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The dictionary of the Real Academia Española (2006) defines paramilitaries as belonging to a civil organization "with military structure or discipline". This general definition, however, hardly contributes to a differentiation, as by its logic guerrilla organizations would have to be described as paramilitaries. In debates in Political Science, only organizations which either openly or covertly operate on the side of the state authorities are thus considered as paramilitaries. This also makes sense etymologically: the Greek prefix para points to regional or temporal closeness, but also closeness in terms of content. Para-militaries would accordingly be structures affiliated with the army.

However, even here a certain haziness must be mentioned. By this definition, in the Anglo-Saxon regions, official state organizations, whose structures are ordered between the police and the army and which are deployed during periods of domestic social unrest (e.g. the US National Guard), are also described as paramilitary. It therefore seems necessary to develop a definition for the term historically.

The history of paramilitarism is closely linked to the counterinsurgency by modern states. The political science dictionary by Frank Bailey (2003) points to the British Special Services and auxiliary forces which were deployed in London to contribute to the defeat of the Irish uprising in 1919-1921. Along the same lines, one could also mention the German Freikorps (Free Corps), with whose assistance the social democratic government fought against the Spartacus uprising of 1919.

The spread of the guerrilla warfare in the 20th century (cf. Haffner 1966, Schmitt 1963) provided irregular or incomplete organizations which were operating regularly, but with affiliations to the state, with an increasingly central significance. Security experts highlighted the significance of such units early on. Robert W. Komer (1972), one of the masterminds behind the US warfare in Vietnam, explained the successful defeat of the communist uprising in Malaya by the British colonial powers in the 1950s as through the systematic deployment of paramilitary organizations, which he claimed conducted themselves more as police units than as army units towards the population, and which combined intelligence, political and psychological activities. Similar conclusions were also formulated by French militaries based on their experiences in Indochina and Algeria. Roger Trinquier, whose "La guerre moderne" (1961) is considered a fundamental text of modern counterinsurgency, developed the premise that the counterinsurgent state needed to learn to cross over from control over territories to control over the population. To do so, Trinquier and other young French officers fell back on domestic auxiliary troops, which were predominantly recruited from ethnic minorities. The colonial power France also did not shy away from using illegal means to finance these organizations. Thus, the French elite soldiers sponsored the opium trade of confederate paramilitaries (cf. McCoy 1991: 135-145) and embedded organized crime into state security and police strategies, which seems paradoxical.

Within the scope of counterinsurgency, paramilitary structures were founded in many instable states in the 1960s. In Colombia, for example, already in 1962 (before the foundation of the Guerrilla organizations FARC and ELN) a US military commission under the leadership of General William Yarborough recommended the preventative founding of such organizations (Human Rights Watch 1996) to its Colombian counterpart. This included a military organization of civilians who were to support the state security forces in the asymmetrical conflict with the Partisans. Since Guerillas move among the civilian population and can disappear into the crowd, in accordance with Mao's Maxims, the state authorities can rarely distinguish between insurgents and the civilian population. Through the inclusion of civilians on the side of the army, whether as informants or as auxiliary forces, it is attempted to breach this aspect of the asymmetry and to challenge the insurgents for control over the population.

The combat against the Partisans did not only lead to the foundation of irregular auxiliary forces, but also to an irregularization of the methods. In Trinquier's handbook (1961), the systematic implementation of torture is as such propagated. According to Trinquier, only by this measure is it possible to break through the anonymity of the Guerillas acting covertly. The use of such (always illegal) methods goes hand in hand with high political cost for the state waging war. Thus, extreme violence was increasingly outsourced from the state to parallel structures. The paramilitary secret warfare spread to broad parts of Latin America in the 1970s. In Argentina, the Triple A (Alianza Anticomunista Argentina) formed from military and police secret services began to abduct and torture insurgents or to cause them to disappear. In El Salvador in Central America, the death squads of the army became decisive instruments for the outcome of war in the defeat of the popular uprising in 1980-81. With these parallel structures, the authoritarian right copied irregular guerrilla warfare, albeit with the significant difference that the undercover anti-partisan war (in contrast to guerrilla warfare) was carried out with the backing and logistical support of the state authorities.

The outsourcing of executive disciplinary force from the state apparatus was continued during the 1980s. In various countries such as Turkey and Colombia the authoritarian right began to embed organized crime structures into state service strategies. In Turkey, the corresponding connections materialized between secret services, right-wing extremism and the drug trade during the Susurluk scandal of the 1990s (Rauchfuss 2003). The scandal brought to light the fact that an alliance of secret services, right-wing parties and drug-related crime were behind the paramilitary "village guard systems" which were established in Kurdistan to combat guerrillas.

