Death Squads

Most broadly defined the term death squad may refer to an armed military, police, insurgent or terrorist squad that engages in extra-judicial assassinations and forced disappearances of individuals as part of a war, an insurgency or a terror campaign.

In the 1980s El Salvador had one of our hemisphere's worst human rights records.

However in twentieth century Latin America, death squads were commonly understood to be instruments of state terror. Nominally independent from the established state security actors, these clandestine paramilitary units were able to draw “unofficially” upon the intelligence and logistical capabilities of the institutional state forces. Indeed many of the death squad organizers were also Army officers. In 1993 the United Nations Truth Commission confirmed that Roberto D’Aubuisson, a prominent Salvadoran right wing politician who had worked in military intelligence at the National Guard, gave the order for death squads to assassinate Archbishop Romero in El Salvador.

In the 21st century death squads in Central America have been associated with social cleansing targeting gangs. It is arguable whether contemporary death squads–like the Sombra Negra– trace their origins to earlier clandestine groups such as the White Hand—one of the most infamous death squads of the 1980s– or represent new forms of for hire vigilantism. However police involvement in such groups has been documented and some officers have been brought to trial.

The mother of a murdered student waits as an Americas Watch team review the corpse for evidence of death squad violence. Copyright © Donna DeCesare, 1989

During the Cold War, the CIA planned and participated in anti-democratic military actions such as the Guatemalan coup in 1954. During the 1980s the US supplied military aid to regimes in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, with documented human rights abuses that included the massacre, torture and “disappearance” of tens of thousands of their own citizens.

As a verb “to disappear” refers to the terror tactic of “forced disappearance.” A person is abducted and permanently vanishes without a trace—deprived of liberty, concealed in clandestine torture chambers and ultimately murdered surreptitiously with the body disposed of in ways designed to prevent detection.

The Director of the Guartemalan Forensic Anthropology team Fredy A. Peccerelli consults with the eminent forensic anthropologist Dr. Clyde Snow about remains recovered from the massacre site in San Francisco de Nenton in Huehuetenango.

Thanks to the investigative work of a team of journalists from the Baltimore Sun the existence of CIA field interrogation training manuals lends credible evidence supporting claims of torture survivors and Central American torturers that US officials witnessed or participated in interrogations involving torture during the 1980s.

Indeed the techniques outlined in the manuals, made available through Freedom of Information Act searches, are now part of the permanent documents collection at the National Archives at Georgetown University. They provide evidence that the US not only knew about torture but also actually taught the techniques to proxies. They also indicate clear antecedents for practices uncovered two decades later at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo.

Be informed: