In the special units of armed forces of a considerable number of countries, secret police and security forces which act outside ordinary legal procedures exist under the supervision of the authorities or with their approval or connivance. In a number of situations, paramilitary groups of civilians, police and armed forces personnel, sometimes called 'death squads', have operated in a similar manner. High-level involvement is not uncommon, though such practitioners of torture and murder may be recruited from all sectors of society. In some countries, there may be prestigious or financial rewards.
These special units or forces have carried out arrests and detention, and in many cases have killed suspects without any of the legal formalities required by law and without reference to the judiciary. Their activities in most cases have been kept secret and outside the control of the judiciary. Information on arrests or detention is not communicated even to the families of the arrested or detained. Motives may be political, economic, or criminal. Since this method of repression requires speed and discretion, the chances are that identity errors and false accusations increase the numbers of innocent victims.
Vigilantes may act individually or in an organized group to suppress and punish crime without adhering to the established processes of law. They can be normally law-abiding citizens who feel that legal recourse is inadequate or non-existent, or they may be fanatics seeking an excuse to take the law into their own hands.
Paramilitary gangs have long been well recognized in Latin America as a deadly means of political repression. In Argentina there were 15,000 assassinations in the 18 months following President Peron's death in 1974; and from 1976 to 1981 between 7,000 and 10,000 people were declared dead or 'disappeared'. Death squads in Guatemala are believed to comprise in many cases police or military, and have escalated sharply in activity since 1989 under President Cerezo. Witnesses describe heavily armed men in plainclothes using vehicles with darkened windows and no licence plates. In El Salvador, ORDEN and paramilitary forces have been used to implement agrarian reform and have served as a radical means to settle land disputes. Both left wing and right wing death squads are increasing murdering political foes. In Columbia vigilantes have used by right wing groups in conjunction with drug cartel members to attack left wing political groups, peasants, union leaders, journalists and lawyers who oppose drug barons or promote human rights, and rival gangs.
In the Philippines, 'salvaging' operations were directed primarily against opponents of the government of President Marcos, their best-known victim being the opposition leader Benigno S Aquino Jr. From 1973 to 1983, 1,166 people were killed, half of them after martial law was lifted in 1981; over 300 political offenders are listed as missing. Since Mrs. Aquino has come to power there has been an increase of anti-communist groups. In Indonesia, 'petrus' or 'mysterious killers' have been described as 'guardian angels' because of their mopping-up operations against suspected or known criminals; there were up to 4,000 victims in 1983. In the late 1980s, Sri Lanka had a proliferation of vigilante groups in the south, widely believed to enjoy the protection of highly placed military officials, and which were said to be responsible for numerous human right abuses. Lawyers and students had been particular targets.
In Bulgaria several hundred Turks, protesting against the government's policy of obliterating the minority's ethnic and cultural identity, were killed in 1984. In former Soviet bloc countries there has been an increase in the number of reports of unexplained deaths among national-rights advocates, religious dissidents, and leaders of independent trade unions and other organizations with a potential for broad support. In Iran the Bassiji militia, fearless fighters during the war with Iraq, go around in 1993 in armed groups fighting cultural corruption (western style behaviour).
In the United States members of the militia movement perceive the new millennium with a political overtone rather than a religious one. It is their belief that the United Nations has created a secret plan, known as the New World Order (NWO), to conquer the world beginning in 2000. The NWO will be set in motion by the Y2K computer crisis.