A similar development took place in Colombia, where the combat with revolutionary movements in the 1980s and 1990s was taken over by paramilitaries more and more. The most important leaders of these groups, who joined forces in 1997 to become the "United Self-Defense Groups of Colombia" (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia), came from the drug cartels. Thus, by the end of the 1980s the Castaño brothers Fidel, Carlos and Vicente and the AUC-General inspector Diego Murillo were associated with the Medellin drug trade of the drug lord Pablo Escobar. The collapse of the AUC from 2005 also made clear that political motivations had never played a central role in Colombian paramilitarism. The phenomenon can be described much more plausibly as entrepreneurs of violence (cf. Duncán 2006). The paramilitaries rendered security services from their own economic drive for political and economic elites and state security forces: protection of capital investments, the "cleanup" of insurgent areas or political murder. In return, the army, police and judiciary backed the paramilitary power structures in their illegal activities (drug trading, land-grabbing, blackmail for protection money, etc.).

Paramilitary groups also play an important role in the US occupation wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In US military circles, the setup of (ethnically-mobilized) auxiliary forces to relieve the regular occupational forces in the past years was endorsed strongly (cf. Kilcullen 2006, Fourth Generation 2007). Critics have pointed out that the experience of the dirty war in Central America was obviously relied on (Maass 2005). The human rights organization Human Rights Watch (2011) has, in addition, claimed that paramilitary security strategies would have led to the establishment of local tyrannies in Afghanistan.

Paramilitarism is, as has been established, an obviously paradoxical phenomenon. A state or occupational power or, to be more precise, parts of the respective executives, turn to non-state resources to gain control over a crisis situation. The state power monopoly is undercut with the aim of consolidating the political and economical status quo. The restoration of order through irregular means, as can be shown by the example of Colombia, also shows traits of a covert coup, since the most authoritarian groups in the state are strengthened. As defiance of relationships of power also tends to lead to a stagnant situation, paramilitary strategies can only be transitional measures for state powers.

Raul Zelik

Please cite as:
Zelik, Raul. 2012. “Paramilitaries.” InterAmerican Wiki: Terms - Concepts - Critical Perspectives. www.uni-bielefeld.de/cias/wiki/p_Paramilitaries.html.


Bealey, Frank. 2003. Diccionario de ciencia Política, Madrid: Istmo.

Duncan, Gustavo. 2006. Los Señores de la Guerra. De Paramilitares, Mafiosos y Autodefensas en Colombia, Bogota: Planeta.

Fourth Generation Seminar. 2007. FMFM 1-A. Fourth Generation War (Draft). Online:http://www.d-n-i.net/fcs/pdf/fmfm_1-a.pdf; 17.11.2007.

Haffner, Sebastian. 1966. „Der neue Krieg“. In: Mao Tse-Tung: Theorie des Guerillakriegs. Hamburgo: Rororo.

Human Rights Watch. 1996. Las Redes de asesinos de Colombia. La asociación militar-paramilitares y Estados Unidos. Online: http://www.hrw.org/spanish/informes/1996/colombia2.html; 19.07.2009.

Human Rights Watch. 2011. “Just Don’t Call It a Militia” Impunity, Militias, and the “Afghan Local Police”, New York: Human Rights Watch. Online: http://www.hrw.org/sites/default/files/reports/afghanistan0911webwcover.pdf, 9.2.2012.

Kilcullen, David. 2006. „Twenty-Eight Articles: Fundamentals of Company-Level Counterinsurgency“. In: Small Wars Journal. Edition 1 / March 2006. Online: http://smallwarsjournal.com/documents/28articles.pdf; 16.07.2009.

Komer, R.W. 1972. The Malayan Emergency in Retrospect. Organization of a successful counterinsurgency Effort. Advanced Research Project Agency / Rand Corporation. Online: http://www.rand.org/pubs/reports/2005/R957.pdf; 22.07.2009.

Maass, Peter. 2005. „The Salvadorization of Iraq?” In: New York Time Magazine 1.05.2005, Online: http://www.petermaass.com/core.cfm?p=1&mag=123&magtype=1; 8.02.2008.

McCoy, Alfred. 1991 [1972]. The Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia. CIA complicity in the global drug trade, New York: Harper & Row, online: http://www.drugtext.org/library/books/McCoy/default.htm, 9.2.2012

Rauchfuss, Knut. 2003. "Der Susurluk-Komplex. Zusammenarbeit von Staat, Paramilitars und organisiertem Verbrechen in der Türkei", in: Azzellini, D. / Kanzleitner, B. (Ed.): Das Unternehmen Krieg, Berlin/Hamburg/Göttingen: Assoziation A.

Real Academia Española. 2006. Diccionario Esencial de la lengua española, Madrid: Real Academia Española.

Schmitt, Carl. 1963. Theorie des Partisanen. Berlin: Duncker & Humblot.

Trinquier, Roger. 1963 [1961]. Modern Warfare. A French View of Counterinsurgency. Online: http://www-cgsc.army.mil/carl/resources/csi/trinquier/trinquier.asp; 30.04.2009.

Zelik, Raul. 2009. Die kolumbianischen Paramilitärs. „Regieren ohne Staat?“ oder terroristische Formen der Inneren Sicherheit. Münster: Verlag Westfälisches Dampfboot.

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