Death Squads as Parallel Forces: Uruguay, Operation Condor, and the United States

By McSherry, J. Patrice | Journal of Third World Studies, Spring 2007 | Go to article overview
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Death Squads as Parallel Forces: Uruguay, Operation Condor, and the United States

McSherry, J. Patrice, Journal of Third World Studies


From the 1960s to the 1980s Latin America was convulsed by violence as military-security forces carried out a ruthless "war against subversion." A wave of U.S-backed military coups swept the region and repressive, right-wing military rule was instituted in almost every country. These states, which I term national security states, were characterized by their systematic use of terror, including death squads, to subdue their populations. In this article I use Bruce B. Campbell's definition of death squads as "clandestine and usually irregular organizations, often paramilitary in nature, which carry out extrajudicial executions and other violent acts" (1) against specifically targeted persons, in this case, "subversives." Death squads are almost invariably state-sponsored or state-condoned; they are instruments of state terror. Death squads--anonymous gangs of men that appear autonomous and that use terrorist methods such as bombings, disappearance, extrajudicial execution, and torture-act to terrorize society as a whole as well as to claim individual victims.

This article examines the Uruguayan state's creation of several death squads to fight "the war against subversion" and solidify repressive control of Uruguayan society, first within its territory, and then outside it, in the framework of Operation Condor. Death squads emerged in 1970 and 71, while Uruguay was still nominally a democracy. The Uruguayan armed forces seized power and imposed a dictatorship in 1973. Condor, formed in late 1973-early 1974, was a secret intelligence and operations system among the South American military regimes that enabled multinational death squads to carry out cross-border political repression, spreading the anticommunist dirty wars across the region. Condor death squads-composed of paramilitary, parapolice, and civilian members-functioned as an integral part of broader counterinsurgency or "counterterror" campaigns. Counterterror, in military parlance, is "the use of terror to fight terror."

The article argues that the death squads that emerged in Uruguay and elsewhere in Latin America in this era were parallel forces created and used by states as counterinsurgency tools. They resulted from a strategic and calculated choice by state elites seeking to neutralize social sectors that were demanding a fairer distribution of economic resources and political power. The death squads were instruments used to command and control civilian populations through the use of terror, and were part and parcel of unconventional warfare strategies and national security doctrine condoned by elite groups as well as Washington. Most importantly, the system of state terror was international, sustained by arms, technology, finances, and other forms of support from Washington and the collusion of Latin American military regimes, united in the inter-American military system as well as the covert Operation Condor. Inspired by a national security doctrine that legitimized harsh and illegal methods against "internal enemies," U.S-backed counterinsurgents built a parallel apparatus, a set of invisible structures and forces of the state, in order to eliminate political opposition while ensuring deniability. The case of Uruguay reveals the tight interconnections among U.S. military and police training programs, inter-American counterinsurgency strategies, right-wing death squads, and the Condor system of cross-border political repression. Theoretically, the case of Uruguay sheds light on why, and when, states form death squads.


In Latin America the postwar era was a time of social awakening and political mobilization. (2) Millions of Latin Americans lived in conditions of socioeconomic inequality, poverty and economic hardship, lack of democracy, and authoritarianism, and many began to demand new rights in the 1960s and 70s. These new forces, inspired by rising Third World nationalism and, in some cases, by the 1959 Cuban revolution, struggled to end generations of political and social exclusion.

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Death Squads as Parallel Forces: Uruguay, Operation Condor, and the United States


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