The Political Economy of Death Squads

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International Studies Quarterly





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A central theoretical question in the literature on state-sanctioned terror is whether, and under what conditions, repressive violence deters or stimulates a shift in popular support away from the regime and toward the opposition. By combining a rational choice model of the nonelite response to escalating levels of death squad violence with a structural analysis of the global and domestic conditions under which the escalation of state-sanctioned terror can be expected, we demonstrate theoretically that carefully targeted repressive violence may in fact reduce the level of active popular support for the opposition, at least temporarily. However, as the level of repressive violence escalates and its application becomes more indiscriminate, it may in fact produce increases in active support for the opposition because nonelites can no longer assure themselves of immunity from repression by simply remaining politically inert. Thus, they turn to the rebels in search of protection from indiscriminate violence by the state. Why, then, would a regime, itself composed of supposedly rational individuals, pursue a policy of escalating repression if such measures are ultimately counterproductive? We argue that the conditions of structural dependence characterizing these regimes leave them without the institutional machinery, economic resources, or political will to address opposition challenges through more accommodative programs of reform. Thus, escalating repression is perpetrated not because it has a high probability of success but because the weakness of the state precludes its resort to less violent alternatives. The utility of this approach is illustrated with a case study of reform, repression, and revolution in El Salvador.