Small Wars Journal

The Privatization of State Violence: A Review of Explanations of Death Squads, Paramilitaries, and Irregular Forces

Sun, 09/11/2022 - 8:22pm

The Privatization of State Violence: A Review of Explanations of Death Squads, Paramilitaries, and Irregular Forces

By Matthew P. Arsenault

Paramilitary and death squad violence characterize much of 21st century conflict. Such political violence is “intrinsic to internal warfare” (Warren, 2002, pg. 226).  Its most recent manifestation emerged in Ukraine. Vladimir Putin’s mobilization of Kadyrova paramilitaries and ``private” military companies - coupled with the recent slaughter of civilians in Bucha - suggest a high likelihood of increased paramilitary or death squad violence.  Although initial reports suggest atrocities were committed by the Russian military, we are but a short step from non-military, or paramilitary terror.

Death Squads, Paramilitaries, and Irregular Forces

Max Weber writes, “a state is a human community that (successfully) claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory” (1958, p. 78).  Although considered the quintessential definition of the modern state, Weber’s conception begs further discussion of what happens when power – the monopolization of legitimate force – escapes the institutions of the state. More specifically, what happens when the state tacitly encourages the delegation of violence to groups outside the purview of state control?

Delegation of state violence often takes the form of death squads, or “clandestine and usually irregular organizations, often paramilitary in nature, which carry out extrajudicial executions and other violent acts (torture, rape, arson, bombing, etc.) against clearly defined individuals or groups of people” (Campbell, 2002, pp. 1-2).  Similarly, Mazzei (2009) defines paramilitary groups along a similar vein.  “Paramilitary groups are political armed organizations that are by definition extramiltary, extra-State, noninstitutional entities, but which mobilize and operate with the assistance of important allies, including factions of the State” (pg. 4).  Mason and Krane (1989) define death squads as “military, paramilitary, and irregular units that engage in violent acts against a population in order to deter them from lending support to opposition groups” (pg. 178). Regardless of name, what makes most death squads unique from other forms of political violence lies in the tacit collusion between state and purveyors of political violence outside of direct state control (Biberman, 2018, pg. 754). 

Explanations of Death Squad Violence

Paramilitary and death squad violence has characterized much of 21st century armed conflict (Biberman, 2018). Some argue that paramilitary violence is now “intrinsic to internal warfare” (Warren, 2002, pg. 226).  As paramilitaries continue to play a significant role in modern conflict, it pays to examine explanations of death squad emergence.  However, death squad violence remains a relatively understudied but growing field in the social sciences (Campbell, 2002, pg. 7). A brief review of death squad studies identifies three theoretical camps: cultural, structural, and rational choice explanations of paramilitary violence (Campbell, 2002).

Culturalist approaches to death squad violence

Cultural theorists “provide nuanced and detailed readings of cases, frequently drawn from field work, as they seek to understand the phenomena being studied” (Lichbach and Zuckerman, 1997, pg. 6). Culturalist approaches emphasize systems of meaning, values, and ways of life, and their relationship to the political world.  Culturalist studies of death squad violence tend to focus on the micropolitics of state-sponsored terror. For example, Jeffery Sluka’s edited volume (2000) falls squarely within the anthropological literature.  Sluka’s book consists of local- and micro-level ethnographic case studies of paramilitary violence.  For example, Antonious Robben (2000) conducts a sobering case exploring cultural implications of “disappearances” during the Argentine Dirty War.  Kepply-Mahmood (2000) provides a thick description of societal impacts of paramilitary violence in northern India. Specifically, she examines the effects of humiliation, and degradation on identity in Kashmir and Punjab.

Many culturalists approach death squad violence through a post-Marxist lens. Explanations of death squads, and other forms of state terror, draw heavily on power elite theories.  Sluka (2000) contends that concentration of political and economic power leads to social and economic inequalities. Social and economic inequalities lead to challenges to state authority. As a result, death squads are mobilized to suppress burgeoning opposition movements (2000, pg. 31-33). Although Sluka et. al. provides a valuable description of death squad violence; the cases prove of limited generalizability. A more promising avenue lies in structural functionalist, and rational choice approaches to death squad violence.

Structural functionalist explanations of death squad violence

Structural functionalist approaches contend that societies are systems of interconnected parts.  Structural functionalists identify the requisite structures and functions which lead to various political systems and outcomes. Similarly, structural functionalists identify variation in political systems following changes to underlying structures. Structural functionalism is especially useful when examining theories “about the coming into being, transformation, and breakdown of societies, rather than to static analyses of fixed social states” (Piersen, 2004, pg. 107).

For example, Mazzei (2009) examines the circumstances and processes by which paramilitary groups emerge.  Mazzei conducts extensive on-the-ground research in Columbia, Mexico, and El Salvador.  Her findings suggest that paramilitary groups emerge as result of major shifts and changes to the political environment, especially burgeoning challenges to economic, political, and military elites.  As challenges to the existing power structure continue to grow, moderate factions contemplate reform.  This can lead to divergence between hard-liner and moderate factions of the elite. We begin to see a rift within the political class.  The elite hard-liner faction is either unable or unwilling to engage in overt state violence.  As such the hardline elite may use paramilitary forces to enforce the State will while maintaining plausible deniability (Mazzei, 2009, pg. 17-20). 

Similarly, Zhukov (2007) finds regime type affects freedom of action of the counterinsurgent.  Authoritarian regimes face few constraints or restraints when combating revolts. Greater freedom of action can prove advantageous to authoritarian regimes.  Such governments face little pressure to minimize the use of force.  For example, between 1947 and 1949, the authoritarian Soviet Union engaged in a brutal enemy-centric counterinsurgency campaign in Ukraine. Soviets utilized Ukrainian non-state actors to conduct state violence on the Soviet state’s behalf.  Zhukov writes,  “An effort was made to ‘Ukrainise’ the conflict through recruiting local cadres for civilian administrative positions and paramilitary ‘extermination battalions’ and self-defense forces” (2007 p. 448).

