in separate groups with their U.S.-supplied M-16 weapons.

To be sure, Latin American military leaders generally needed little or no encouragement from the United States to participate in the Cold War in their own countries. Some Latin American military leaders, especially those with authoritarian or fascist orientations, became vigorous planners and practitioners in the anticommunist crusade, and some even criticized the United States government for not doing more in the political struggle (Rockefeller, 1969). In Argentina, Brazil, Chile, and other Latin American countries, some of the military leaders who seized power through coups d'état described their actions as a frontline fight to preserve Western civilization and Christianity in the Western Hemisphere (Feitlowitz, 1998; Constable and Valenzuela, 1991). In Argentina, even before a military junta seized power in 1976 and carried out a "dirty war" against leftists and other suspects, the Peronist government had organized the Triple-A (Argentine Anti-Communist Alliance) death squads to rout the Montoneros and other leftist groups who had killed several hundred police agents, military members, and industrialists (Feitlowitz, 1998). Indeed, given their desire to preserve what were wholly oligarchical social structures, Latin American officials likely felt a greater urgency to respond to political threats than did U.S. officials in Washington.

Thus, in the view of Latin American governments and military officials communist subversion included any activity that opposed them politically or that did not meet with their approval. It included the actions of nonpartisan or even nonpolitical social movements and individuals, as well as the dissidence of fellow government and military leaders. Additionally, the criteria for identifying targets for elimination were broad; the governor of the province of Buenos Aires demonstrated this during the Argentine dirty war against leftists with the following statement:

First we will kill all the subversives, then we will kill their collaborators, then . . . their sympathizers, then . . . those who remain indifferent; and finally we will kill the timid. (Quoted in Feitlowitz, 1998, 32; emphasis in original)

As McSherry describes in the following chapter, in 1975 anticommunist military leaders from six South American countries established Operation Condor, a highly coordinated transnational network of military repression used to kidnap, transport, torture, and kill persons viewed as politically suspect or undesirable. A large part of what is known about Operation Condor comes from the discovery in Paraguay in 1992 and 1993 of the so-called Archives of Terror, a collection of materials that contained thousands of files, personal documents, photographs, and recordings of kidnapped and disappeared persons from several Latin American countries.

It is noteworthy that Paraguay under the dictatorship of General Alfredo Stroessner (in power 1954-1989) became a center of political repression even before Condor. Stroessner is considered to have been one of Latin America's most corrupt leaders, representative of a classic nineteenth-century dictatorship (Fitzgibbon, 1971). No method was too vile for Stroessner to manage his political functionaries or to punish his enemies. Receiving U.S. support for his anticommunism (he often boasted of having turned Paraguay into the most anticommunist nation in the world) and Brazilian training in counterinsurgency for his military officers and police agents, Stroessner wiped out political opposition including, in 1975 and 1976, a peasant network of Christian communities that had been supported by the country's Catholic bishops (Lernoux, 1980). With Stroessner's strong-arm control, Paraguay became an ideal center for transnational operations to detain, torture, and eliminate political targets.

Terror as Social Policy

What is the purpose of the most brutal tortures? Are they intended only to establish a generalized climate of fear? Are they meant to keep in place a docile workforce with low wages to benefit the wealthy and multinational corporations? Are they to eliminate the opposition? To extract a confession? To set an example? One of the most common answers to the question of why officials resort to torture is that they must obtain a confession, information, or answers to a particular set of questions. Crelinsten (1995) points out, however, that torture is not merely about making people talk, obtaining information, or eliminating suspects; it is also about demonstrating power.

Amnesty International notes that in Guatemala newspapers have been allowed to publish pictures of dead torture victims, but the articles must follow the government line (Amnesty International, 1976). In such cases terror does not cease with the victim's death, because it is only after the death that the acts accomplish their purpose—to show others that this could happen to them as well. Indeed, Lauria-Santiago and Torres (this volume) observe that in El Salvador and Guatemala unidentifiable victims of torture were meant to send a message to the living that the victim could have been anyone, since the identity of a disfigured body remained unknown. Many victims of terror are "disappeared" from their normal existence, thus making the disappearance itself a powerful message of what awaits others who sympathize with the opposition.

