Breaking State Impunity in Post-Authoritarian Regimes

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Trejo, Guillermo, Juan Albarracín, and Lucía Tiscornia. “Breaking State Impunity in Post-Authoritarian Regimes: Why Transitional Justice Processes Deter Criminal Violence in New Democracies.” Journal of Peace Research (2018).


This article claims that cross-national variation in criminal violence in new democracies is highly dependent on whether elites adopt transitional justice processes to address a repressive past. State specialists in violence who repress political dissidents under authoritarian rule often play a crucial role in the operation of criminal markets and in the production of criminal violence in democracy. Some of them defect from the state to become the armed branch of criminal organizations in their deadly fights against the state and rival groups; others remain but protect criminal organizations from positions of state power; and still others use state power to fight criminals through iron-fist policies. When post-authoritarian elites adopt transitional justice processes to expose, prosecute, and punish state specialists in violence for gross human rights violations committed during the authoritarian era, they redefine the rules of state coercion and deter members of the armed forces and the police from becoming leading actors in the production of criminal violence. Using a dataset of 76 countries that transitioned from authoritarian rule to democracy between 1974 and 2005, we show that the adoption of strong truth commissions is strongly associated with lower murder rates; we also find that the implementation of trials that result in guilty verdicts is associated with lower homicide rates only when the trials are jointly implemented with a strong truth commission. In contrast, amnesty laws appear to stimulate criminal violence. Our findings are particularly robust for Latin America and remain unchanged even after addressing selection effects via matching techniques.


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