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Paul Sant Cassia

As a type of predatory, acquisitive, and violent action by groups of men (sometimes including women), banditry has a long history dating from ancient Greece, Rome, and China. In central and eastern Europe and in the Balkans, it was found in the countryside, in specific conditions (such as following wars and massive dislocations) and in specific periods, especially in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when the modern nation-state was emerging. In Latin America it was part and parcel of an expanding frontier economy. Banditry tended to emerge in remote, difficult-to-control mountainous areas containing large numbers of semimobile and state-resistant pastoralists. Although there are examples of lone bandits, bandits tended to form into fluid bands, sometimes of up to twenty persons. Kinship, real or fictive, was an important component of their organization, and solidarity was reinforced through the institutions of blood brotherhood and adoption, as well as through feasting and other rituals. Banditry can be seen as a continuum from the camel raiding Bedouin, through the "noble bandits" of the nineteenth-century Greek Klephts, to contemporary armed autonomist groups (such as Chiapas in Mexico or Kurds in Turkey or Chechen fighters against Russian intervention in Chechnya) labeled as "bandits" by the state.

In Europe banditry assumed its most important forms in rural societies, particularly in Mediterranean regions and particularly as property relations changed in the eighteenth to nineteenth centuries. The following analysis focuses on this important category, where among other things causation has been carefully studied. But more informal kinds of banditry occurred in other settings. After wars, for example in the eighteenth century, veterans often roamed the country in predatory groups that some peasants regarded as bandits or brigands. Fears of banditry of this sort surfaced in 1789, during the French Revolution, and helped trigger rural risings. While banditry as an outcome of social instability has declined in most of Europe, thanks to firmer policing and changes in military recruitment and policies toward veterans, echoes persist, for example in the formation of criminal groups in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989.


More than most other social phenomena, the characterization of banditry depends upon how it is approached. Banditry can be seen as a legal category, a social category, and as a series of powerful stories and myths. Its meaning has changed across time and across disciplines. As a legal category, banditry is a pernicious form of crime that subverts the state's monopoly of legitimate violence. From the perspective of the modern nation-state, bandits (or brigands, a term more popular in the nineteenth century) are criminals who resist the civilizing power of the state through violence, brutality, extortion, theft, and protection rackets. Bandits are seen as beyond the pale of "civilized society," a symptom of the low level of development of the countryside, a problem impeding progress and thus meriting swift, equally brutal, suppression by the army or police, without much regard to the constitutional human rights the modern state claims to protect. Most of the historical sources on bandits are the words of army or police officers charged with ridding the countryside of such "sores" or "plagues" and are thus highly partial. From the perspective of the "bandit" himself, the situation may look different. To him, an escape to the mountains may be the only way of avoiding an unjust state summons or pursuing a private revenge. Other sources, such as ballads, popular accounts, and oral history—often bypassed by traditional historians engaged in depicting the history of the nation-state as the progress of civilization over barbarism—concentrated on bandits' roles as popular heroes.

Two pioneer historians who emphasized the social aspects of banditry were Franco Molfese and Eric Hobsbawm. In his celebrated book, Bandits (1969), Hobsbawm interpreted them as prepolitical rebels. Social bandits were considered by their people as heroes, champions, and fighters for justice in a world that often denied them justice. Hobsbawm distinguished bandits from gangs drawn from the professional underworld and from communities for whom raiding was a normal way of life (such as the Bedouins). According to Hobsbawm, bandits were symptoms of major transformations in society, but they did not themselves transform it; they were activists, not ideologues, and after World War II they disappeared. Bandits were recruited from the most mobile segments of peasant society: young unmarried men, landless laborers, migrants, shepherds, ex-soldiers, and deserters. They took to the hills to right some personal wrong, becoming the noble robber. Although they were supported by the local community whose yearnings for a prepolitical just world they embodied, they were usually betrayed.

Hobsbawm's thesis has been criticized by Anton Blok and other anthropologists. Blok argued that there is more to brigandage than voicing popular unrest. By applying Norbert Elias's notion of power configurations to his historical anthropological research on Sicily, he suggested that Hobsbawm overemphasized class conflict and romanticized bandits. Rather than being champions of the poor, bandits often terrorized and oppressed them. Bandits prevented and suppressed peasant mobility by putting down collective peasant action through terror and by carving out avenues of individual social mobility that weakened collective action. Blok asserted that analysis must encompass the wider society within which bandits operated. Bandits required protection in order to survive; otherwise they were quickly killed by the landlords' retainers, the police, or the peasants. In Sicily, such support was forthcoming from mafiosi (local men of authority who often engaged in illegal activities and protection rackets) or local politicians. Blok formulated the "principle" that the more successful a bandit, the greater the protection he enjoyed.


Where banditry has persisted, it can clearly be linked to the inability of the state to control the countryside. Although it would be simplistic to attribute the decline of banditry in the modern world to the state's increasing monopoly of violence, this is certainly important. Indeed, when used by state authorities, the pejorative "bandits" labels forms of violent resistance they cannot control except by equally brutal repression. The persistence or decline of banditry depends upon a complex interplay of variables, including the social structure and political ecology of a particular region; the nature and distribution of property and capital accumulation (whether landed or movable and precarious, such as livestock) and the means available to legitimate it; the presence or absence of trust and its relationship to the development of civil society; underdeveloped electoral processes, which may encourage strong-arm tactics; and the predominance of permanent insecurity rather than permanent misery at the grass roots, the former being more conducive to banditry. The political ideology of local elites and their relationship to the state is also important because bandits may either be co-opted by local elites as a means to resist the state (as occurred in Sicily in the immediate post–World War II period) or, reluctantly, by the state, as in nineteenth-century Greece, where they were used for irredentist adventures and to threaten the supporters of rival politicians. The state's policies toward landlordism, peasant cultivators, and pastoralists may also be a significant variable because they may favor one over the other, with radical implications for illegal practices. In certain situations peasants may have preferred the traditional depredations of pastoral bandits to the more extensive, sustained ones of the state, such as taxes, and in other situations the depredations of the potentates' henchmen may have been protected by powerful national interests.

In many societies, such as in southern Spain, Sicily, Greece, and the Balkans, banditry had a predominantly agro-pastoral base. In Sicily and Greece violent entrepreneurs from pastoral backgrounds managed to create new niches for themselves in the nation-state, especially when the new regime attempted to penetrate the countryside. In Sicily mafiosi were actively involved in the risorgimento (the nineteenth-century movement for Italian unification), backing the adherents of Giuseppe Garibaldi and managing to wrest effective control of landed estates from the absentee Sicilian aristocracy. They thus shifted their wealth into land, their pastoral backgrounds proving particularly useful both in co-opting bandits and in suppressing peasant unrest. In Greece banditry was intimately grounded in pastoralism and even had a seasonal cycle based on movements from the plains to the mountains. The age-old conflict between pastoralists and agriculturalists obliged the former to intimidate peasants, especially in the new Greek state, which radically reduced the amount of land available for pasturage and tried to encourage the expansion of the small peasant cultivator class. War increased dislocation and unrest in the countryside, further encouraging banditry.

For an analysis of banditry, it may be useful to steer a middle course, borrowing from the various perspectives that treat bandits as primitive social rebels (as Hobsbawm does), as individual opportunists, or as the co-opted henchmen of rural potentates (as Blok does). Often all these features coexist in particular examples of banditry, although one may be more dominant than the others.

Banditry in Europe traditionally appeared in areas where large-scale landholding coexisted with a relatively permanent intermediate strata of leaseholders or freeholders based upon family-sized plots, such as in Sicily, parts of Greece, and Cyprus. Sustained banditry required concealable, transportable wealth (cash, cash crops, animals, alcohol, narcotics) that left few traces. In the nineteenth-century Mediterranean, banditry was particularly strong where pastoralists occupied an intermediate position between small-scale cultivators and large-scale proprietors, as in northern Greece, or where overseers and sharecroppers occupied that position, as in rural Sicily, but also where pastoralism was prominent in its own right, as in Sardinia and Corsica.

There were basic differences between banditry in predominantly agricultural areas and in mountainous pastoral areas. In the latter, banditry appears to have been more resilient, especially where a combination of external factors militated against turning pastoralists into peasants. Banditry in agricultural contexts was usually more controllable and could be tamed more easily, especially when violent men from humble origins acquired secure property rights (usually through co-option or protection by elites) and thereby achieved legitimacy.

Banditry tended to appear less frequently in areas with large masses of rural proletarians, such as Puglia in southern Italy. In Puglia few legal or illegal opportunities were available for social mobility, and the social relations of production encouraged the emergence of collective solidarity and of anarchosyndicalism (a doctrine advocating that workers seize control of the economy and government). Much the same appears to have happened in Andalusia, where absentee landlords were separated from a mass of largely landless laborers and where rural discontent increasingly took class forms.

