Death Squads or Self-Defense Forces? How Paramilitary Groups Emerge and Challenge Democracy in Latin America

Death Squads or Self-Defense Forces? How Paramilitary Groups Emerge and Challenge Democracy in Latin America

Death Squads or Self-Defense Forces? How Paramilitary Groups Emerge and Challenge Democracy in Latin America

Death Squads or Self-Defense Forces? How Paramilitary Groups Emerge and Challenge Democracy in Latin America

Synopsis

In an era when the global community is confronted with challenges posed by violent nonstate organizations--from FARC in Colombia to the Taliban in Afghanistan--our understanding of the nature and emergence of these groups takes on heightened importance. Julie Mazzei's timely study offers a comprehensive analysis of the dynamics that facilitate the organization and mobilization of one of the most virulent types of these organizations, paramilitary groups (PMGs).

Mazzei reconstructs in rich historical context the organization of PMGs in Colombia, El Salvador, and Mexico, identifying the variables that together create a triad of factors enabling paramilitary emergence: ambivalent state officials, powerful military personnel, and privileged members of the economic elite. Nations embroiled in domestic conflicts often find themselves stuck between a rock and a hard place when global demands for human rights contradict internal expectations and demands for political stability. Mazzei elucidates the importance of such circumstances in the emergence of PMGs, exploring the roles played by interests and policies at both the domestic and international levels. By offering an explanatory model of paramilitary emergence, Mazzei provides a framework to facilitate more effective policy making aimed at mitigating and undermining the political potency of these dangerous forces.

Excerpt

In October 1987, Juan Bautista was driving through Puerto Araujo, Colombia, transporting merchandise from the border with Venezuela. He was traveling with sixteen of his coworkers along a route dotted by military checkpoints. At the checkpoint in Puerto Araujo, a lieutenant made note of the fact that the men were carrying a “considerable quantity of contraband merchandise” but allowed them to pass. Shortly thereafter, Juan and the sixteen others were stopped by a group known as the Asociación Campesina de Ganaderos y Agricultores del Magdelena Media (the Association of Rural Ranchers and Farmers of Magdalena Medio, ACDEGAM), a group of citizens who had organized to protect their communities against the Colombian guerrillas. The self-declared “self-defense patrol” had been watching Bautista and his friends for some time; the men had refused to pay the ACDEGAM “protection taxes” and were suspected of supplying guerrillas with some of the goods they transported. When they were detained by the ACDEGAM on 6 October, the seventeen men were taken to the ranch of the ACDEGAM’s leader, Henry Perez. There they were murdered and dismembered, and their remains disposed of in the Ermitaño stream (IACHR 2004:43).

Similar self-defense patrols were organized in several communities at the time of the massacre. The Colombian government disavowed any connection to the groups, referring to the autodefensas as “death squadrons” and as “organization[s] of hired murderers” (IACHR 2004:40, 43n). Despite these admonitions, the ACDEGAM and similar organizations continued to declare their legitimacy as defenders of public security. A sign posted by the self-defense groups outside one Colombian city proudly read: “Welcome to Puerto Boyocá, land of peace and progress, antisubversive capital of Colombia” (“Historia de la Autodefensa” 2003:3, translation mine; Chernick 1998:30; IACHR 1993: introduction).

Paramilitary groups (PMGs) like the ACDEGAM are not unique to Colombia — nor is the debate over whether they are defensive groups or criminal death squads. In September 1995, the Serbian onslaught against non-Serbs in Bosnia was well under way. But outside the city of Sanski Most, Bosnian forces were beginning to make progress in pushing back Serb forces. As the Bosnian forces made their way to the city, the Serbs . . .

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