The dark side of infrastructure

September 04, 2023 Transport

Can infrastructure be a tool for repression? Economists at the TSE Infrastructure & Network Center usually focus on its potential to improve lives, studying how to finance, share access and optimize systems around the world. But while new transport links are often a boost to economic development, roads and railways have also been used for social control and to enrich the governing elite. In a new study, Josepa Miquel-Florensa, Stéphane Straub and their coauthors Felipe Gonzalez (Queen Mary, University of London) and Mounu Prem (Einaudi Institute for Economics and Finance) examine how the expansion of Paraguay’s road network helped to ensnare the country in a cruel dictator’s web.

How did Alfredo Stroessner sustain South America’s longest dictatorship (1954-1989)?

The rule of General Alfredo Stroessner over Paraguay relied on a tripartite alliance between the government, the military, and the Associación Nacional Republicana, locally known as the Colorado party. Stroessner was at the helm of these three institutions, ensuring an extremely tight grip on every aspect of public life, centralizing control and distributing favors in the form of jobs, public contracts, or assets such as land.

Stroessner suspended constitutional and civil rights and relied on the military police to quash any attempt at resistance or sedition. Opponents were methodically spied on, detained, and tortured. An extensive network of whistle-blowers reported any dissent or suspicious behavior. From the 1970s, Paraguay coordinated its surveillance and repressive activities with neighboring military dictatorships as part of Operation Condor.

The Paraguayan strongman also launched ambitious infrastructure projects, both for economic reasons and to expand control of remote locations. In particular, the construction of paved roads was a prominent strategy to colonize the east of the country.

How much evidence is available about the regime’s brutality?

Most of what we know comes from the 1992 discovery of the “terror archives”: more than 300,000 documents retrieved from various police institutions. These data are of unique quality across Latin American countries and paint a gruesome picture of state repression. Using a combination of evidence from the archive and testimonies from victims and their relatives, the country’s Truth and Justice Commission established lists of hundreds of victimizers and close to 10,000 people who were tortured, killed, disappeared, or detained during Stroessner’s rule. Meanwhile, tens of thousands went into exile.

The Commission also analyzed exhaustive data on land allocation and concluded that during this period the military benefited from preferential allocation of plots, misappropriating more than 19% of Paraguayan territory. Supporters of the regime were also favored through the regular allocation of procurement contracts. 
We digitized the individual data on human rights abuses and illegal allocation of plots, structuring them into a panel of 248 districts observed annually during the dictatorship. We also combined the names of beneficiaries of illegal plots with a list of high-ranking military and congresspeople to measure political and military connections to the dictatorship.

What are your key findings from analysis of these data?

We find that Stroessner’s road network facilitated state repression, including detention and torture. We establish that dividing the distance of districts to paved roads by a factor of two, which is approximately the reduction experienced by the average district over a 30-year period, led to a 20% increase in state repression. Importantly, the results are robust to a wide range of exercises, including controlling for the distance to other hallmark infrastructure projects during this period, namely the Itaipú and Yacyretá dams. Overall, this finding can be explained by an increase in massive events of repression which take place closer than 20km from newly constructed roads.

We also show that the regime illegally allocated land on a massive scale, and that this disproportionately favored individuals connected to the regime, especially members of the military. They received on average 35% more plots and these were 33% larger than those allocated to other individuals. We also find that plots located close to the road network and in districts that produce cotton, an important agricultural staple in Paraguay, were more likely to be allocated to the military.

What’s the next step for your research team?

Our results suggest that infrastructure projects can hinder economic development. They also raise questions, which we are currently investigating, about the long-run consequences of violence, social exclusion, and asset misallocation on the economy and democratic interactions.



The Dark Side of Infrastructure: Roads, Repression, and Land in Authoritarian Paraguay’ and other research by Stéphane and Josepa is available to read on the TSE website. For related work on how road construction won political support for the Nazis, see ‘Highway to Hitler’ (Voigtländer and Voth, 2022).

Article published in TSE Reflect, September 2023