A final important variable is the process of mythicizing at the local and national levels. In the Mediterranean and elsewhere the circulation of popular accounts of bandits was particularly significant, sometimes interacting in complex ways with the creation of the nation-state's history. Bandits were portrayed in texts as outsiders and hence dangerous, as residues from the past and hence ambiguous, or as insiders and hence admirable. They might move from the outside to the inside or vice versa. These portrayals affected how bandits were perceived and legitimated, even allowing them to legitimate themselves. In nineteenth-century Greece, ex-Klephts such as Theodoros Kolokotrónis used their memoirs to glorify themselves. Many bandit chiefs published pamphlets in their own defense claiming that, like all good Greeks, they were fighting the Turks, the Muslim outsiders who were the true brigands attempting to discredit the country. In the late nineteenth century Corsican bandits liked to present themselves as "Robin Hood" figures.

In reality bandits changed sides according to self-interest. Such definitions and redefinitions have created a vocabulary of justification, traces of which remained even at the end of the twentieth century. In Crete, for example, extensive livestock theft was legitimated orally by reference to highly selective, nationalist accounts of the "freedom-loving" Klephts of old mentioned in in schoolbooks. In Andalusia local communists turned nineteenth-century bandits into protorebels in the regional cause, symbols in their devolutionist struggles with Madrid. Stories about bandits are therefore an intrinsic part of the phenomenon.


Throughout the Mediterranean, at least as far back as the eighteenth century, banditry has often been incorporated in nationalist and regional rhetoric. Brigantaggio politico had already emerged as a central feature of Corsican independence strategies against Genoa under Giacinto Paoli and Gian-Pietro Gaffori in the mid-eighteenth century. Political banditry often required outside support to be successful. This was the case in Corsica, southern Italy (Calabria), and Sicily in the early nineteenth century, when the British supported their "chivalrous brigand-allies" against the French. In postindependence Greece Klephtic heroes figured prominently in nationalist rhetoric. In Sicily the bandit Salvatore Giuliano's ambiguous notoriety in the post-1945 period, created partly through extensive press coverage, derived from his expression of regional Sicilian aspirations, despite the fact that he also massacred peasants. Like the contemporary "Bandit Queen" in India, Guiliano became the subject of novels and films.

The packaging of the myth of banditry in nationalist political rhetoric cannot be disregarded as unrelated to historical and anthropological analysis. Bandits were often romanticized after the fact by way of rhetoric and texts that circulated with a life of their own, giving the bandits a permanence and potency that transcended their localized domain and transitory nature. The ways in which bandits were portrayed in the modern nation-state and the ways such symbols were used to legitimate contemporary struggles are as significant as what the bandits actually did and represented. That is, it is an incontrovertible fact that bandits often terrorized peasants who appear to have voluntarily supported them; yet this fact does not exhaust or even address the issue of why and how banditry emerged, how it was sustained, or how bandit myths achieved such potency at both the local and national levels.


Traditional banditry has often been accompanied by extreme violence in both its expression and its repression. In banditry, as in feuding, from which it in part derives, personalized violence is crucial and finely graded; the intensity of violence, however distasteful to a modern sensibility, suggests a form of control. Violence is targeted specifically against persons and properties (usually animals) of persons, and displayed through stories. It functions as a warning and a deterrence against further acts of violence.

Terror and violence often had a personal element. Many bandits in Corsica, Sicily, Cypress, and elsewhere embarked on their careers through personal vendettas. A nineteenth-century observer noted that for the Corsicans the vendetta was a kind of religion. But betrayal to agents of the state was always a grave danger, unless the individual was protected by powerful interests. In Corsica, for example, many bandits were obliged to rely on the support of family and kin and thus soon found themselves further enmeshed in family feuds. They used their prepotency and violence to protect their kins' interests and thus ensure the support of family against betrayal to the state. The more protected an individual was, especially by powerful patrons, as in Sicily, the less he needed to use violence for the meanings it could convey and the more opportunities he had to employ ambiguity and courtesy—a point noted by many outside observers, although such courtesy must surely have been ironic. The more marginalized a bandit was, the more dependent he was on protection, the greater the risk of betrayal, and thus the greater the tendency for violence to appear "gratuitous"—that is, to signify itself.

As the genesis of banditry was personal, so too was its prosecution. In their typical form, most stories about bandits can be reduced to the following pattern: The triggering incident is a slight to personal or family honor by another family or individual of equal or superior status. A member of the slighted family, usually a young man, responds with violence, thereby breaking state law, and flees. Revenge in kind is threatened by the family who made the initial slight. The slighted family causes the death of the original offender. As both families resort to banditry, deeming their acts of illegal violence morally just, they become marginalized. The state attempts to capture the offenders and, if it is successful, executes them. Alternatively, the offenders are betrayed by other families, also resulting in their deaths.

