Death Squads

Death squads are generally state-sponsored terrorist groups, meaning that the government advocates death by groups of men who hunt down and kill innocent victims. Death squads are often paramilitary in nature, and carry out extrajudicial (outside the scope of the law or courts) killings, executions, and other violent acts against clearly defined individuals or groups of people (Campbell 2000). Their goal is to maintain the status quo with special reference to power and to terrorize those supportive of economic, political, and social reform. An example is the private armies, mercenaries, and gangs whose goal was to terrorize the population to prevent their support of the revolutionary Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) during the Contra war in Nicaragua in 1979-1990 (Schroeder 2000). The brutish civil war in El Salvador, 1979–1991, provides another example. The work of these death squads horrified the world. Some were brazen enough to identify themselves by carving the initials "EM" (Escuadrón de la Muerte, "Death Squad") into the chests of corpses (Arnson 2000).

Violence by death squads falls under concepts such as extrajudicial killing, state-sponsored terrorism, democide (murder of a person or people by the government), and "horrendous death." Examples of horrendous death are deaths resulting from war, including assassination, terrorism, genocide, racism (e.g., lynching), famine, and environmental assault. All are preventable because they are caused by people rather than God, nature, bacteria, or virus. Ironically, preventive policies exist that would deal with underlying root causes as well as outcomes but are too infrequently implemented (Leviton 1997). For example, root causes that give rise to death squads include authoritarian, totalitarian, despotic, non-democratic governments, and economic and educational disparities that result in misery and despair. They, in turn, seed economic, social, and political reform and revolutionary movements that are the natural enemy of the totalitarian state.

State-sponsored violence has escalated since the end of World War II. According to Amnesty International in 2000, confirmed or possible extra-judicial executions (including children) were carried out in forty-seven countries. Yet this quantitative data masks the suffering of survivors and its detrimental impact upon the social contract between people and their government.

All people are vulnerable to intentioned deaths such as democide and horrendous death. Their prevention is in the best interests of those desiring a peaceful, global society. To that end, organizations have made specific, preventive recommendations to nation states. Organizations concerned with the elimination and prevention of death squads include the U.S. State Department's Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor; United Nations; Amnesty International; and Human Rights Watch. An international surveillance and early warning system and policies that institute basic reforms are also necessary measures. The latter include the need for universal education, instituting democratic forms of government with strong adversarial parties, and an inquisitive and free media.

See also: Terrorism ; War


Arnson, Cynthia J. "Window on the Past: A Declassified History of Death Squads in El Salvador." In B. B. Campbell and A. D. Brenner eds., Death Squads in Global Perspective: Murder with Deniability. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2000.

Boothby, Neil G., and Christine M. Knudsen. "Children of the Gun." Scientific American 282, no. 6 (2000):60–65.

Campbell, Bruce B. "Death Squads: Definition, Problems, and Historical Context." In B. B. Campbell and A. D. Brenner eds., Death Squads in Global Perspective: Murder with Deniability. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2000.

Doyle, Roger. "Human Rights throughout the World." Scientific American 280, no. 12 (1998):30–31.

Human Rights Watch. Generation Under Fire: Children and Violence in Columbia. New York: Author, 1994.

Leviton, Daniel. "Horrendous Death." In S. Strack ed., Death and the Quest for Meaning. New York: Jason Aronson, 1997.

Leviton, Daniel, ed. Horrendous Death, Health, and Well-Being. New York: Hemisphere, 1991.

Rummel, Rudolph J. Death by Government. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 1994.

Schroeder, Michael J. "To Induce a Sense of Terror." In B.B. Campbell and A. D. Brenner eds., Death Squads in Global Perspective: Murder with Deniability. New York: St Martin's Press, 2000.

Sluka, Jeffrey A. "Introduction: State Terror and Anthropology." In Death Squad: The Anthropology of State Terror. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2000.

Internet Resources

Amnesty International. "Amnesty International Report 2001." In the Amnesty International [web site]. Available from .


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