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The resurgence of the death squads

Publisher International Federation for Human Rights
Publication Date 10 November 1999
Cite as International Federation for Human Rights, The resurgence of the death squads, 10 November 1999, available at: [accessed 21 May 2023]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.


Certain Latin American States such as Brazil, Argentina, Guatemala and Salvador have in the past resorted to the use of death squads in the context of methodical policies of terror aimed at stopping the progressive organisation of civil societies.

Their aim was to fighten, intimidate, or even cause the disappearance of any person taking a stand against injustice. It is a recognised fact nowadays that this type of "structure" committed thousands of crimes.

In Salvador, the State made use of the action of these criminal groups to terrorise the people. In 1976, the White Warrior Union (UGB), whose members came mostly from the ruling classes (military people and those with economic power) made its appearence; its action consisted in eliminating the leaders of the people's organisations. The organisation called "Death Squad" (EM) appeared in 1978, comprising elements from the different security corps such as the national police, the financial police, the national guard, and members of the Nationalist Democratic Organisation (ORDEN). Next the "Maximiliano Hernandez Martinez" Brigade, named after an old dictator responsible for the assassination of more than 30 000 people in 1932, and another group called the "Secret Anti-communist Army" (ESA) were created.

The modus operandi of these "militias" consisted in moving around in armed groups in vehicles without plates. Their favoured targets were trade unionists, teachers, students, factory workers, priests any person indicated by informers (nicknamed "ears") or suspected of subversive activity. Most of the time, the attackers entered the home of their victim at night to take them away. In other cases, the victim was kidnapped while going home or to work, then savagely assassinated in an isolated spot. Little by little, a climate of was instilled in the population, with everyone afraid of being kidnapped by these groups – the army of the security corps.

The beginning and the middle of the 1980s were marked by the intensification of the activities of these groups. Leaning on them for support, the government systematically able to have recourse to a repressive policy, without having to answer for the Human Rights violations committed. At the end of the 1980s , the method followed by the death squads changed. It was now a case of brutally suppressing victims or of capturing and disposing of them without leaving any traces; if witnesses had been present at the kidnapping, the victims would be taken to the various military garrisons and tortured, and then transferred to certain intelligence services called S-2s. These S-2s were specialised departments directed by members of clandestine groups, and were also the places where the murders or final disappearance operations of the death squadrons were planned.

Vietnam Joya Martinez, member of an S-2 cell of the first infantry brigade, has recounted how they operated. He has explained how the members of the armed forces and the different security corps carried out, with the consent of the top military chiefs and the government, the capture , assassination, and torture operations. This witness has related how different attacks were planned against leaders of the people.

One must point out the responsibility of the judicial and legislative institutions for the policy of repression against the Salvadorian people. Many judges intimidated detainees with fire arms to make them accept the charges brought against them and so that there would be no investigation into the alleged crimes. In the same way, the Legislative Assembly adopted repressive anti-constitutional laws. The death squads could therefore act freely and with complete impunity. Cases never went to Court and the cases of thousands of people who were assassinated, who disappeared or who were tortured during this period, have never been solved.

The signature of the peace accords between the government and the Farabundo Marti Front of National Liberation (FMLN) in 1992 at Chapultec in Mexico generated an immense hope for the Salvadorian people. Not only because it marked the end of an internal armed conflict that had lasted for more than 12 years, but because it provided the removal of the various security corps and of the elite battalions, the identification and location of the victims, and the creation of new institutions such as the national civil police and the Commission for the Defence of Human Rights

The peace accords also provided for the creation of a Truth Commission charged with investigating the exactions committed against the people of Salvador. This Commission was created, and in its final report it not only named military people and civilians as responsible for the thousands of assassinations and of disappearances, but also members of the FMLN who were implicated in the assassination of mayors and political opponents

Moreover, the Truth Commission gave over an entire chapter of its report to the death squads. In it, it underlines the participation of members of the armed forces and government officials and recommends an investigation specifically into the phenomenon, to be Certain Latin American States such as Brazil, Argentina, Guatemala and Salvador have in the past resorted to the use of death squads in the context of methodical policies of terror aimed at stopping the progressive organisation of civil societies.Certain Latin American States such as Brazil, Argentina, Guatemala and Salvador have in the past resorted to the use of death squads in the context of methodical policies of terror aimed at stopping the progressive organisation of civil societies.carried out with the active collaboration of the national institutions and the support and assistance of politically motivated foreign authorities. So, a "Joint Group to Investigate the Illegal Armed Groups" was constituted on 8 December 1993, with the consent of the two parties which signed the peace accords and under the mediation of the United Nations.

In its final report, the Joint Group concluded: "The information gathered allows one to affirm that there are solid grounds for asserting that the network of organised crime which is hitting the country cannot be dismantled. In many violent actions carried out with a political aim, one notes indications of the active participation of members of the armed forces and of the national police (...). However, many questions remain on the link between certain individuals previously identified as having participated in death squad actions and highly organised criminal structures which carry out bank robberies, vehicles theft and arms and drug trafficking, amongst other illegal activities".

The Joint Group recommended bringing proceedings against all those responsible and dismantling this sort of network. However six years later, the government, entrenched in particular behind the amnesty law adopted in March 1993, has still not followed up on these recommendations and no legal action commenced. This very clear lack of political will to put an end to the phenomenon of the death squads now has very grave repercussions.

Thus, during recent years, these groups have resurfaced (they are now called "Extermination Groups" or the "Black Shadow"). Representatives and official agents of the current national civil police – an institution born out of the peace accords – have been implicated in these two organisations. Their activities essentially come down to the "eradication" of thieves, juvenile delinquents, prostitutes and homosexuals. Moreover, they have now widened their field of operation and have assassinated people who do not belong to these "target" groups. Since the beginning of 1999, a new extermination commando has been attacking people and is particularly targeting of Human Rights defenders: threats, sequestration, harassment.... The premises of civil society organisations are also ransacked and their files and equipment stolen.

The very worrying level of criminality together with the amount of organised crime, are realities which undermine the establishment, in modern Salvador, of a state based on law.

Miguel Montenegro,

President of the Commission of Human Rights in Salvador

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