A central way to express violence and damage one's opponent's interests was through the mutilation of both individuals and animals. As an exchange between individuals, banditry thus employed a specific set of finely graded messages involving violence to the body and property of the victim. Property, as a stand-in for its owner, was subjected to an excess of violence, such as the disembowelment of livestock, but not killed. The owner would thus be forced to complete the bitter destruction of his own herd. In other cases, such as in Corsica, mules' ears were cut off as a ritual death threat. Such actions served as a warning or an unambiguous omen of further action. Whereas smaller animals such as dogs were destroyed, larger ones such as sheep were grievously wounded, and the largest animals (bulls, mules, etc.) had marks left on them. The victim was therefore defined taxonomically.

Through the destruction of animals or other property of the offender, or even the killing of some other person, a surrogate victim is created. As René Girard noted in Violence and the Sacred (1988), by killing not the murderer himself but someone close to him, an act of perfect reciprocity is avoided and the necessity for further revenge is bypassed. The act resembles both a sacrifice—in that the victim of the second murder is not responsible for the first—and a legal punishment—in that the violent retribution can be seen as imposing an act of reparation on the offender.

After the selection and killing of the victim, whether the original offender or a surrogate, the body was often mutilated to underscore the significance of the act of revenge. The body had to be "prepared" retroactively—disassembled and then reassembled in a grotesque parody of the original body—to be offered back to the group who "made" it. This desecration of the body also defiled the bandit or perpetrator. Yet through that act the bandit embarked on his final transformation. He set himself up outside the community and thus as the ultimate sacrificial victim. The songs about the hardships of bandit life in Corsica, Greece, and elsewhere lament that becoming a bandit was far from glorious. Most bandits in Corsica saw themselves as victims; they spoke about their "disgrace," "destiny," and "fate" (poveru disgraziatu). In Greece the notions of atichos (luckless) and moira (fate) were equally prevalent.

Thus it was not so much through their lives that bandits generated the sometimes powerful myth of nobility as through their deaths. Nor was it because they lived or died "nobly." It was rather that, by being betrayed and killed or publicly executed, they achieved sacrificial status. Either they became symbols of betrayal by more powerful vested interests, or the violence of their executions, and the disassembly of their bodies as public spectacle, demonstrated the irrepressible power of the state over the individual. When caught and juridically processed, their bodies became the subject of a publicly demonstrated spectacle of state power.

The bandit is thus not so much an expression of peasant reaction to oppression or a form of wish fulfillment as a transfiguration of peasant suffering, transformed from individual execution to the collective personification of sacrifice. The parallels between bandits and saints, and the linkage in the literature between bandits and monks, are not fortuitous, either in terms of the social conditions that gave rise to banditry or in terms of the iconography and models of suffering. Popular models of suffering were available in the lives and tortures of saints, and imprisoned bandits could become like saints, especially when they repented. Michel Foucault noted that the greater the spectacle of state punishment (and most glorifications of banditry by the peasantry date from the period immediately after the establishment of nation-states), the greater the risk that it would be rejected by the very people to whom such spectacles were addressed.


The extreme violence practiced by bandits against peasants in many contemporary accounts has been interpreted in two ways: as expressive or as instrumental. Hobsbawm tended to an expressive interpretation. He spoke of "pathological aberrations" and "ultra violence" as a manifestation of the "primitive" nature of bandits' rebellion, but he could not explain it adequately. Blok and others interpreted it in instrumental terms: violence ensures peasant submission. This interpretation is also problematic since violence reinforces the fragmentation of peasant collective consciousness but is not its direct cause.

It may be useful to distinguish between violence, as a performative act and a system of signs, and terror, as the effect of such actions on the wider social field within which bandits operate. Two famous Italian politicians, Luigi Franchetti and Sidney Sonnino, who conducted a wide-ranging investigation in Sicily in the late nineteenth century, noted that, unless one introduced the notion of complicity, it was difficult to understand why there was such widespread peasant submission to the activities of bandits. Peasant complicity was not always imposed through terror but could also be spontaneous and lucrative. Franchetti and Sonnino also noted a widespread admiration for bandits among the literati, who romanticized them, and paradoxically among landowners, the most likely to suffer from bandit depredations. Although fear and protection are critical components of bandit power, they are not a sufficient cause for bandits' sustained prepotency. A widespread and effective climate of fear would in any case be difficult to maintain if it were to be reduced to the potential violent actions of a few individuals, unless it were supported by a consent bandits received at the local level. Because they were embedded in local communities, bandits benefited from a grassroots solidarity against outsiders and state authority. Local codes of behavior such as omertà (Sicilian for "silence") obliged individuals to maintain a solidarity of silence and noncooperation with the authorities or risk extreme ostracism and revenge.

