Why Underachievers Dominate Secret Police Organizations: Evidence from Autocratic Argentina

The forthcoming article “Why Underachievers Dominate Secret Police Organizations: Evidence from Autocratic Argentina” (https://doi.org/10.1111/ajps.12475) by Adam Scharpf  and Christian Gläßel is summarized by the author(s) below.

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Who serves in secret police forces? Throughout history, units such as Hitler’s Gestapo, Stalin’s NKVD, or Assad’s Air Force Intelligence Directorate have been at the core of state repression. Secret police agents surveil, torture, and even kill potential enemies within the elite and society at large. Why would anyone do such dirty work for the regime? Are these people sadistic psychopaths, sectarian fanatics, or forced by the regime to terrorize the population? While this may be the case for some individuals, we believe that the typical profile of secret police agents is shaped by the logic of bureaucratic careers.

We develop a theory of careers within the regular security apparatus to understand which individuals have an incentive to join the secret police. Historically, many secret police forces have recruited personnel from the regime’s larger security apparatus—including the military, gendarmeries, the police, and conventional intelligence agencies. The hierarchic and pyramid-shaped structure of these organizations generates organizational bottlenecks. In competition with better qualified peers, officials with weak early performances have little chances of climbing up to the most lucrative positions at the top. For such underachievers the arduous nature of secret police work offers the opportunity to signal their value to the regime and get ahead of competitors for higher positions. We therefore expect that officials, threatened by grim career prospects, are willing to do the regime’s dirty work and become committed secret police agents in the hope that this will provide them with a competitive advantage in the struggle for promotions.

To test our theory, we dissect the clandestine organ of repression at the center of a dictatorship and scrutinize the individual agents who serve in it. Despite the importance and long-lasting consequences of secret police forces for political regimes and domestic societies, the systematic study of such organizations has been hampered by sparse and unreliable information. We draw on the case of autocratic Argentina (1975-83) and its Intelligence Battalion 601—one of the most notorious secret police units in the Western Hemisphere. Combining information from various archival sources, we collect and analyze original micro-level data on the profiles of more than 4,000 military officers who constituted the entire recruitment pool for the Argentine secret police.

We show that those officers who underperformed early on in their careers were indeed more likely to serve in the secret police. Our results also demonstrate why this was the case. Low performers at the academy were less likely to attain advanced training, stuck at middling ranks, and faced a much higher risk of discharge. The resulting career pressure produced the incentive for underachievers to join the secret police. In addition, we find that the Argentine regime willingly exploited these career concerns and placed the most pressured agents in the most repressive unit within the secret police. Finally, we show that secret police service indeed paid off. Agents attained higher ranks and stayed longer in the security apparatus. These career boosting effects were most pronounced for agents with the lowest early career performance.

Taken together, our study identifies mundane but universal career concerns as the prime motivation to engage in arduous secret police work. This has important implications. Career pressures serve as the lubricant of repressive machines in autocracies. Leaders can exploit these incentives to maximize bureaucratic compliance. Institutionalized, meritocratic bureaucracies therefore do not contradict autocratic longevity. Likewise, governments can accomplish swift autocratic turns without major bureaucratic resistance. Officials facing career pressures are likely to serve as willing executioners, while their well-placed peers remain silent bystanders. Finally, our study also points to potential problems with international sanctions and transitional justice. Looming risks of discharge or incarceration are unlikely to deter the least competent agents with the lowest career prospects. To the contrary, external threats of legal punishment might even strengthen the dominance of underachievers with doubtful consequences for the production of violence.

About the Author(s): Adam Scharpf  is Postdoctoral Research Fellow, GIGA German Institute of Global and Area Studies and Christian Gläßel is PhD Candidate, Department of Political Science, and Researcher, Collaborative Research Center, University of Mannheim. Their research “Why Underachievers Dominate Secret Police Organizations: Evidence from Autocratic Argentina” (https://doi.org/10.1111/ajps.12475) is now available in Early View and will appear in a forthcoming issue of the American Journal of Political Science.

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The American Journal of Political Science (AJPS) is the flagship journal of the Midwest Political Science Association and is published by Wiley.