Rational choice explanations of death squad violence

Margaret Levi writes, rational choice theory seeks to “reveal how intentional and rational actors generate collective outcomes and aggregate behavior” (1997, p. 20).  Specifically, rationalists examine how actors apply rationality and reason to achieve their self-interested goals. As such, rational choice theorists often view the adoption of death squads as the result of a rational calculus on the part of political actors.

For example, Mason and Krane (1989) examine the rational calculus of non-elite responses to death squad violence.  The authors identify three targets of regime-sponsored terror: challenger opposition leaders, challenger rank and file supporters, and indiscriminate victims.   The authors model a rational calculus of non-elite behavior.  Specifically, they examine the decision calculus to either support or oppose the incumbent regime. The model suggests that rational behavior may lead the politically inactive population to remain largely inactive until death squad violence reaches a certain threshold.  The inactive populace is likely to actively oppose the regime when death squads attack indiscriminate victims.

Similarly, Ron (2002) contends that death squad violence may emerge as a rational decision by state elites.  States may “subcontract” with paramilitary units when a regime faces international or local constraints on cross-border military action.  For example, Ron (2002) explores the use of Serbian paramilitaries during the Bosnian Civil War. International constraints limited the Serbian regime’s ability to overtly engage in the Bosnian conflict.  As such, the Serbian regime sought alternative strategies to eliminate Bosniaks and Croats from disputed territories. Specifically, the regime mobilized existing paramilitary units.  Many such units were drawn from the remnants of Serbia’s own internal crisis. In short, the Serbian regime faced staunch international constraints on its behavior.  As a result, the Serbian regime chose to tacitly support death squad violence, while maintaining plausible deniability of active engagement.


Death squad and paramilitary violence will increasingly characterize the war in Ukraine.  The sheer horror of death squad violence begs practical solutions.  Sadly, this paper cannot provide those practical answers. However, we do provide a brief overview of three frameworks examining paramilitary and death squad violence. Culturalists point to meanings, values, and identity explanations of paramilitary violence. Structural functionalism identifies social structures that may serve as prerequisites for death squad violence. Rational choice theories suggest a rational calculus of actors to engage in, or otherwise support, death squad or paramilitary violence.  

Such frameworks should not be viewed as mutually exclusive.  Rather, multiple variables impact the emergence, type, and degree of death squad violence. We should seek our explanations through an integration of ideas.   For example, culturalists should highlight the impact of conflicting traditions and belief systems between eastern and western Ukraine.  How do such divisions impact concepts of the “other” in reference to political violence? Structural functionalists should consider a fractionalization between Russian elites - especially between moderate and hardline factions - and the possible ramifications for non-state violence.  Lastly, rational choice explanations illustrate the necessity of considering the rational, self-interested motivations of both the Russian state.  As the war continues to grind down the Putin regime, is it rational to increase the tacit encouragement of paramilitary violence?  Only by answering such questions will we have a hope of mitigating state-sponsored terror.

About the Author(s)

Dr. Matthew P. Arsenault has published in National Identities, Small Wars Journal, and Real Clear Defense. Dr. Arsenault served with the US Army Human Terrain system in Iraq. 


There are a number of explanations for the privatization of state violence, including the death squads, paramilitaries, and irregular forces. Each explanation has its own merits, but they all share a common thread: the state is no longer able or willing to protect its citizens from violence. They can act with impunity, which allows them to be more ruthless and effective.Another explanation is that these groups are often better equipped and trained than the state security forces. This is due to the fact that they are often former members of the security forces who have left to form their own groups. As a result, they have access to better weapons and training.A third explanation is that these groups are often formed in response to state failure. This is when the state is unable or unwilling to protect its citizens from violence. In these cases, citizens will form their own groups to protect themselves.Finally, there is the explanation that these groups are simply a manifestation of power struggles within the state. This can be seen in cases where death squads are used by one faction to eliminate rivals from another faction.Each of these explanations has its own merits, but they all share a common theme. My site:

Never forget the Viet Cong. Hue in 1968 and the Easter Offensive of 1972 are among the many examples of their death squads. I never remember running across any report of the VC doing anything non-violently. I maintained separate files on VC acts of terrorism, which included kidnappings and assassinations, and a separate file on their atrocities. These files made clear how sadistic and cruel most of the VC were to US personnel, soldiers of ARVN and Vietnam Marine Corps (VNMC), and the civilian populace (including women, children, and infants).

I found the VC to be more like sadomasochists (some NVA could be, as well). Communism was a cloak that gave cover to their actions, a fate no one should have to bear or contemplate.

“Paramilitary and death squad violence characterize much of 21st century conflict.”  This is a somewhat misleading statement skewed mostly by 21st century conflicts in the Middle East and Africa.  It might be more appropriate for the 20th century especially South and Central America.  Operation Condor commenced in 1975 and involved the use of death squads and paramilitary groups in Argentina, Chile, Bolivia, Brazil, Uruguay and Paraguay.  These groups were all State linked actors.  Death squads operating in El Salvador in the 1980s were associated with the Salvadoran military.  Death squads during the same period in Guatemala were run by the Guatemalan police as well as military.  The Sandinistas in Nicaragua used military linked groups to murder and rape indigenous indians living on the border with Honduras.  This was done to discourage them from turning against the new government.  “los Pepes” was a paramilitary/death squad used against drug lord Pablo Escobar in Colombia and tacitly approved by the State also in the 20th century.