Consequently, it is difficult at the local level to distinguish those acts that can be called personal (such as a vendetta over a matter of honor) from those that can be labeled political (such as protecting the political interests of the elite). Clearly, bandits had an interest in encouraging the interpretation of their actions as personal and personalizing rather than political. Violence worked to encourage individuals to "mind their own business." Violent retribution was "justice," a private affair not to be reported to the state. Inevitably, state authorities viewed such violence as a sign of "barbarism" to be mercilessly extirpated, and as a moral weakness in the peasants who were duped by the bandits. Thus activities by bandits that had political implications (such as violence that kept the peasants cowed and docile) were often perceived as personal at the grass roots and hence of only limited concern, except to the participants.

Banditry employed a set of moral codes drawn and indistinguishable from kinship-based ideas of justice and retribution; hence a reaction against banditry was often impossible because it conflicted with the moral codes that regulated traditional society. As in many stateless societies, the distinction between the private and the public (that is, civil society) had limited significance. Banditry certainly possessed a cumulative political significance in suppressing peasant unrest, but the actions it employed were embedded in peasant morality. Thus peasant complicity might be either active or passive but equally significant in both cases. Passive complicity consisted of a series of unconnected individual acceptances of the status quo and served to conceal illegal violent acts.

Banditry employs a distinctive and extreme form of personal power and prepotency that requires constant reinforcement by means of a series of actions, such as selective generosity and magnanimity, as well as calculated arbitrariness. These practices contribute to the mythic value of the bandit or mafioso, which Diego Gambetta suggests is an essential precondition for the trust that mafiosi and others require to operate. Calculated arbitrariness in imposing one's will and extravagant generosity are two aspects of the same phenomenon. They personalize the mafioso's or bandit's power and prepotency, generate respect, and emphasize his inalienable symbolic capital. Stories that circulate about the bandit or mafioso often constitute an essential part of his power. That power can also be manifested in the paradoxical expressiveness of silence—the unspoken stories that say it all.

Banditry is therefore a phenomenon that is not only often refractory to the investigations of the outside observer but also concealed from the participants themselves. Stories about bandits should be treated as texts to be deconstructed. Caution must be exercised in reducing discernible sociological facts, such as the observation that a bandit successfully managed to evade capture for a long period, to single empiricist causes, such as powerful protection. Likewise, stories about bandits should not be treated as primary raw data on the bandits themselves or as simple expressions of hidden peasant aspirations, but rather as the result of a process of elaborated discourse (including textual discourse and reinterpretation) about power relations within society. These discourses are often metaphorically constructed, interpreted, and reinterpreted in various ways. Discourse on and about bandits in society indicates a great deal about that society and its power relations.


Literary romanticization of bandits was pronounced during the formation of nation-states and was often coupled with the desire of the urban literati to discover sources of opposition (often to foreign rule) in the countryside. Guerrilla popular uprisings (casting "banditry" as an expression of the struggle for freedom) against outside despotism in Corsica in the mid-eighteenth century, and Greece in the early nineteenth, caught public imagination. In his Contrat social (social contract; 1762) the French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau singled out the Corsicans in Europe as the one people fit to produce just laws. Rousseau's imagining of the Corsican way of life contains many of the germinal contradictory notions about bandits that developed in romanticism and have retained popular currency. He claimed that, whereas all Europe saw the Corsicans as a horde of bandits, he saw them as a free people capable of discipline. Similar views were initially entertained by Byron about the Greek Klephts.

The Rousseauesque utopia inverted traditional wisdoms and manufactured the bandit as the first modern primitive within the borders of Europe. Where there was no (state) law, Rousseau discerned justice; where the people were oppressed, Rousseau anticipated freedom; where the ancien régime recognized anarchic, bloodthirsty bandits, he discerned exemplary citizens capable of discipline. Bandits were natural men, outside time, but nevertheless potential lawmakers. Fully to realize themselves and the future, they had further to recover their bucolic pleasures and the simplicity and equality of the rustic life. Previously bandits were seen as "barbarians" with whom one could coexist, inhabiting the same time, and whose criminality was predictable but religiously condemnable. Now they were seen as living ancestors who inhabited a different time and who had to be tamed in the modern republic. Likewise, in the mid- to late nineteenth century, Klephts also figured prominently in Greek historiography, representing an often entirely fictional traditional opposition to Ottoman rule.

The myth of banditry may well, therefore, have a double function. In the hands of urban intellectuals it points to the bad old days before the establishment of the nation-state, when life and property were not secure. On the other hand it suggests that ordinary peasants or pastoralists, the source of national folklore and the social stratum from whom bandits were traditionally recruited, possessed the right ethnic sentiments in rejecting foreign authority, exploitation, and other abuses. That peasants were often misguided and ultimately shifted their loyalties only serves to demonstrate that they are incapable by nature of taking legitimate mass political action—unless, as Rousseau intimated, they are under the leadership of the more enlightened urban elites.

