Secret police forces have existed since time immemorial, from the Frumentarii of Ancient Rome to the mass digital surveillance of today. And while they’re more commonly associated with some of the most nefarious dictatorships on the planet, these unaccountable, state-funded heavies with a license to snoop have become increasingly and unnervingly banal—perhaps even cynically expected—all over the world.
More than a hundred secret police forces were set up in the last century alone—not least in the US and Europe—with many more following today. And with so many examples to choose from, here are ten of the absolute worst.
10. OVRA (1927-1945)
Largely dependent on civilian tip-offs, the Italian OVRA (Organization for Vigilance and Repression of Anti-Fascism) even had informants with informants of their own—including Bice Pupeschi (Informer Number 35) and her private network of almost 40 subordinate spies.
Between 1926 and 1943, 17,000 citizens—mostly anti-fascist thinkers and intellectuals—were confined to rural “surveillance enclaves” where their lives were tightly controlled. 160,000 others, including Jews, were subject to ammonizione (restrictions on their activities and movements). Some of those grassed up and arrested were guilty of nothing more than telling jokes about Mussolini.
OVRA was also notorious for enforcing a kind of sexual fascism, actively preventing abortions and demonizing homosexuality. The goal, apparently, was to strengthen the Italian “race.”
Throughout his time in power, though, Mussolini had a powerful rival: the Roman Catholic Church. Despite agreeing on a great many issues—including the “problem” of Jews (and also despite attempts to forge a Vatican-Fascist alliance)—there remained a mutual distrust between them. For this reason, OVRA set about gathering intelligence on senior Catholic pederasts, planning to blackmail them into submission.
Mussolini himself is said to have enjoyed reading reports on some of the saucier priests’ sex lives—including that of Pope Pius XI’s close personal friend Monsignor Camillo Caccia Dominioni, a cardinal who lured young boys to his apartment for sex.
9. COINTELPRO (1956-1971)
The aptly named COunter INTELligence PROgram was set up during the 1950s as the federal government’s response to beatniks, hippies, pacifists, and pretty much anyone else who questioned the status quo. As a secret branch of the FBI, the organization listed, surveilled, infiltrated, discredited, and disrupted various left-leaning individuals and political organizations—from Vietnam War protesters to civil rights activists (including feminists, African Americans, and even Native Americans).
But they were mostly interested in discrediting the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., whose increasing influence (and upcoming Nobel Peace Prize) had become infuriating to J. Edgar Hoover himself. As part of their campaign against him, COINTELPRO agents broke into and bugged Dr. King’s home, then sent him a letter (purportedly from a disillusioned admirer) decrying his alleged “adulterous acts” and “immoral conduct.” Evidence, in the form of a dubious audio recording, was enclosed and sent to his wife. The letter finished by appearing to call for his suicide, promising 34 days until “his filthy, abnormal fraudulent self [was to be] bared to the nation” and ending, ominously, with: “There is only one thing left for you to do. You know what it is.”
Right-wing groups like the Ku Klux Klan were also monitored, but were evidently deemed less of a threat. In fact, when an undercover COINTELPRO agent was involved in the KKK murder of civil rights activist Viola Liuzzo in 1965, the Klansmen were let off lightly amid vicious rumors that Liuzzo was a Communist who abandoned her children to have interracial sexual relations with radicals.
Indeed, the FBI is also known to have actually financed and armed certain right wing groups, including the Secret Army Organization, to carry out attacks on black rights activists, political protestors, and left-wing academics.
COINTELPRO officially came to an end in 1971 and Hoover’s successor, Clarence Kelley, kind of apologized for “some of [their] activities.” But, tellingly, he also had the gall to defend them, whitewashing the entire program as “good-faith efforts to prevent bloodshed and the wanton destruction of property” in “the violent 60s.“
8. The Mabahith (1924-present)
The longest-running secret police force on this list belongs to Saudi Arabia, a nation known for its bizarre commitment to tyranny. More formally known as al-Mabahit al-Ammah, or the General Investigation Directorate, the Mabahith are so paranoid about controlling the Saudi populace that even kids are detained without trial and subject to ongoing torture. At least 12 have been sentenced to death.
In September 2014, 13-year-old Murtaja Algariras became yet another shameful statistic, arrested for traveling to see his father in Bahrain without first notifying the state. The boy spent a month in solitary confinement and a total of two years and eight months in prison—all without formal charge or trial. During this time he was mercilessly beaten and tortured.
All of this was of course in direct contravention of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as well as the UN Human Rights Council—of which Saudi Arabia remains a curiously oblivious member.
