Martha K. Huggins notes in the introduction to this volume of 13 essays that extralegal violence has persisted and even increased despite the transition from dictatorship to democracy in several Latin American countries in the 1980s. The motivations and objectives underlying the recourse to vigilantism and the relationship between the state and those who promote extralegal forms of violence constitute the anthology’s central points of inquiry. The stated purpose of these essays is to prompt further research and comparative studies of the topic.
The book is divided into four parts, each of which examines a specific form of extralegal violence. Part 1 focuses on lynching, citizen-led violence, and justicieros (“justice makers”); part 2 details the characteristics and operation of paramilitary and parapolice death squads; part 3 looks at the discourse about violence; and part 4 examines police violence. The contents focus on vigilantism in Argentina, Colombia, Guatemala, Peru, and Venezuela, but nearly a quarter of the essays are about Brazil.
Three contributions stand out. One is Darius Rejali’s examination of how media and state conceptualizations of violence are used to manipulate and mold citizens’ fears, which ultimately strengthen and rationalize state terror. Another is Huggins’ own comparison of U.S.-supported police training in Latin America and the use of extralegal violence. The third is Paulo Sergio Pinheiro’s examination of the correlation between police killings of civilians and the incidence of political crisis in Brazil between 1968 and 1982. These writers cogently argue that whatever the overt justification for Latin American vigilantism—the existence of an internal enemy, the dissolute propensities of the lower classes, or the need to protect private property and average citizens from criminal activity—the essential purpose of extralegal violence is social control.
Though provocative, the volume suffers from a number of flaws. Several essays are outdated, brief, and mainly descriptive. Although “the state” is alluded to in all the essays, the composition and workings of that entity are never satisfactorily defined. Moreover, two assumptions, though unsubstantiated, are repeatedly taken for granted. The first: that a monolithic state defended citizens’ civil rights and interests against arbitrary measures in the past, but ceded its monopoly on violence to competing extra-official individuals or groups under the combined onslaught of debt and economic malaise. The second: that a direct correlation can be drawn between peripheral “dependency and the emergence or presence of extralegal violence. Neither of these assumptions is particularly convincing. The volume does provide a good introduction to the issue of vigilantism, even as it makes clear the danger of devising static taxonomies to explain the volume and complexity of extralegal violence and its motivations. Those interested in charting the intersection of development, violence, and politics in contemporary Latin America would find several of these essays instructive.