By Simón Sedillo
There seems to be a tremendous amount of confusion about the meaning of these four concepts, and more importantly about the significance of these four actions. It is critically important to establish informed parameters through which we as a people can distinguish, analyze, and organize around what is, and what is not paramilitarism, disappearance, fascism, and civil war.
One could certainly argue that the militarized police is a form of paramilitarism, however within a global context it is sad to say that the militarized police or the actual military carrying out of police duties has pretty much become the norm. There is nothing new about militarized police forces, not just around the world but throughout the U.S.A. However paramilitarism as experienced throughout the world has specific functions, strategies, roots and intentions.
One of the core functions of paramilitarism is to carry out “deniable atrocities”; that is to say the primary purpose of paramilitarism is to carry out atrocities against a civilian population in such a way that governments, police, or the military can deny involvement and/or responsibility for atrocities carried out by the paramilitary group in question.
Paramilitaries are armed unofficial entities who receive training, financing, and support or simply receive impunity from official entities in order to facilitate the use of violence to carry out social, political or economic objectives against a target civilian population that is considered a disposable variable in the equation.
This is NOT what is happening in Portland. The atrocities being carried out by the federal police forces that we are seeing in Portland and are about to see across the nation under Trump’s orders, are by no means deniable. These atrocities are attributed to a specific group of official police forces functioning under the direct orders and supervision of the federal government. There is no plausible deniability about any of the activities they are carrying out.
Another key function of paramilitaries would be to carry out extrajudicial executions. That is to say, executions carried out with absolutely no judicial process. Assassinations and massacres are signifiers of paramilitarism and there is an entire era of Latin American history dedicated to paramilitarism, massacres, extrajudicial executions, torture and actual disappearances of political dissidents. This era is known as the “Dirty War Era”. Now it is important to note that during the dirty war era it was not only paramilitary forces carrying out massacres, extrajudicial executions, torture and actual disappearances, it was also in fact the police and the military carrying out these atrocities.
Augusto Pinochet’s military and DINA secret police kidnapped, tortured, raped, disappeared, assassinated and massacred political dissidents on an official bases with the knowledge of the U.S. government and U.S. corporate interests in Chile.
General Efraín Ríos Montt in Guatemala used his military to massacre thousands of political dissidents during the dirty war era in that country.
The Atlacatl Battalion of the El Salvadorian military extrajudicially assassinated four U.S. nuns, an archbishop, 6 priests, and thousands of political dissidents.
The list throughout Latin America goes on and on, but it is important to note that Pinochet’s DINA, Efraín Ríos Montt himself, and the commanding officers of the Atlacatl Battalion all received training at the then U.S. Army School of Americas or SOA. These stories are the Latin American roots of the U.S. outsourcing of state sponsored terror.
Today the SOA continues to train Latin American military officers but has attempted to hide its brutal and criminal history by changing its name to the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation and is currently housed at Fort Benning in Columbus, Georgia.
The U.S. military has carried out undeniable atrocities on U.S. soil by carrying out the torture, kidnapping, rape, murder, massacring, and genocide of the original native peoples of the territory. Somehow this egregious fact and foundation of the U.S.A is consistently ignored and omitted from any sort of official history.
The U.S. military is currently carrying out undeniable atrocities around the world not in the name of freedom, but rather obviously in the name of political and economic interests for global domination and natural resource extraction.
Within the U.S.A, the U.S. government carries out extrajudicial executions on an official and undeniable basis through the disproportionate use of lethal force against unarmed black people, non-black people of color, and native people. These executions are ongoing and are precisely what this movement to abolish the police in the U.S.A is all about.
Paramilitarism is a completely different phenomenon. Armed white nationalist militias making blatant shows of armed force across U.S. streets. That is paramilitarism. The Chicago and Cicero police enticing Latino gangs to use violence against black protestors. That is paramilitarism. The 26 people murdered by armed civilian vigilantes in Oaxaca, Mexico in 2006 during a six-month popular uprising. That is paramilitarism. It is important to call it what it is, because when it does happen, it is important to be able to distinguish, analyze, and organize in order to resist it.
One of the undeniable atrocities carried out by these unofficial paramilitaries and official government forces during the dirty war era was the very specific and disgraceful strategy of systematically disappearing political dissidents. Political dissidents would be apprehended without any sort of judicial process, only to never be seen again.
Some of the disappeared ended up in secret prisons or concentration camps (sometimes for years on end) with absolutely no paperwork, no tracking system, no access to attorneys, and absolutely no way of being found by family members or comrades. Thousands of others were permanently disappeared, with absolutely no trace of them, or their bodies ever again. So when we talk about disappearances, by no means are they temporary. Disappearances are permanent, and definitely not for 24-48 hours.
Disappearances are acts of terror not intended for the disappeared. Disappearances are acts of terror intended for those left behind. Disappearances are intended to terrorize entire communities, if not entire countries, into submission and into silence. Disappearances are about controlling entire populations with fear.