Last year, aged just 16, Murtaja was moved to a notorious Mabahith-controlled prison, where further torture will likely secure the confessions needed to convict him and maybe even sentence him to death.
7. The Stasi (1950-1990)
The Stasi, or Staatssicherheit (state security) service, of East Germany had around 280,000 citizens on the payroll—which happens to be more employees than Starbucks pays worldwide. Officially, the agency employed just 90,000 people full-time, but a network of 189,000 inoffizielle Mitarbeiter (unofficial collaborators, or IMs), comprised the true “shield and sword” of the state. Actually, this army of civilian spies may have numbered as many as 500,000—or even 2 million if occasional informers are included.
To put this in perspective, the Gestapo during WWII had just 40,000 officials and the whole of Germany (80 million people) to keep an eye on, while the Stasi had at the very least four times that many agents and barely 17 million citizens to monitor. So, while under the Nazis there was a Gestapo officer for every 2,000 people, under the Stasi there may have been one informant for every 8.5 citizens—a spy at every dinner party, in other words, and certainly one for every building. Worse, the Stasi’s reign of terror lasted decades longer than the Gestapo’s.
The Stasi’s IMs (pejoratively nicknamed Spitzel) came from all walks of life and pervaded every facet of East German society. Colleagues informed on colleagues, teenagers spied on their classmates, and even children kept reports on their parents. In fact, it’s thought that up to 10,000 IMs—a sizeable chunk of the total—were under the age of 18.
Nobody was out of bounds; doctors, lawyers, teachers, journalists, and even clergymen and celebrities were signed up to spy for the state—often through bribery or blackmail. Confessionals were bugged, bathrooms were filmed, targets were stalked, and private records were ransacked.
The idea was to gather as much dirt as possible on pretty much every citizen—just on the off chance they might one day question the state. And if they did, the state was ready to hit back, implementing their infamous strategy of Zersetzung to “shut down” individuals and groups via tailor-made campaigns of sadistic psychological warfare. These might involve practically anything, from sowing discord among friends, to blackmail and bribery, to sneaking into apartments and rearranging the furniture. The Stasi were also known for tampering with alarm clocks, putting socks in the wrong drawers, slashing tyres, and ordering goods in the victim’s name—all calculated to wear their subjects down.
Such was the extent of the Stasi’s data collection that the agency left behind 111 kilometers of paperwork (measured spine to spine), more than 1.4 million photos and recordings, and 39 million index cards. According to the DDR Museum in Berlin, this is more documentation than was collected in the whole of Germany (not just the Eastern half) from the Middle Ages to Hitler’s defeat.
6. The 610 Office (1999-present)
The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) consolidates its ideological position on various contentious issues through what they call “central leading groups”—secretive think tanks headed by the Politburo Standing Committee. The most notorious of these in recent times has been the “Leading Group for Preventing and Handling the Problem of Heretical Organizations,” which seeks to monitor and suppress potentially dangerous religions (like, you know, Buddhism).
But when it was founded in 1999, the group was more specifically focused on crushing the Falun Gong movement, a spiritual discipline whose numbers had swelled to more than 100 million people. Falun Gong itself is a relatively benign qigong school that teaches zhen (truthfulness), shan (benevolence), and ren (forbearance); however, any organization with more members than the 88 million-strong CCP itself is naturally a threat to the government. Hence Falun Gong’s founder Li Hongzhi was officially branded as “evil” and his followers systematically terrorized.
The 610 Office (named for its creation on June 10, 1999) has been key to implementing this policy. Of course, there were plenty of other security agencies for the CCP to call upon, but Secretary General Jiang Zemin feared the widespread prevalence of Falun Gong, even within the Party, had compromised their impartiality. Being totally unaccountable and necessarily extralegal, the 610 Office, it was hoped, could rapidly deal with the problem, unhampered by obstacles like the law. Almost two decades later, however, they’re still at it.
Their methods are centered around the physical and psychological torture of Falun Gong practitioners, seeking to reeducate them if possible and exterminate them if not. Many, including 42-year-old fabric shop owner Ren Shujie, are plucked off the street and sent to work at forced labor camps—often to assemble products for export to the West, such as cuddly animals, cotton underwear, and wax candle tealights. In their time off, they’re beaten, drowned, deprived of sleep, and shocked with electric batons. Another victim, Gao Rongrong, was electrified so badly over the course of 7 hours that her face was severely burned. Desperate to escape, she leapt from a second floor window and broke several bones. However, she was continually monitored at the hospital and later abducted again, this time dying in custody.
