There have been many brutal regimes in history that have employed a secret police service to carry out everything from intelligence activities against its citizens, to terror and mass executions. Though there have been more than ten brutal secret police forces throughout history, the ten on this list are a cross section that highlight different types of political climates, eras and methods, and though the majority are modern, all ultimately carry out a brutal agenda of terror and violence against its citizens. From the very well known and notorious, to others that may be new to the reader, here are ten of the most vicious, terrifying secret police forces in (mostly) modern history.
The Stasi was communist East Germany’s Cold War secret police force. Founded in 1950, the Stasi took many of its cues from the Soviet Union’s KGB, and truth be told during the entire Cold War the KGB and Stasi’s alliances were so close that they shared offices in both Germany and Russia, and had political privileges in each country. The Stasi was fundamentally an intelligence agency, and it is estimated that there was one Stasi informant per 160 East German citizens. With such numbers, every aspect of East German life was infiltrated; schools, hospitals and industrial plants all maintained informants, as did every apartment building in East Germany. While the Stasi engaged in arrest and torture through the 1950s and 1960s, by the early 70s the secret police began a far more subversive campaign of psychological torture, disrupting a suspected dissident's personal life via a smear campaign, breaking into one’s home to reorganize objects and making threatening phone calls, among other less obvious, but continuous provocations. Some victims of Stasi psychological harassment had mental breakdowns, or even committed suicide. After 40 years, the Stasi disbanded with the fall of East Germany.
The Central Office of Banditry Repression, or OCRB was a secret police force formed in the Central African Republic that was formed in the early to 1990s. The group was tasked with rooting out looters and bandits in the country following a series of mutinies and widespread chaos in the country. The OCRB became a widely feared secret police and intelligence agency that showed little impunity when it came to those suspected of banditry, and soon the OCRB was essentially deciding at will, without trial, who would be tortured or executed of suspected crimes, guilty or not. Based on a similar French agency, which the African OCRB often worked with, many crimes by the police force itself have gone unpunished, and a particularly effective method of torture, Le Café, where one is beaten with a baton and then forced to walk an excruciating distance, became commonplace in interrogations of suspected bandits.
8 Bureau for the Repression of Communist Activities
Batista’s brutal anti communist apparatus in pre-communist Cuba, the Bureau for the Repression of Communist Activities, or BRAC was run by Mariano Faget, a man previously responsible for the discovery and repression of communists, fascists and even Nazi elements in Cuba. Aided in part by the CIA, the BRAC was most notably utilized during the 26 of July Movement which brought Fidel Castro and his revolutionaries to Cuba. The BRAC was disbanded after Batista fled to Spain in 1959 as communist forces moved into Havana.
7 Milice de Volontaires de la Sécurité Nationale
So widely feared that the Haitian population referred to its members as a mythological creature, the Tonton Macoute, a sort of ghoul who kidnaps misbehaving children and eats them for breakfast, Haitian dictator François 'Papa Doc' Duvalier’s secret police force, founded in 1959, the MVSN were highly feared, and extremely brutal. Created as a paramilitary force that answered only to Duvalier, the MVSN was implemented to remove any perceived threats to the President’s power, of which there were many. The MVSN were responsible for systematic rape, torture, disappearances and executions in Haiti during Duvalier and his son’s reign of power. The intimidation became so extreme that the MVSN, who were rightly known as the Tonton Macoutes, began burning people alive, or stoning them to death. Often, many corpses were displayed in public as a warning to Haitians and as a display of Duvalier’s power. It is estimated that over 60,000 Haitians were killed by the MVSN during both Duvalier and his son's reign.
The SAVAK was the Shah of Iran’s secret police force from 1957 until the Iranian Revolution in 1979. Trained in part by the CIA, SAVAK was an extremely repressive police force in a society that dealt with dissidents swiftly. Known to torture its victims with methods including electric shock, removal of teeth and finger nails, as well as boiling water treatment, SAVAK spent the majority of its resources weeding out and torturing either the Shia or communist opponents to the Shah’s rule. While executions were not as widespread as other secret police forces, torture was a matter of course, with many political prisoners left in solitary confinement for lengthy periods of time, deprived of sleep and burned, either by cigarette, grills or even acid. After the revolution in Iran in 1979, SAVAK was nominally disbanded, and a new Iranian secret police force, SAVAMA, as largely feared as its predecessor, took over. While SAVAMA was a new police force in name, many historians argue that SAVAMA was merely an extension of its predecessor, maintaining the same methods as before.
