Sat | Jan 19, 2019

Peter Espeut | Licensed to kill

Published:Friday | April 13, 2018 | 12:00 AM

All the stories featuring the fictional British spy James Bond were written here in Jamaica. His creator - who was a real British spy, Ian Fleming - had a holiday home on the north coast. His spymaster, Sir William Stephenson (code name: Intrepid), who was head of British intelligence for the Western Hemisphere during World War II, lived near Montego Bay. The full story of espionage activities in Jamaica during and after World War II has yet to be written.

According to Fleming, the 'double O' code name for James Bond meant that he had a 'licence to kill'. The implication is that regular run-of-the-mill British spies did not have such licence; only special agents were trained assassins. All this, of course, is supposed to be pure fiction.

But do civilised countries employ assassins and death squads as agents of the State?

Officially, no. The days of absolute monarchs declaring "off with his head" are supposed to be over. In a modern civilised country, the ability of the State to take life is restricted to the death penalty when pronounced by a duly constituted court of law. Indeed, most modern, civilised countries have abolished the death penalty.

But all this secret agent business is not official government activity. The question remains: do modern, civilised countries have assassins or death squads that operate as agents of the State, executing murder (extrajudicial killings) as unofficial government policy.

Globally, this sort of thing is accepted as fact by the media. Recently, Russian agents have been accused of poisoning a former Russian spy and his daughter. Stories of plots to assassinate former Cuban President Fidel Castro abound, and have not been denied.

In South America, government death squads have been found to have operated in Brazil in the 1960s, and in Argentina and Chile in the 1970s; they appeared in Central America during the 1980s; during the Salvadorean civil war, death squads achieved notoriety on March 24, 1980, when a sniper assassinated Archbishop Oscar Romero as he celebrated Mass inside a convent chapel.

In December 1980, three American nuns, Maryknoll Sisters Ita Ford, MM, and Maura Clarke, MM, and Ursuline Sister Dorothy Kazel, OSU, and a lay worker, Jean Donovan, were murdered by a military unit later found to have been acting on specific orders. Death squads have been found to have been trained and funded by certain foreign governments in whose interests they also operate.

How would one know if a death squad were operating in a country? Would a high rate of police killings be a strong indication? Would the fact of domestic military operations in which large numbers of civilians were killed be an indication? What about an operation in which more than a dozen military bullets were pumped into the back of a civilian who could have been taken alive? Would a claim of mistaken identity suggest that the goal was definitely to kill somebody?

In any civilised country, the proven existence of death squads would cause the sort of public scandal that could end political careers. Governments will be prepared to do anything to prevent such knowledge from being exposed. The 'Mission: Impossible' approach is not an option when the operation is not covert. Soldiers or policemen caught in the act will have to have their legal bills taken care of, or must be granted immunity from prosecution.

It is unthinkable that the island that gave birth to James Bond should ever give a licence to kill to agents of the State. Thank God we have no death squads here!

- Peter Espeut is a sociologist and a development scientist. Email feedback to