Some have argued that the doctrine of national security in Latin America leads to the use of terror because such doctrine is predicated on the assumption that all social conflict is intrinsically negative (Comisión para la Defensa de la Salud, de la Ética Profesional y los Derechos del Pueblo [herafter: CODESEDH]), 1987). From this perspective, any opponent to the established social order is considered an enemy of the state, which is the protector of society, and so must be eliminated because of the threat he or she poses to social stability. As enemies of the state, opponents are outside the bounds of state protection and thus vulnerable to arbitrary treatment, such as torture and ultimately extermination.

According to Hannah Arendt (1966), state terrorism serves as an instrument to frighten a large population. Terrorism not only kills political opponents but also terrorizes more broadly in the population, so that even potential collaborators are eliminated. The people the state seeks to affect through generalized terror are usually different from its political targets, which gives terror a somewhat random, unpredictable quality. Fear is engendered by the unpredictability and yet regularity of terror. In the atmosphere of terror, everyone knows that they are at risk of becoming victims because everyday life has become uncertain. This is precisely what state terror is supposed to accomplish, to engender fear in everything people do so that the opposition does not gain sympathizers. In this environment people fear and mistrust many things in their everyday lives, such as a knock on the door, a neighbor's questions or gossip, a child's indiscretion, an unknown person's gaze, even a wrong number on the telephone.

Everyone is made to feel vulnerable, and even the innocent can be prime targets for terror. "Kill today and find out if the person is guilty tomorrow," people used to say to refer to this tactic in Guatemala and El Salvador. In Kafkaesque fashion, people were accused not because they were guilty; they were guilty because they were accused. Thus, generalized fear serves the state to eradicate opponents and purge potential sympathizers. In the process, as torture, disappearances, and other techniques of terror become commonplace, a profound insensibility toward human life emerges (Martín-Baró, 1990).

States use various forms of terror, such as disappearances, death squads, prolonged detentions, psychological trauma, massacres, and extreme physical torture.2 The Brazilian project Nunca Mais identified 283 different types of torture used by the Brazilian state (Weschler, 1990). Latin American states also have included in their repertoire of terror the total control of the media, including bans on the publication, distribution, and sale of any printed material considered to threaten national security. Those same states, however, also use all forms of the media to inform, and often misinform, the public.

The different terror tactics have in common their institutionalization. They are regulated through norms, tasks, statutes, hierarchies, knowledge, and procedures of operation. Tactics involve defining objectives, selecting techniques, training staff, and finding locales to practice. Those in charge of carrying out terror campaigns are usually state personnel or subcontracted agents,3 which means they have occupations and salaries that are regularized by statutes and training. Terror campaigns thus are conducted by individuals doing professional work "within the state's internal security framework and . . . dedicated to the service and protection of the state" (Kelman, 1995, 28).

Training for Terrorist Work

"Violence workers" must be trained to prepare for their roles in the technology of terror (Huggins, Haritos-Fatouros, and Zimbardo, 2002). As with practitioners in other fields, violence workers must meet admission requirements for training, take courses, attend seminars, and even "graduate," ready to use their new skills and knowledge. In some cases, their work is meticulously documented as a bureaucratic procedure, leaving records such as the Paraguayan Archives of Terror. Lauria-Santiago (this volume) attributes such careful record-keeping in the Salvadoran case to the intentions on the part of the United States to create in that country a political regime different from the traditional military and elite sectors.

