How Dictators Staff Their Secret Police: The Case of Argentina's Battalion 601
Who serves in a dictatorship's secret police? Recent research has studied the decisions of dictators to oppress their citizens. However, autocrats usually rely on specialized intelligence units and secret police forces to target political enemies and revolutionary opposition groups. We only know little about how these repressive agencies work internally. To fill this gap, we study the recruitment patterns of a secret police force. We argue that dictators seek to maximize compliance within their key repressive agency in order to stay in power. To this end, dictators place underprivileged and inexperienced but high-aspiring officers in their secret police. Such officers are likely to zealously execute repressive orders to demonstrate their loyalty in the hope of furthering their career prospects. We test this argument using a micro-quantitative analysis of Argentina's Dirty War (1975-1981). We draw on the case of the Battalion 601, the notorious intelligence unit of the Argentina Army, which was responsible for the death of thousands of individuals during the junta's war on communist subversion. Original archive-based data on more than 4,000 officers allows us to systematically study the biographic and professional differences between those who entered Battalion 601 and officers that were employed in other parts of the Argentine Army. The empirical results demonstrate that officers of the Battalion 601 were significantly younger, originated from significantly poorer provinces, and consistently underperformed at the officer academy. The findings offer further insights into the inner workings of repressive state bureaucracies and have implications for our understanding of (post-)conflict processes and regime stability.