Sadly, many journalists even outside of China are afraid to report on the issue, fearing that criticism of the government could limit their professional access or worse.
5. Tonton Macoute (1958-1986)
Under François “Papa Doc” Duvalier, and later his young son Jean-Claude (“Baby Doc”), Haiti was a nightmarish place to live. Between them, they oversaw the imprisonment and execution of tens of thousands of civilians—a fact that’s all the more appalling given that Papa Doc was a medical doctor.
Of course, they couldn’t have done it alone. Shortly after his rise to power, François Duvalier established the terrifying Tonton Macoute (or “Uncle Gunnysack”), a violent secret police force named after the child-eating Santa Claus of Haitian Creole folklore. The Duvaliers were also supported by the US government, which knowingly armed and trained the Tonton Macoute to enforce what they called “peace and stability,” albeit of the kind found in cemeteries.
Over the course of 27 years, the machete-wielding Tonton Macoute, in their distinctive straw hats and sunglasses, muted opposition by murdering people at random. The idea was to make ordinary Haitian civilians scared to death of their leader, who—having enshrined Vodou as a national religion—claimed to be Baron Samedi himself, the loa or spirit of the dead.
Victims were raped, cut open, or beaten to a bloody pulp in the street and then left there to rot as a warning to everyone else. More often, though, much like their folkloric namesake, the Tonton Macoute simply spirited people away in the night.
Some of the worst atrocities were committed at the capital’s Fort Dimanche, the “Auschwitz of Haiti,” under the sadistic watch of Madame Max Adolphe. As Papa Doc’s “right hand woman” and chief of the all-female branch of the Tonton Macoute, the Fillettes Laleau, Madame Max had a diabolical reputation to uphold. Among other barbaric acts, she is said to have inserted a live rat into a pregnant woman’s vagina.
Unusually, members of the Tonton Macoute were generally unpaid, but in exchange for their loyalty they could pretty much do as they wished. And, for many recruits, finally assuming the role of oppressor after years of being oppressed was enough of its own reward.
4. The Cheka (1917-1922)
Lenin’s Commissar for Internal Affairs, Felix Dzerzhinksy, knew exactly what he was doing when he set up the All-Russian Extraordinary Commission for Combating Counter-Revolution and Sabotage (VChK, or Cheka, for short). He knew it changed things; he knew a death squad in black leather trench coats went against the Soviet ideal of a police force with “clean hands, a cool head, and a warm heart.” But, as he put it in 1918, “terror is an absolute necessity during times of revolution.”
The Cheka (or Chekists, as they were called) were pioneers of secret policing, introducing the Gulag system of prison camps and a truly bewildering variety of tortures. As the enforcers of a burgeoning Bolshevik empire, Chekists were expected to do whatever was necessary to prevent its enemies from organizing, and by the end of the Russian Civil War (1918-1921) they had more than 200,000 members—and perhaps the same number of victims.
Methods, which varied from one Cheka police force to the next, included sawing through victims’ bones, crushing their skulls with a vice, pushing them into furnaces or scalding hot vats, and dousing them in water in the winter to form literal, living ice statues. In Kharkov, the Cheka preferred to use the “glove trick,” boiling victims’ hands in water and peeling back the skin, while in Voronezh they favored rolling people around in barrels studded with nails. Meanwhile, the Chekists of Kiev were known for placing a rat in a cage against victims’ bellies and gently applying heat, in turn forcing the rodent to chew through the body to survive.
In 1922, the Cheka was formally disbanded, having successfully handled the counter-revolutionary threat—as was planned from its inception. However, the secret police were not abolished entirely; their functions were simply transferred, under the same leadership, to the somewhat less repressive agency, the State Political Directorate, or GPU. And, just 12 years later, Joseph Stalin renamed it the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs (NKVD) and waged a new Great Terror of his own.
The genie was out of the bottle; the Cheka had laid a formidable blueprint and an all too convenient precedent for the many secret police forces to follow—not just the NKVD (1934-1943), but also the NKGB (1941 and 1943-1946), the MGB (1946-1954), the KGB (1954-1991), and even the FSB of today (1995-present).
3. The Santebal (1971-1979)
The terrifying efficiency of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge, which claimed some 2 million lives in Cambodia—more than 20% of the population—in just four devastating years, took more than revolutionary zeal.