The U.S. Army School of the Americas (SOA) is perhaps the best-known facility for training in counterinsurgency work in Latin America. According to its official website, SOA has trained more than 61,000 officers and soldiers, who "have helped foster a spirit of cooperation and interoperability among militaries throughout the hemisphere . . . and also helped avoid interstate conflict in the hemisphere" (Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, 2003). The Latin American Training Center-Ground Division was first established in Panama in 1946, and it trained more than 8,000 U.S. military personnel, with Latin Americans training alongside them. Four years later, the Latin American Training Center expanded and became the U.S. Army Caribbean School, with the additional mission to help modernize Latin American and Caribbean militaries. In 1963, under President Kennedy's Alliance for Progress, the training center was expanded again and renamed the U.S. Army School of the Americas. In 1984, as the Panama Canal treaties expired, the school was relocated to Fort Benning, Georgia.

SOA graduates have been among Latin America's worst human rights abusers, including the most notorious dictators of the region. The SOA curriculum for senior and junior officers taught a variety of subjects, including sniper training, commando and psychological warfare, military intelligence, and interrogation tactics (Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, 2003).4 All the instruction was conducted in Spanish. The SOA generated manuals and used CIA publications, such as Nicaragua Manual: Psychological Operations in Guerrilla Warfare, in its training. The SOA instructional materials detailed techniques that included "wheedling," used for obtaining the greatest amount of information and useful intelligence, how to record details such as the color of the list under which a particular targeted individual should be placed, and how to locate and neutralize a target (School of the Americas Watch, 2003).

A Salvadoran death squad member who described his training at SOA explained how the U.S. instructor in one course emphasized "psychological techniques" and demonstrated new and more effective ways of using electric shocks during interrogations. On the final day of the course, students practiced techniques on real prisoners. "They were peasants," the death squad member recalled, "no one noteworthy" (quoted in Crelinsten, 1995, 50). After the practice exercise, the U.S. instructor evaluated the class on what they had done right or wrong.

Having fulfilled its Cold War-era mission, SOA closed in December 2000. But in January 2001 it reopened under the name of the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC), an institution explicitly designed to meet new, twenty-first century challenges. In contrast to SOA's explicit military mission, WHINSEC's goals also include the strengthening of democracy, instilling a respect for the rule of law, and honoring human rights. It trains students (in Spanish, with plans to offer courses in Portuguese) to solve border conflicts, fight terrorism, counter drug traffic and organized crime, and support peacekeeping efforts. Although WHINSEC has a new mission, according to the School of the Americas Watch, nothing much has actually changed.

The United States also trained Latin American police in counterinsurgency. Huggins (1998) describes how, with support from the Office of Public Safety, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) assumed responsibility for police training by the International Police Academy (IPA) in Washington, D.C. The academy provided cover for CIA operations not only in Latin America but also in different regions of the world (Marchetti and Marks, 1974); its activities were less easily traceable to the CIA because they were regularly written into economic development plans initiated by USAID, among whose stated intentions was the creation of democratic institutions. Hidden behind this USAID cover, according to Huggins (1998, 108-09), "the CIA could focus on recruiting informants and establishing relations with political police."

Training under the auspices of the IPA for midlevel police officers took place at the CIA's Panama Canal station, where selected officials took courses on intelligence gathering, interrogation procedures, methods of riot, and crowd control (Huggins, 1998). IPA training was meant to promote police coordination with the military, so as to confront the opposition from multiple angles and link national security objectives with internal policing and narcotics control.

Many Latin American violence workers became experts in particular techniques and trained other Latin Americans in terrorist work. For instance, Argentine instructors trained others in Central America and Bolivia, including anti-Sandinista forces based in Honduras (see Armony, this volume). Central Americans trained Colombians, and Brazilians opened "torture schools" in Brazil attended by Latin Americans from different countries. This international collaboration, Kelman (1995) notes, is part of the professionalization of torture, as torturers from different countries meet and exchange information about their work.

Variations in Terror

Kelman (1995, 26) notes that states make use of repression when the opposition represents a challenge to the legitimacy of those in power, and thus present "a fundamental threat to their continued ability to maintain power." In this conceptualization, a wide range of states—from dictatorships to democratic regimes—can turn to terror if they perceive their ability to stay in power threatened. This threat has made the state turn to terror techniques in countries with political histories as different as Mexico, Guatemala, Chile, Argentina, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Brazil, and Uruguay.