Though the temporary “disappearance” of protestors in Portland can be terrifying and in fact terrorizing to average everyday folks specifically from that community and to activists and organizers across the country, by no means are these disappearances permanent and therefore cannot be classified as disappearances at all.
You have to stop calling these detentions disappearances, so that when actual disappearances begin to happen, no one can accuse us of crying wolf.
Natives in the USA represent 1.3 percent of the US population, yet in 2019 according to statista.com there were 10,447 missing natives representing 1.82% of the total missing population. Black people represent 13.4 percent of the US population yet in 2019 there were 205,802 missing members of their community in the USA representing 35% of the total missing population. Non Hispanic whites represent 63.4 percent of the population and they had 359,768 missing people in 2019 representing 62.45% of the total missing population.
According to the Montgomery Advertiser on December 18, 2019, of the estimated 613,000 people reported missing in the U.S… about 60% were people of color, with 64,000 missing black women and girls.
According to a 2019 report by Urban Indian Health Institute there were 5712 missing and murdered indigenous women in the U.S.A while only 116 were logged in the Department of Justice’s database.
The disproportionality of these actual disappearances of U.S. citizens is staggering. When it comes to the Hispanic or native Latino population and the Hawaiian or Pacific Islander communities, the numbers are inconclusive because of a general lack of tracking by any official entity.
Right now thousands of children detained because their families were apprehended for simply being undocumented are being shifted around from black site to black site in such a way that they are quickly becoming untraceable, this situation has led to actual disappearances and has a high potentiality for many more actual disappearances.
A Look to the South. For a contemporary perspective when it comes to militarism, paramilitarism, extrajudicial executions, and disappearance it is indispensable to turn to Mexico, the U.S.A’s closest neighbor to the south for some of the most atrocious numbers in recent world history.
Let’s start with the Mexican Army. According to a NYT article dated May, 26, 2016, while military forces under combat operations around the world have an average kill rate of one person killed per every four injured, the Mexican Army kills eight people for every one injured, and the Mexican Navy kills 30 people for every one injured. The vast majority of these executions are in fact extra judicial, and are very rarely if ever investigated.
The Mexican military is only used for internal defense, and not used to protect the nation from any sort of foreign aggressor or invasion. Since the ’50s the Mexican military has consistently been targeting the civilian population, first under the guise of anti-communist interventions, then through supposed anti-terrorist efforts, and now most recently within the so-called war on drugs.
On May 11th, 2020, Mexico’s President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, or AMLO, gave the Mexican armed forces permanent public security duties granted until 2024. As president, he also created a new military police force known as the National Guard. The commanding officer of the National Guard, General Luis Rodríguez Bucio is a graduate of the U.S. Army School of the Americas.
In the last 10 years, Mexico has seen over 200,000 murders which equates to one murder every 23 minutes, though the majority of the murders are discarded as drug war casualties with less that 5% ever being investigated. One has a 95% chance of getting away with murder in Mexico. Although the drug cartels are indeed the primary culprit of the murders, it is becoming painfully clear that they are functioning as de-facto if not intentional paramilitary forces for the social, political and economic control of the Mexican population in order to secure political and economic interests for transnational resource extraction, labor exploitation, and indigenous land expropriations.
While neoliberalism throughout Latin America has been functioning through a military-political economic model, neoliberalism in Mexico has become a narco-paramilitary political economy.
Officially Mexico has reported 73,201 missing people from 1964 -2020, over 40,000 of those since 2006 alone. The number is certainly higher due to under reporting, the lack of reporting of disappearances of undocumented immigrants from Central and South America, and the state sponsored manipulation of statistics. Even so, these official statistics indicate that roughly seven people disappear every day in Mexico.
Countries like Honduras and El Salvador in Central America are dwarfing the murder and disappearance statistics in Mexico at alarming rates. This is why U.S. foreign policy and immigration policy for citizens from these countries to the U.S. is only adding insult to atrocity after atrocity.
The terrorizing effect of separating children from families who are detained for crossing into the U.S. without proper documentation, the prolonged detention of these children as young as 4 months old, and the incarceration and criminalization of families fleeing state sponsored violence propagated primarily by U.S. foreign and military policy, are just a few of these undeniable atrocities.
For decades, people from the undocumented population, members of the black and non-black people of color population, and natives have consistently faced arbitrary detentions by militarized local, state, and federal police forces in both marked and unmarked vehicles and in uniforms or street clothes, across the U.S.A.
Be it the militarized Border Patrol across the Mexico/U.S. border; ICE raids across the country; DTs in the South Bronx; Jump out Boys in Philly, Oakland or Detroit; or cops in cahoots with organized crime in Chicago, what is happening in Portland pales in comparison to this daily reality for these non-white communities across the U.S.A.
The further deployment of militarized police forced to urban centers across the country will disproportionately affect black, non-black POC, and native communities in these cities.
Though all of this information can help gain a greatly needed critical perspective on militarism, paramilitarism, disappearances, detentions, and extrajudicial executions, there is no doubt about the fact that the U.S.A is descending into a spiral of fascism.