One of the largest secret police forces behind the Iron Curtain during the Cold War, the Romanian Securitate was founded in 1948, with help from the Soviet Union. One of the most brutal secret police forces as well, the Securitate was responsible for monitoring and spying on Romanian citizens, as well as their arrests, tortures and executions. With nearly a half a million informants alone working for the Securitate, every facet of Romanian life was under surveillance, and even the most banal of criticism towards the regime could be met with severe punishment. With one out of every 43 Romanians on the Securitate’s payroll, it was nearly impossible for those opposed to the regime to organize in any meaningful numbers. The Securitate was also responsible for brutally crushing the dissident movements that attempted to gain footing in Romania starting in the later 1960s under totalitarian ruler Nicolae Ceausescu. Following Ceausescu’s removal from power in 1989, the Securitate survived two more years, until it was disbanded and reorganized by Romanian Parliament.
The Cambodian Santebal started out as a secret police force under the Khmer Rouge regime and ultimately ended up morphing into essentially an extermination squad. Ordered to maintain the peace and security within Cambodia, all the while administering the prison camps the Khmer Rouge became notorious for, Santebal was responsible for untold thousands of executions at the roughly 150 prison camps across the country. The most notorious of the camps, Tuol Sleng, is said to have held up to 20,000 prisoners between 1976 and 1978; only seven of those prisoners are known to have survived the camp. Furthermore, Santebal was a major instrument of the Cambodian genocide committed by the Khmer Rouge. In less than 11 years, the Khmer Rouge and its secret police murdered nearly two million people.
The dreaded Oprichniki, Tsar Ivan the Terrible’s secret police force tasked to govern the Oprichnina territory of Russia and enforce the Tsar’s policy of brutal suppression of enemies of the state, were active for a mere seven years, between 1565 and 1572, but their actions remain infamous. Dressed eerily similar to monks and adorned with an emblem consisting of a severed dog's head and a broom, the Oprichniki led brutal campaigns of terror against potential rebellions, either real or imagined, that the Tsar wished to quell. Their executions were summary and swift, and most often evidence was sparring at best. The Oprichniki’s methods of torture and execution ranged from impalement, boiling victims alive, roasting them over an open flame and even drawing and quartering them. The most notable action of the Oprichniki, was the massacre at Novgorod where 1,500 nobles and anywhere from three to 30,000 thousand others were executed, reducing Novgorod to a shell of a city. By 1572, fearing that the power of the Oprichniki had reached heights the Tsar could no longer control, Ivan forced the group to disband, making it a crime to even utter their name.
Though Russia and the Soviet Union have had numerous brutal secret police forces, notably the Cheka and the KGB, the NKVD is most notorious as it was the secret police force in the Soviet Union for the majority of Joseph Stalin’s reign. The NKVD had important roles in the implementation and execution of the Gulags, as well as during the Second World War. During the time of the NKVD, nearly ten million prisoners died in the Gulags, while millions more languished for years in the forced labour camps. Beyond the Gulags, the NKVD was instrumental in Stalin’s genocide in the Ukraine where millions perished due to hunger, and the Great Purge of the communist party and the Red Army between 1934 and 1940. During the purge, anyone suspected of being an enemy of the state or of Stalin’s was arrested, tortured and either sent to the Gulags or executed. The NKVD was responsible for the detention of nearly two million people between 1937 and 1938 alone; of those detained almost 700,000 were executed, a rate of roughly 1,000 per day. Following the purge, when war broke out, the NKVD was equally ruthless, committing war crimes, such as the Katyn Massacre, as well. Following Stalin’s death in 1953, the NKVD’s atrocities were halted by Nikita Khrushchev, with many living victims absolved of their crimes.
Not surprisingly, the Gestapo is number one of this list. Second only to Stalin’s secret police force, Hitler’s Gestapo terrorized Nazi Germany for 13 years, acting as the main tool of oppressing dissent against the Nazi regime, as the primary force that initially terrorized and rounded up the Jews and later a leading player in the Holocaust. As the Nazi party apparatus expanded, the control of the Gestapo shifted, ultimately landing under Heinrich Himmler’s control during World War Two. As such, the role of the Gestapo changed as well, from merely secret police force tasked with intelligence and oppression of enemies of the Nazis within Germany, to those in the occupied territories as well. The Gestapo in a sense became somewhat of a paramilitary force as well during the war. Alongside the SS, the Gestapo, under Himmler, played a major role in carrying out the Final Solution, from the liquidation of the Ghettos to transportation of prisoners to the concentration camps. After Germany’s defeat, the subsequent Nuremberg Trials declared the Gestapo a criminal organization and many of its members were executed for war crimes.