Internal constellations of political, economic, historical, and military factors in the different countries have produced different modalities of state terror, however, and as a result local manifestations of state terror have varied significantly. For instance, although disappearances became the most widely practiced form of terror throughout the region, the disappearances of children, pregnant women, and the elderly were signature tactics of the dictatorship in Argentina (CODESEDH, 1987), while in Uruguay the use of torture, prolonged detentions, and a high number of political prisoners and exiles were more common (see Ryan, this volume). In El Salvador and Guatemala, massacres and scorched-earth campaigns were more frequent, as was the leaving of cadavers with signs of torture by roadsides or ravines (see Torres, this volume).

Terror techniques also have varied over time in the same Latin American country. For instance, in El Salvador between 1980 and 1983 the state relied mostly on massive violations of human rights and nocturnal disappearances, but from 1983 on victims were targeted more selectively and detained for longer periods of time through legal means (Code 50) that granted captors wider powers over their victims (CODESEDH, 1987). While U.S. policies and training have fundamentally shaped polices of social control in the Latin American region, individual states have modified practices of terror as their priorities and political needs have changed.

States do not always act as monolithic structures in their involvement in campaigns of terror. Contradictions can exist between different state agencies (see, for example, Giraldo, 1999; Dugas, this volume). While some state agencies terrorize citizens through disappearances, massacres, and torture, for instance, other agencies of the same state apparatus may be genuinely working on improving human rights conditions, on locating disappeared persons, and on advocating for the release of prisoners.

Contradictions also occur at the interstate level. U.S. representatives, including ambassadors and other diplomats, may criticize the deplorable human rights record of specific countries at the same time that the United States is providing arms, military aid, and training on terror techniques to the militaries and police forces of the same countries. Indeed, these contradictions have an ironic twist: often the granting of military aid is conditioned on respect for human rights. In her study of U.S.-training of police in Brazil, Huggins (1998) notes that U.S. programs used to assist foreign police to supposedly promote public safety can have opposite effects. Cases of contradiction demonstrate the complex relations within and between bureaucratic structures and between state agencies and the societies within which they operate.

Case Studies of State Terror in the Americas

The chapters that follow demonstrate many of the aspects of state terror that have been addressed in this introductory chapter. In Chapter 2, Patrice McSherry continues our discussion of systemic links by concentrating on Operation Condor, the interstate network of terror that operated in several South American countries in the 1970s to kidnap, detain, torture, and kill political opponents and suspects.

Parts Two and Three contain country-centered case studies, which together bring to the foreground the breadth and depth of state terror in the region, including outlines of its historical development, analyses of human rights violations, and examples of cases involving indigenous groups and women. Part Two focuses on Mexico and the countries of Central America and Part Three on South America.

Part Two begins with historical examinations by Grossman and Lauria-Santiago. In Chapter 3, Richard Grossman analyzes the formation of the Nicaraguan Guardia under the direction of the U.S. military and observes how this institution had from its very beginning little regard for human safety or dignity in its mission of social control. In Chapter 4, Aldo Lauria-Santiago examines state terror and repression in El Salvador from the perspective of the local context. Lauria-Santiago's "deep" examination of the Salvadoran repression focuses on local ideological, cultural, and iconographic elements.

In Chapter 5, Kristin Norget analyzes state repression and the terror campaign against Zapotec subsistence farmers in the Loxicha region in the Mexican state of Oaxaca, arguing that the recent political opening in Mexico has meant only a military democracy to the subsistence farmers in Loxicha. In Chapter 6, Gabriela Torres introduces what is almost a symbolic interactionist perspective to the study of state terror in Latin America by analyzing the symbolic functions of cadavers left behind by death squads and other perpetuators of terror in Guatemala. As Torres describes, the display of cadavers became a system of communicating intimidating messages to the general population about its vulnerability to terror during the conflict.