While Trump is by no means the first and only fascist U.S. president, as erroneously claimed by presidential candidate Joe Biden, what Trump has done and is doing is extremely alarming, dangerous, and highly unprecedented. The entire planet is watching in utter disbelief.
Yes, the invasion of U.S. cities by unidentifiable militarized federal police forces in the midst of a presidential election year in order to squash First Amendment rights to freedom of speech and freedom of the press is psychotic, sociopathic, and absolutely terrifying.
Yes, the use of Nazi symbols, coded messaging, white nationalist fanfare, and clearly fascist messaging in Trump´s campaign materials, rallies, and tweets is absolutely chilling.
Yes, the increased activity of armed, white nationalist paramilitary groups across the country with absolute impunity, which is tail-spinning the nation into unchartered fascist territory, is hideous, and it only seems to get worse every single time the president opens his mouth.
Trump declaring on national TV that he may consider not leaving office if not elected, or even suspending the presidential election altogether, is abominable.
Yes, the fact that the FBI has identified trends in white nationalism across U.S. local, state, and federal police and the military is awe-striking.
However, the fact that the U.S.A has been teaching and exporting paramilitarism, forced disappearances, and fascism for decades must no longer be ignored.
The fact that the U.S.A was founded upon the theft of native land and as well as the kidnapping, enslavement, rape, torture, murder and genocide of black people and native people must no longer be forgotten either.
And the fact that modern U.S. police forces have roots in this theft, kidnapping, enslavement, rape, torture, murder and genocide is why we are where we are today.
According to Wikipedia “a civil war, is a war between organized groups within the same state or country. The aim of one side may be to take control of the country or a region, to achieve independence for a region or to change government policies.” Now that is a very broad definition, but for the purposes of this discussion it is a good starting point.
Also according to Wikipedia,
“James Fearon, a scholar of civil wars at Stanford University, defines a civil war as ‘a violent conflict within a country fought by organized groups that aim to take power at the center or in a region, or to change government policies.’ The intensity at which a civil disturbance becomes a civil war is contested by academics. Some political scientists define a civil war as having more than 1,000 casualties, while others further specify that at least 100 must come from each side.”
The International Committee of the Red Cross has a much more detailed and specific list of criteria for civil wars.
All that said, the U.S.A. has been in a constant state of war against the original native people of this land. One could reasonably argue that the U.S.A. has also been in a constant state of civil war and that for the black community, and non-black people of color there has been a perpetual sense of civil war throughout U.S. history, which predates the recognized U.S. Civil war and continues to this very day.
The political assassinations of Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Fred Hampton, just to mention a few black leaders, as well as those of John F. Kennedy, and Robert F. Kennedy and the ensuing civil unrest, could very well be interpreted as additional signifiers of this continued civil war.
The transition from slavery to the prison industrial complex has proven to be a continuation of slavery and is systematically devastating to the black community.
Certainly historians will mark May 26th, 2020, the start of the Minneapolis uprising for George Floyd as a turning point in U.S. history, in which organized groups of people began to fight for a radical change in government policies. As we work our way backwards however, we have so many important dates to include, such as the May 28, 2020 In Louisville, Kentucky for Breonna Taylor, and April 25, 2015 in Baltimore, Maryland for Freddie Gray, and August 9, 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri for Michael Brown, and January 8, 2009 in Oakland, California for Oscar Grant, and April 29, 1992 in Los Angeles, California for Rodney King, and so forth and so on and so many more in between.
For natives, the black community, and non-black people of color, war and civil war has been an absolute constant.
Though this country is clearly at war with itself, and what has been going on in Portland in particular is quite spectacular and unprecedented to that community and communities of similar demographics, we have to take into account the fact that all of this has already been happening long before Trump and has been affecting members of our black, native, and non-black people of color communities that have been resisting in absolute obscurity and oblivion.
It is highly important to point out that the Department of Homeland Security, DHS, is not Trump´s police. It was created by George W. Bush on September 22, 2001. It is also important to point out that the so called “mission creep” by the Customs and Border Protection agency, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency and the U.S. Marshals did not start with Donald Trump either. Bush and Obama played significant roles in expanding the responsibilities, roles, and authority of each one of these agencies.
Whether civil war has been ongoing, or whether we are on the brink of a brand new civil war is certainly up for debate and an extremely important conversation to be having, but the signifiers of a civil war such as paramilitarism, disappearance, and fascism must be monitored, tabulated, and recognized on a constant basis in order to more effectively resist them at their root.
All that said, welcome to the rest of the world, Portland. You are welcome here, and we are very proud of you for stepping up to the plate. And please, please do not stop fighting. But also please do not conflate your experience with the reality that so many others have already been resisting, fighting, and surviving for a very, very long time.
Simón Sedillo has been teaching geopolitics and political economy in the U.S. and Mexico for the last 15 years. Simón has a growing archive of workshops, lectures, articles, and documentary films about the effects of and community based resistance to neoliberalism, militarism, paramilitarism and white supremacy.
This post is also available in: Spanish