The shadowy Santebal (Khmer for “keeper of the peace”) was indispensable to the regime, tasked with consolidating power, extracting false confessions, and exterminating civilians—all while keeping detailed, meticulous records. A digitized archive of more than 100,000 documents from just one prison camp (Tuol Sleng, or S-21) highlights the sheer bureaucratic burden of genocide, and these are just the papers that survived; most were summarily destroyed.
Tuol Sleng (“Hill of the Poisonous Trees”) was by far the most notorious of the Khmer Rouge’s death camps, holding up to 20,000 prisoners (1,500 at a time) between 1976 and 1978. Of these, only 7 were found alive by the liberating Vietnamese army in 1979, apparently having leveraged their skills for clemency—painting propaganda and torture scenes, for example, or repairing overused typewriters.
Otherwise, as many as 100 prisoners were killed each day, often starved, drowned, or skinned alive. Some had their organs removed without anaesthetic, while others had their blood intravenously drained to see how long they survived. Rape was also common (although technically against the rules) and babies were beaten to death.
The man in charge of all this was Kaing Guek Eav (aka “Comrade Duch”), a math teacher with monstrous attention to detail. It wasn’t until 2010 that he was formally charged for his war crimes and sentenced to life in prison.
2. The Kempeitai (1881-1945)
Nicknamed the “Japanese Gestapo,” the Kempeitai were so excessively ruthless, both inside and outside of Japan during WWII, that the Imperial Japanese Navy had its own military police force—the Tokkeitai—to protect itself from their agents. Having been cherry-picked for advanced training on the basis of superior intelligence, fitness, and political reliability, every member of the Kempeitai had extraordinary powers to arrest and indefinitely detain practically anyone they wished—including personnel of a higher rank than their own.
And, much like the samurai whose code they pretended to follow, the Kempeitai had no qualms whatsoever about working with the criminal underworld—so long as it furthered their aims of terrifying Japanese subjects and prisoners throughout East Asia into brutal and abject submission.
Anyone they took into custody was automatically presumed to be guilty and very often tortured to death. In Singapore alone, the Kempeitai are thought to have killed 20,000-50,000 “anti-Japanese operatives,” often for little more than having a tattoo or being able to speak English.
Extracting confessions from detainees was naturally a grisly business. According to survivors, the Kempeitai often pumped their victims full of water before jumping or standing on their stomachs. They also poked wooden skewers through their eardrums, dislocated limbs, burned sensitive body parts, staged executions, and threatened to kill their families.
As time went on they came to regard other races as somehow less than human and supplied a great many foreign prisoners, including women and children, to the notorious Unit 731—a human experimentation program that claimed tens of thousands of lives. They also thought nothing of wiping out villages abroad, including the Burmese community of Kalagon whose 600 inhabitants were all blindfolded, bayoneted, and disposed of in nearby wells.
1. The Gestapo (1933-1945)
Also known as Geheime Staatspolizei (or secret state police), the Gestapo needs no introduction. For their role in the Holocaust, they’re among the best known police forces on this list, eclipsing many others for their sheer efficiency and scope. Werner Best, the administrative chief of the Gestapo, described the organization as a kind of “doctor to the German national body,” tasked with locating “destructive germs” and “using all appropriate means to get rid of them.”
But, like any doctor, they were only ever seen by the “sick.” Despite rumors that agents were everywhere, there were so few in reality (at least compared to other secret police forces) that most ordinary Germans probably never met one.
As for who the “sick” were exactly, this tended to change over time. In the beginning, the Gestapo were mainly looking for political viruses—opposition party members, resistance movements, and the like—but they soon started rounding up “vermin”—the Jews, gypsies, Slavs, and homosexuals.
One of the Gestapo’s most notorious methods of “diagnosis” was to crush suspects’ testicles in a vice. And victims who confessed to the crimes they were accused of were sent to concentration camps to die.
The Gestapo’s efficiency and thoroughness in rooting out possible toxins, especially in newly conquered territories, owed much to the cooperation of others. Local police forces, postal workers, civil servants, railway security officers, intelligence agencies, and even civilian informers all had a role to play. In Vichy France in 1943, a whole new paramilitary organization, the Milice Française (French militia), was set up to aid the Gestapo in suppressing the French Resistance. One of the most notorious torture chambers, in fact, lay a short distance from the Eiffel Tower in Paris. Here, within soundproofed walls, victims were burned alive until only their handprints on the walls remained.
Yet throughout their reign of terror, Gestapo agents firmly believed in the work they were doing; they truly believed it was good—just as any “doctor” might. In fact, Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler, who helped set up the Gestapo, commended them on their ability to “cope” with the sight of so many corpses and still remain “decent” to the end.