By the mid-nineteenth century the countryside of Europe's periphery became a theatrical topos where the vicarious fantasies and terrors of an emergent national literate bourgeoisie could be collectivized and enacted in literature. In Spain, Sicily, Greece, and Corsica (and, on the other side of the Atlantic, in Latin America), bandits became important literary, as well as operatic and iconic, subjects. Novelists (such as Edmond About and Prosper Mérimée) traveled to remote places in Greece and Corsica, for example, to ground their texts in direct experience and observation. Local responses were mixed but increasingly hostile to such collective negative stereotypes.

Banditry in places like southern Italy and Sicily became the subject of numerous inquiries as well as massive army intervention. Between 1860 and 1870 more lives were lost during the Italian army's campaign in southern Italy against peasant brigandage than in the war of unification. From the perspective of the state, the Mafia and brigantaggio became part of the wider questione meridionale (the southern question): Why is the South backward, crime ridden, and state resistant? Brigandage moved from being a question of individual barbarism that the state had to extirpate by aggressive actions such as massive repression to one of collective measurement, documentation, education, and economic development.

Unsurprisingly, this view of the South aroused the ire of local intellectuals and politicians. As the Sicilian novelist Leonardo Sciascia (1921–1989) noted, an element of latent racism entered into the northern view of the South, and as soon as banditry and organized crime were posed as typically "Sicilian" phenomena emerging from its psychology and history, the Sicilian educated classes reacted by minimalizing the criminality. An earlier Sicilian novelist, Luigi Capuana (1839–1915), denied the Sicilianness of the Mafia and brigandage, claiming that, though the Mafia existed in Sicily, it was no different from criminality found elsewhere.

The mythology and rhetoric that surround banditry must be interpreted carefully. Following Hobsbawm, bandit myths are generic expressions of hidden grassroots aspirations; following Blok, these myths are largely irrelevant to banditry's political functions in the class war. The two interpretations are not necessarily opposed and indeed may coexist at different levels of analysis. Essentialist definitions are not helpful to understanding; yet because what passes as banditry cannot be analytically separated from wide areas of social life, its presentation in discourse is particularly significant. A full understanding takes into account not just the various ways in which strongmen were co-opted by the powerful but also how such men were portrayed by various strata of society.

Peasant idealization of bandits was also variable and a function of their subsequent political evolution. Bandits did not necessarily belong to the peasantry; they often belonged to those groups who sponsored or controlled the production of (often) literary symbols. In a number of places, however, bandits belonged to the peasantry through their presence in widely circulated chapbooks, which popularized and contemporized bandits.


Banditry is an aggressive form of illegality and of adventurist capital accumulation found in certain social contexts, especially those marked by insecurity and violence; in this sense it is a product of political economy. Neither solely a prepolitical form of protest nor a means of suppressing peasant unrest, it may have performed these functions among others. As a category of social behavior, banditry employs specific displays of violence to generate terror for personal ends. As a legalistic and political-social category, banditry is formed by the impact of the state on local communities, and its meanings have changed across time to reflect these changing relationships. From a statist perspective "banditry" can be labeled as a certain type of violent behavior, but it may not be viewed this way at the grass roots. It operates between the state-imposed system of law and social order on one hand and the local system of vengeance and grassroots conceptions of justice on the other. It is a specific form of arbitrary personal prepotency and agency with its own "aesthetic" and accompanying discourses, thriving on, and constituting itself through, a complex array of symbols. How authorities have responded to this form of prepotency (either through savage repression or co-option of strongmen) has itself influenced responses to banditry at the local level. The state is therefore complicit in the construction and interpretation of banditry.

Since the nineteenth century there have been two discourses on banditry, intimately tied with the nation-state and its imaginative geography. First, bandites d'honneur, heroes of the vendetta, exponents of personal honor on the periphery of society, are always presented on the horizon of the past, as traces of a nostalgic world that has been lost forever. The closer one gets to it, the more such positive features appear to recede. Conversely, there are "contemporary bandits" involved in protection rackets, common robberies, murder, and other crimes. An extreme form is contemporary political brigandage, which merges with political terrorism, blending political programs, covert violence, and protection rackets. "Genuine" banditry always seems to have existed in the past, never in the present. The modern state stereotypes regions within it as inhabiting a bygone era, thus rationalizing repression of legitimate regionalist, autonomist, and cultural aspirations by labeling them as banditry. If bandits are the backward, bloodthirsty, unthinking, "barbarians" the state (and army) portray them as, then it is the state's duty to suppress them in order to protect "civilized" values. So does banditry become a historiographical discourse about order, justice, and freedom.