In Chapter 7, Joan Kruckewitt examines the rise of U.S.-supported death squads in Honduras during the 1980s, focusing on how U.S. support for militarization helped Honduran military leaders rise to political dominance at a cost to the many Hondurans who fell victim to the country's military and paramilitary groups. Chapter 8, by Annamarie Oliverio and Pat Lauderdale, describes how the United States pressured the relatively tranquil setting of Costa Rica to take on a military character during the Central American political conflicts of the 1980s. As Oliverio and Lauderdale explain, Costa Rica walked a tightrope as it attempted to maintain both a neutral posture in the region and cooperative relations with the political leadership in Washington.

Chapter 9, by John Dugas, focuses on the large array of political violence committed by different groups in Colombia. As Dugas explains, in Colombia the state has a fragmented and incoherent relationship to political violence, and other actors, such as paramilitaries and guerrilla movements, play an increasingly major role in the country's political terror. In Chapter 10, Abderrahman Beggar examines the expansion of Peru's state terror across various government administrations. Beggar describes a dynamic political scene in which all sectors of society are at risk of political violence and in which the U.S. military's support in the drug war helped to strengthen military institutions known to be major abusers of human rights.

In Chapter 11, Jeff Ryan analyzes the conversion of the Uruguayan military from an institution subject to civilian rule to a force of state terror as brutal as any other military institution in South America. Ryan examines the role of the United States and other external political military actors in helping to promote this transition. In Chapter 12, Ariel Armony presents a model of Argentine state terror to analyze the linkages between actors and contextual conditions that undergirded the rise of terror during the dirty war against leftists and other suspects by the military. As Armory describes, the Argentine military played a significant role in training military forces in other countries of Latin America, which highlights the regional interstate cooperation that is the focus of this volume. Finally, in Chapter 13 we conclude with a review of prospects for state terror in the U.S.-Latin American interstate regime for the coming years of the twenty-first century.


1. Rejali (1994, 185) notes that the decrease in corporal punishment as societies modernize might not necessarily result because they have become enlightened but, rather, because individuals learn to regulate themselves according to their consciences, also a byproduct of the rationalization of the economy.

2. Crelinsten (1995, 41) observes that there are "myriad, perverse and ingenious ways that have been and are to this day being used to torture victims; suffice it to say that the least of them is terrible beyond words for the sufferer."

3. Sometimes the state employees (officers, torturers, physicians) do not directly carry out these campaigns but contract other groups, usually the so-called paramilitaries, to do so. This subcontracting is another characteristic of modern states, normally associated with new economic modes of production.

4. At the time of this writing, the U.S. government has admitted to the use of questionable practices in extracting information from suspected terrorists captured in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere, essentially arguing that the information they may provide justifies the means expended to obtain it.


“The combination of a regional framework and original case studies makes this volume an important addition to research on the nature of U.S. involvement in state violence and human rights violations in Latin America.”
American Journal of Sociology

“I have given chapters of this book to our clients—survivors of state-supported terror in Latin America—and watched as they nodded their heads in agreement and then asked variations of the question: 'how can academics understand so well what was going on in our countries?' This book uses the lens of rigorous scholarship to bring out of the shadows the particularities and common patterns that enabled state repression to operate so effectively in the United States' sphere of influence for more than two decades.”
Sandra Coliver, Executive Director, Center for Justice & Accountability, San Francisco

“There are currently no volumes that do what When States Kill accomplishes. This extraordinarily important volume, edited by two superb scholars, will make an outstanding contribution to many fields.”
Martha K. Huggins, Charles A. and Leo M. Favrot Professor of Human Relations, Department of Sociology, Tulane University, and coauthor of Violence Workers: Torturers and Murderers Reconstruct Brazilian Atrocities

“This extraordinary collection of essays locates Latin American state terror within the context of the distinct and influential role of U.S. foreign and military policy in the region. This is a rare work, a 'must read' for academics from a range of disciplines as well as human rights and refugee advocates and lawyers.”
Carolyn Patty Blum, Clinical Professor of Law Emeritus, Boalt Hall Law School, University of California at Berkeley


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