Military History: 10 Notorious Death Squads

In 1984, George Orwell gave his readers a shocking glimpse into the mind of authoritarianism when he put these words in the mouth of state torturer O’Brien: “If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face—forever.” This image of complete state control (which Orwell lifted from Jack London’s 1908 dystopian novel The Iron Heel) has haunted readers for decades, especially considering that the history of the 20th and 21st centuries has been one of violence and terrorism. Death squads, or extralegal and paramilitary units tasked with carrying out extrajudicial executions, embody the eternal boot of tyranny like no other organizations on Earth.

Although most death squads, both government-funded and private, came to international attention during World War II and the subsequent Cold War, they have existed in one form or another for centuries. Nations as diverse as Russia, Egypt, and Brazil have all utilized death squads at one time or another, and today, death squads can still be found in those nations rotten with corruption, social strife, and deep political divisions. While death squads have been legitimized under the slogan of, “Sometimes bad things need to be done in order to keep worse things from happening,” their sole purpose is to kill and kill again.

10. The Argentine Anti-Communist Alliance

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Beginning in 1943, Argentina fell under the spell of Peronism. Founded by army colonel and one-time labor minister Juan Peron, Peronism remains the guiding philosophy of Argentina’s Justicialist Party. While today, there are both left- and right-wing Peronist factions, during the first age of the movement, Peron voiced a strong populist message that embraced nationalism and promoted the interests of urban workers. As such, before being ousted in a military coup in 1955, President Peron was an incredibly popular and charismatic leader who enjoyed widespread support from both trade unionists and the lower- and upper-middle classes.

By the 1970s, however, Peronism had devolved into various squabbling factions. Making matters worse was general instability in the form of multiple coups which were rocking South America, thereby threatening Peronist power in Argentina. Right-wing Peronists tried to solve this instability by eliminating what they considered to be their internal enemies—left-wing Peronists and Marxists. In 1973, the Argentine Anti-Communist Alliance was formed in secret in order to counteract growing leftism in Argentina. During the administration of President Isabel Peron (1974–1976), the “Triple A” death squad was particularly active and worked closely with the Argentine military and police.

Before being disbanded by a military coup in 1976, the Argentine Anti-Communist Alliance is believed to have carried out anywhere between 428 and 1,000 assassinations. Later investigations in the 1980s and 1990s established that the Triple A death squad recruited its members from the army, the police forces, and the various trade unions of Argentina. On top of that, the group enjoyed healthy funding from sympathetic senators and government ministers. Even though the Argentine Anti-Communist Alliance was officially outlawed by the military junta that came to power in 1976, said junta had many of the same political enemies as Triple A and continued to use the group’s methods against its opponents.

9. Esquadrao Da Morte

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Referenced in the 1973 US film Magnum Force, the second Dirty Harry movie about a rogue death squad within the San Francisco Police Department, Brazil’s Esquadrao da Morte, or “Death Squad,” was first formed in 1964 following the successful coup that inaugurated the Brazilian military dictatorship. Until 1985, Brazil’s military government oversaw sweeping campaigns to establish order inside the country. What this often meant was that the Brazilian authorities conducted extralegal assaults and kidnappings aimed at their Marxist opponents. While Brazil enjoyed economic success under the military government, it also witnessed approximately 500 deaths and disappearances. Most of these victims were either leftists or those whom the government deemed enemies of the state.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the first death squads were formed in the country’s southeast in order to combat rising crime rates. Unlike later Latin American death squads, Brazil’s Esquadrao da Morte was not a single, collective organization. Several death squads existed at once and were primarily directed by professional police officers. While political opponents were sometimes targeted, Brazilian death squads in the 1970s tended to focus more on torturing and executing drug dealers, gangsters, kidnappers, and murderers.

One infamous death squad was headed by Detective Milton Le Cocq de Oliveira. Based in Rio de Janeiro, Le Cocq’s team consisted of handpicked officers who were instructed to never accept money for assassinations or to kill unarmed citizens. Despite this, Le Cocq’s group, which was noted for its bravery, became a death squad hell-bent on eradicating the many bandits that controlled Rio’s sprawling slums.

8. Thailand’s Anti-Drug Police

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Starting in February 2003, Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra began a “war on drugs” that officially targeted drug trafficking and the gangs in charge of distributing drugs all throughout Thailand. Given that Thailand has experienced an upsurge in drug use and abuse, along with salacious stories about drug dealers giving homemade methamphetamine to children, it’s not surprising that the government would pursue a hard-line policy against drugs. That being said, human rights groups across the world quickly began to criticize the campaign as an unlawful attack on Thai citizens. In particular, Human Rights Watch published a finding that claimed that in the first three months of Prime Minister Shinawatra’s campaign, 2,800 extrajudicial killingshad taken place. Four years later, another study found that more than half of those killed during the drug war had no connection to drug trafficking at all.

Similar charges against the Thai “war on drugs” were argued by Amnesty International in 2003. The group asserted that a “shoot-to-kill” policy was encouraged by high-ranking officials in the Thai government, which resulted in 600 deaths in a three-week period alone. Most of these deaths were connected to Thailand’s police forces, especially those given the responsibility of cracking down on the country’s drug problem.

Ultimately, Shinawatra’s drug war concluded with the military coup of 2006. In the aftermath, the new military government decided to look into charging Prime Minister Shinawatra with various offenses, but by 2008, a new drug war was already underway in order to tackle yet another explosion in illegal drug trafficking.

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