See also the sectionRural Life (volume 2);Peasants and Rural Laborers and the sectionSocial Protest (in this volume); and other articles in this section.


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Scott, James C. Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance. New Haven, Conn., 1985.

Snowden, Frank M. Violence and Great Estates in the South of Italy: Apulia, 1900–1922. Cambridge, U.K., 1977.

Wilson, Stephen. Feuding, Conflict, and Banditry in Nineteenth-Century Corsica. Cambridge, U.K., 1988.

Zugasti, de, J. El Bandolerismo Andaluz. Madrid, 1934.

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BANDITRY. Throughout the early modern period, especially in the seventeenth and eighteenth century, affluent travelers and merchants as well as peasants and farmers were afraid of banditry. The population shared with rulers and governments the general feeling that pilfering beggars and occasional stealers of food and wood among the local poor were something one knew how to deal with. Robber bands, however, as well as vagabonds and gypsies traveling in groups of varying sizes, were both more incalculable and more dangerous. Contemporaries regarded bandits as archenemies of the state and a threat to divine order, denying the state monopoly over the possession of arms and sinning against God's eighth commandment. The penal policy of the early modern state (public executions, large-scale patrols, printed lists of wanted persons) is a proof of this perennial threat.


The romanticization of banditry is a phenomenon that started with the popular ballads about prominent ringleaders such as Louis Dominique Cartouche in the eighteenth century. It gained momentum in the nineteenth century, and still persisted in twentieth-century historiography, when historians such as Carsten Küther interpreted preindustrial banditry as a counter-society. The absence of what Eric J. Hobsbawm has named "social banditry" in some territories led to the popular idealization of ordinary robbers, interpreting their deeds as a primitive form of social protest.

There can be no doubt that the discontent of the underprivileged, impoverished, and sometimes marginalized sectors of the population occasionally erupted into popular or mostly local food riots; but it also expressed itself on a smaller scale as "social banditry." It was a form of crime that rose out of political and social crisis, especially in areas over which the government could exercise only very little control, above all mountainous regions and often frontier zones. According to Hobsbawm, the characteristic feature of social bandits is that "they are peasant outlaws who the lord and state regard as criminals, but who remain within peasant society, and are considered by the people as heroes, as champions, avengers, fighters for justice, perhaps even leaders of liberation, and in any case as men to be admired, helped and supported" (p. 17). The late medieval legend of Robin Hood, who robbed the rich, switched clothes with beggars, and helped the poor, was popular not only in England but also in the rest of Europe for hundreds of years. All other bandit-heroes are much more recent, many of them living in the early modern period. There is, for example, Stenka Razin, the insurgent leader of the Russian poor in the seventeenth century. In Italy, the bandits also came from an agrarian background. Marco Sciarra, the famous Neapolitan brigand chief of the 1590s, declared himself a "scourge of God and envoy of God against usurers and the possessors of unproductive wealth" (quoted in Hobsbawm, p. 98). There is evidence that this popular bandit really practiced some kind of redistribution of wealth. For this reason he was highly esteemed by the poor of Naples.

Indeed, the records sometimes confirm the image, insofar as it represents reality and not wishful thinking on the one side and social prejudices on the other. There is ample proof, though hardly needed, that vagrants and social bandits were brothers in hardship and frequently mixed with each other. Impoverished day laborers and domestic servants often joined a gang where young beggars rubbed shoulders with old soldiers, deserters, murderers, expriests, and prostitutes. Social bandits did, in some cases, begin their career with some petty crime or offense that sooner or later brought them in contact with the itinerant underworld.


The major haunts of bandits in the early modern period were the Dalmatian highlands between Venice and Turkey, the vast frontier region of Hungary, Catalonia, the Pyrenees near the French border, and some of the low mountain regions in the Holy Roman Empire (e.g., Spessart, Westerwald).

Spanish bandits of this period operated in many parts of the country, especially in Catalonia, Valencia, Murcia, and Castile. One of these bands was known as los beatos de Cabrilla (the holy ones of Cabrilla), because its members behaved like "gentlemen," robbing their victims of only half of their goods. The peak of Catalan banditry was during the reign of Philip III (15981621). In mountainous areas of early modern Spain, banditry and brigandage remained a continual phenomenon throughout the period under discussion. In the early seventeenth century the most famous Spanish bandit was Perot Rocaguinarda. He started his criminal career in 1602 and even features in Cervantes's Don Quixote (1605, 1615). His Italian counterpart was Marco Sciarra, who controlled the countryside around Rome in the 1590s. He was betrayed by a friend and was killed. Other Italian bandits never reached his fame as they lacked popular support. Violence and indiscriminate robberies alienated them from the peasantry.

