And the Heat Goes On: Police Repression and the Modalities of Power

Among security institutions, police occupy a unique position. In addition to specializing in the repression of dissent, police monitor society and enforce order. Yet within research studying state repression, how police institutions are used and deployed to control domestic threats remain under-explored, particularly as it relates to the dual functionality just described. In this study, we develop and test an explanation of police repression accounting for the bifurcation of Mann’s two modalities of state power: infrastructural power and despotic power. We argue that local infrastructural power allocates police resources to surveil dissidents and preemptively limit dissent’s emergence or escalation. Police deploy despotic power through repressive responses to political threats. Empirically, we employ unique data to investigate police repression in Guatemala. To analyze how shifting the balance between infrastructural and despotic power affects the intensity of police repression, we isolate damage occurring from an earthquake that exogenously reshaped the landscape of infrastructural power. Where local infrastructure was most affected by the earthquake, the security apparatus lost the capacity to surveil nascent movements and predict their activity, thereby providing opportunity for dissidents to mobilize and forcing police to (over-)react. As the state’s infrastructural power declined, it began substituting severe reactive repression rather than shutdown resistance preemptively. These findings shed light on the complex role of police in containing domestic challenges. Tactical substitution and the severity of police repression are conditioned by the development of state infrastructure. Where infrastructural power is developed, it mitigates repression by enabling police to limit dissent without shifting to despotic acts.