In reading Dictators and Dictatorship: Understanding Authoritarian Regimes and Their Leaders, I came across this paragraph :

the Cold War period was particularly amenable to military dictatorship “because there was sharper ideological polarization between left and right that interacted with poverty and economic instability to generate propitious structural conditions for the armed forces to intervene.

Economic inequality also helps to explain the prevalence of military dictatorships in Latin America. At the time of the Cold War, economic polarization persisted throughout much of Latin America, with high levels of social and economic inequality common to many countries in the region.

Under such circumstances, strong militaries were important in defending the interests of the elite and thwarting societal unrest.

I thought it strange that the military instead of the police forces are bought up. Isn't the military specialised to defend against another military, with their long-range rifles, tanks and bomb shelters, and not specialised to defend against something like unarmed civilians? It seems as incongruous as hiring architects who design skyscrapers to design houses.


3 Answers 3



On an international level the military doesn't even need to go to war to justify its existence. It suffices to deter other countries from engaging in certain actions.
The same holds true for its application inside the nation itself. The military doesn't even have to do anything. Just having armed soldiers and armored vehicles in the streets is sufficient to create a massive repressive effect for the purpose of controlling a population.
Soldiers are normally more heavily armed than the police, appear significantly more threatening and are trained to shoot to kill. If you thought about demonstrating in the streets, the prospect of dealing with soldiers is far more scary than dealing with riot police.

To answer your question directly: The fact that the military isn't trained to do police work is exactly the reason for it's strong repressive effect. The police is trained to avoid killing people, soldiers are trained for the opposite, and the people know that.

For dictatorships its especially tempting to use the military, first because they are usually not above actually having soldiers shoot at their own populace, second because the military and not the police in most cases is the power base of the dictatorship.

Finally there can be thrown in an economic reason as well: A standing military has huge fixed costs that are independent of it doing anything. Soldiers need to be paid and equipped regardless of whether they are at war or not. Using them for something productive that frees up resources elsewhere has a certain economic justification albeit a rather cynical one.


What is in a name?

Some countries have gendarmerie, militarized police, in addition to the military and police. This could be under the police or the military. And in some countries, what is nominally the military is really some sort of gendarmerie.

The militaries in various Latin American states of that era were not very well suited to expeditionary deployments and set piece battles in the traditional military pattern. They were suitable for counterinsurgency. (This is a sweeping generalization, of course, but how many deployable armored divisions with main battle tanks and self-propelled artillery did we see in the area?)

Also, a proper police is trained to solve crimes, while the military is trained to fight enemies. They produce order without law.

  • (-1) This answer entirely fails to address the specific historical context mentioned in the question. Incidentally, what's a “proper” police? Few if any police forces are solely focused on investigating crime (that's kind of true of the German LKA/BKA but only because there are much larger police forces next to them).
    – Relaxed
    Jun 5, 2020 at 8:14
  • Without law? There is lawful and unlawful use of force. Aug 30, 2020 at 13:18

It all depends on type of the threat and political system

Regular police is good against perpetrators who do hide themselves. For example, someone commits a murder. Usually, perpetrator would try to hide his tracks and will try to avoid police. Police investigators would focus more on detective work, and less on physically overpowering him. Of course, sometimes this could be expected in final phase, but usually suspect is outnumbered and outgunned without need for heavier weapons. Regular police is also good enough against smaller organized crime, one that would avoid shootouts with police, and rely instead on legal tricks, bribes etc ...

Paramilitaries are suited for perpetrators who do their deeds openly . Think National Guard, Russian Internal Troops, certain parts of French Gendarmerie (GIGN which could be deployed even abroad) etc ... In this case, perpetrators could be rioters, guerillas, even Mexican Narco cartels. Usual pattern of their behavior would be to attack openly, and then slip into hiding. Regular police is too lightly armed to deal with them, so heavier weapons must be brought to bear. At the same time, these paramilitaries do deal with civilians, so this is not strictly military operation. They need to recognize ans separate peaceful citizens who happen to live in affected area, from sympathizers and helpers of insurgents. This is actually hardest part of the job, where many counter-insurgencies fail .

Finally, military goes against heavily armed recognizable opponent. Traditionally, militaries go against other militaries . Tanks, artillery, aircraft, ships etc ... This is understandable, if your opponent has aircraft, you would need either aircraft or your own, or SAMs . In either case, operators would need to be trained and they are no longer policemen or paramilitaries, they are military specialists. On the other hand, military dealing with a village full of insurgents could be counter-productive. Their first instinct would be to soften defenses using air strikes or artillery fire, and that would cause civilian casualties which may do political damage.

Now, if we consider unpopular dictatorships, biggest problem for them could be popular insurrection. Dictatorships usually last when great powers support them (think Saudi Arabia, or Iraq until they invaded Kuwait) . Regular military could be a nice shiny toy to frighten neighbors (if you have the money for such toy), but it also could be used in a coup. What is needed is a loyalist militia that could be used both against insurgents and potential plotters in military, heavily armed with infantry weapons and maybe some artillery, armor and helicopters. Anything above that would be overkill, you would need technical specialists focusing more on their job then loyalty to the regime. Of course, regular police would be somewhere on sidelines, battling usual everyday crimes with outdated techniques.


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