Latin American Studies South American Dirty Wars
James Brennan
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 June 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 June 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766581-0266


The so-called South American “dirty wars” refer to clandestine practices of state terror undertaken in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s by military governments in Brazil and the Southern Cone. Not all forms of state-directed violence and human rights abuses, widespread in Latin America in these years, fit into the dirty war category. Counter-insurgency tactics employed in countries with sustained rural insurgencies such as Colombia and Peru, though often guilty of practices such as those employed in clandestine state terror, also had a military logic rather than the largely political one of counter-revolutionary state terror. Indeed, none of the South American countries under military rule and subject to the state terror of the “dirty wars” had rural insurgencies of any significance. In the vast majority, the victims of the state terror were not combatants in any military sense but political activists, trade union leaders, intellectuals, students, and others who cannot by any reasonable standard have been regarded as military adversaries. The very term “dirty war” is controversial in this sense. It is an appropriation of the French concept of the salle guerre coined in Algeria, but unlike the anticolonial uprising in North Africa, employed by the South American dictatorships absent any credible military threat, to justify their crimes against humanity as mere acts of war. Rather than divide the South American dirty wars by country, the focus of this annotated bibliography is thematic and offers a review of the literature not just on the state terror but also its causes and aftermath.

The Cold War

The South American dirty wars occurred in the midst of the global Cold War and were at least in part a product of it. Military regimes invoked the very term “war” in the context of a bipolar world, claiming to defend Western values against communist “subversion.” Early scholarship stressed US intervention in pursuing Cold War strategies in the region but more recent work has considered the multiple global players involved and especially the internal dynamics, the determinative ones, in Latin America’s Cold War history. Historical scholarship on the Cold War in Latin America is deep and broad, covering the entire region. There are listed here general studies and those confined to the South American countries where state terror tactics were employed. The role of the United States in training and indoctrination is examined in Aldrighi 2007, Leacock 2011, and Rabe 2016. More global perspectives, focusing less on the US role and with special attention to revolutionary Cuba’s influence, are offered by Brands 2010, Brown 2017, Harmer 2011, Field 2020, Joignant 2013, Pérez Haristoy 2019, and Riquelme Segovia and Harmer 2014. New histories such as Bawden 2016 stress the predominant domestic influences on institutions such as the military while the effects of the Cold War on local communities and at the regional level are examined in Joseph and Spenser 2008.

  • Aldrighi, Clara. La intervención de Estados Unidos en Uruguay (1965—1973): El caso Mitrione. Montevideo, Uruguay: Editorial Trilce, 2007.

    The Cold War story of an American, Dan Mitrione, who worked for the Office of Public Safety, a US government agency charged with training Latin American police forces. Stationed in Uruguay, he instructed on interrogation and torture techniques and was kidnapped and executed by the Tupamaro urban guerrilla organization in 1970.

  • Bawden, John. The Pinochet Generation: The Chilean Military in the Twentieth Century. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2016.

    A study of the Chilean military (all three branches) that provides both a broad narrative and an analysis of its motivations for overthrowing the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende rooted in long institutional histories.

  • Brands, Hal. Latin America’s Cold War. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010.

    A revisionist history of the Cold War with special attention to the internal dynamics driving anti-communism and human rights abuses in the region.

  • Brown, Jonathan C. Cuba’s Revolutionary World. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2017.

    DOI: 10.4159/9780674978355

    A “capacious history of the Cuban Revolution,” a study of socialist reforms on the island and Fidel Castro’s attempts to export revolution throughout the hemisphere.

  • Digital National Security Archive.

    The most important online source for US Cold War history, in Latin America and elsewhere, this digital collection contains over 100,000 declassified documents from multiple public sources. The largest repository of documents independent of the federal government, the collection is particularly strong on US policies in Latin America.

  • Field, Thomas C., Jr., Stella Krepp, and Vanni Pettinà, eds. Latin America and the Global Cold War. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2020.

    A signal contribution to the new Cold War history, decentering the story from the bipolar dynamic of US–Latin American relations to consider Latin America’s relations with the rest of the Third World, Soviet–Latin American relations, the Non-Aligned Movement, among other subjects.

  • Harmer, Tanya. Allende’s Chile and the Inter-American Cold War. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011.

    DOI: 10.5149/9780807869246_harmer

    A new history of the deeply studied period of Salvador Allende’s Unidad Popular government in Chile. Focuses on inter-American relations beyond the United States–Chile confrontation and considers the role of Cuba and Brazil’s military government in the complex dynamic of Chile’s experiment with revolution in democracy.

  • Joignant, Alfredo, and Patricio Navia, eds. Ecos mundiales del golpe de estado: Escritos sobre el 11 de septiembre de 1973. Santiago, Chile: Ediciones Universidad Diego Portales, 2013.

    The global impact of the 11 September 1973 coup that overthrew the government of Salvador Allende, a key moment in the global Cold War and the history of the postwar international left.

  • Joseph, Gil, and Daniela Spenser, eds. In from the Cold: Latin America’s New Encounter with the Cold War. Durham, NC, and London: Duke University Press, 2008.

    A Cold War history that focuses less on international relations and transnational influences and more on the domestic processes and the grassroots, community, and regional dynamics of the global superpower confrontation.

  • Leacock, Ruth. Requiem for a Revolution: The United States and Brazil, 1961—1969. Kent, OH, and London: Kent State University Press, 2011

    A study of Cold War Brazil and the tense relations between the United States and Brazil during the early 1960s, culminating in US support for the 1964 coup and the military government which followed.

  • Pérez Haristoy, Ricardo. Chile en los archivos del Ministerio de Relaciones Exteriores de Cuba (1960–1974). Santiago, Chile: Centro de Investigaciones Diego Barros Arana, 2019.

    A documentary source of diplomatic correspondence between the two countries whose socialist governments would play a prominent role in the global Cold War.

  • Rabe, Stephen. The Killing Zone: The United States Wages the Cold War in Latin America. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016.

    A general study of US involvement in Latin America during the Cold War, a strong indictment of US complicity in military coups, dictatorship, and human rights abuses.

  • Riquelme Segovia, Alfredo, and Tanya Harmer, eds. Chile y la guerra fría global. Santiago, Chile: RIL Editores - Instituto de Historia, Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile, 2014.

    Places Chile’s experiment with socialism under democracy within the context of the global Cold War. Salvador Allende’s Unidad Popular government is a key chapter in the bipolar confrontation.

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