State terror in the U.S.-Latin American interstate regime

Cecilia Menjívar, Nestor Rodríguez

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16 Scopus citations


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.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)3-27
Number of pages25
JournalUnknown Journal
StatePublished - 2005

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Social Sciences


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