Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Death Squads or Self-Defense Forces? by Julie Mazzei

book cover

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

Trade Paperback: 260 pages
Publisher: University of North Carolina Press
First Released: 2009

Source: Review copy from the publisher.

Back Cover Description:
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.

The title is a bit misleading since this book isn't about whether armed citizen groups are valid forms of self-protection or not. The subtitle contains the true topic: How Paramilitary Groups Emerge and Challenge Democracy in Latin America.

The book was very well-researched, and the author completely convinced me of her points. She used the Chiapas region in Mexico; Colombia; and El Salvador as the focus of her book. She focused on the big picture over a sweep of years and so her book had a rather clinical-sounding view of the conditions that spawn paramilitary groups, how they are organized and supported, and (when applicable) how they were disbanded.

The introduction discussed the various past models that have been proposed for the emergence of PMGs, why those models aren't good ones, and what her model is. Chapters 1 & 2 covered the Chiapas region in Mexico: the history (mainly the politics with a lesser focus on the economy structure) and power structure of the area and how that lead to PMGs emerging. She then discussed evidence for how the PMGs were organized, supplied, and supported.

Chapters 3 & 4 covered the same factors for Colombia, but also discussed the attempt to disband the PMGs. I enjoyed this section the most because a human aspect was added by quoting various interviews with PMG leaders. They briefly discussed why they started a PMG and their view of the purpose of PMGs.

Chapters 5 & 6 covered the El Salvador political history, the support structure for the PMGs, and how they were successfully disbanded. The author actually went to visit this country, and so brief snippets of her impressions were included along with some brief interviews that mainly discussed why various people from various sides thought the disbanding of the PMGs worked so well here.

The conclusion summarized what she thought could be learned from her research.

Overall, it was a well-written book, but it's a bit more focused on politics and had fewer interviews with locals than I expected. However, for someone who wants to know more about Latin American politics and/or under what conditions paramilitary groups emerge and are sustained, this is an excellent book.

If you've read this book, what do you think about it? I'd be honored if you wrote your own opinion of the book in the comments.

Excerpt from Introduction
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 Asociacion Campesina de Ganaderos y Agricultores del Magdalena 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 Ermitano stream (IACHR 2004:43).

Read chapter one.

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