In early-seventeenth-century France the region of Périgord was infested with bandits. The brigands found their victims mostly among rich merchants traveling through the forest in that part of France. The most famous French bandit of all times was Louis Dominique Cartouche (16931721), a celebrated Parisian outlaw, whose name became synonymous with "highway robber" to the French. His adventurous life is the subject of many novels, poems, and even movies. In the 1962 film classic Cartouche, Jean-Paul Belmondo plays the role of this infamous eighteenth-century French bandit. In the beginning he is portrayed as an ordinary criminal robbing from everyone in sight. Later Cartouche becomes a kind of Gallic Robin Hood. A beauteous gypsy by the name of Venus (Claudia Cardinale) sacrifices her own life to save Cartouche from harm. He vows to continue his activities in order to avenge her death, but still manages to have a good time doing so. This box-office success, which was later reissued under the completely inappropriate title Sword of Blood, is part of the ongoing popularization and romanticization of the premodern underworld. The other French bandit-hero of the eighteenth century, Robert Mandrin (17241755) was, as Hobsbawm has shown, a somewhat less suitable candidate for idealization.

In Anglo-American folklore Dick Turpin (17051739) is the English counterpart of Cartouche. Turpin's popular image entails many legends. He was born in 1706 in rural Essex, the son of John Turpin, a small farmer. Caught in the act of stealing two oxen, he fled into the depths of the Essex countryside to save himself. After a short time he left his hiding place and tried his hand at smuggling. He eventually settled on robbery. He and his gang invaded isolated farmhouses, terrorizing and torturing the female occupants into giving up their valuables. By 1735, London newspapers regularly reported the exploits of Turpin and his "Essex Gang." In 1739 he was finally brought to court and sentenced to death. Turpin is another fascinating case of an early modern criminal whom history turned from a ruffian into a glamorous character.

The German equivalent to Dick Turpin is Johann Bückler (17831803), alias Schinderhannes (John the Knacker). He is still celebrated in German folklore, being idealized as a "social bandit." Modern research has tried to debunk this myth, but largely to no avail. Other famous bandits of the eighteenth century were Nickel List, who was active around 1700 in North Germany, and Lips Tullian, who committed most of his crimes in the Saxon region of Germany. Tullian and eleven of his associates were ultimately caught and executed.

In Ottoman times, the many wars in the Balkans left poverty and anarchy in their wakesuitable conditions for the work of brigands and bandits. In Serbian, Croatian, and Bosnian collective imaginary, the so-called haiduks were men of the people who stood against the hegemony of foreign rulers and the exploitation of the poor by the nobility. However, in some cases it proves difficult to distinguish between ordinary bandits and politically minded heroic outlaws, fighting against the oppressor. In the Balkans, the recorded history of haiduks goes back to the fifteenth century, but popular ballads about their lives and deeds did not flourish before the middle of the eighteenth century.


Recent research has revealed that bandits cannot be generally identified with the itinerant population. It was not the traveling life that led some persons to banditry. It was rather the other way round. According to German sources, three-quarters of Christian bandits whose parentage is known to us originated in the sedentary and integrated sectors of society. A particular feature of the German underworld of the eighteenth century is the rather high proportion of Jews among organized robbers. But for them, too, it is clear that the structure of their gangs was decisively shaped by people who had a permanent address. However, in half of the German gangs studied by Uwe Dancker, wayfaring people (among them ex-soldiers, beggars) were overrepresented.

Women played only a minor role in banditry. The women who shared the roving life of bandits normally did not step outside the generally accepted gender role. Despite the popular image, polygyny among bandits was the exception and not the rule. Female gang leaders were out of the question in early modern times, although some of the women associated with organized robbery, such as the famous German archthief named Alte Lisel, could well have commanded a band themselves. In banditry, women usually functioned as supporters and links with the outside world.

See also Crime and Punishment ; Vagrants and Beggars .


Barkey, Karen. Bandits and Bureaucrats: The Ottoman Route to State Centralization. Ithaca, N.Y., 1994.

Blok, Anton. "The Peasant and the Brigand: Social Banditry Reconsidered." Comparative Studies in Society and History 14 (1972): 494503.

Bracewell, Catherine Wendy. The Uskoks of Senj: Piracy, Banditry, and Holy War in the Sixteenth-Century Adriatic. Ithaca, N.Y., and London, 1992.

Comeche, Juan Antonio Martínez, ed. Le bandit et son image au siécle d'or. Madrid, 1991.

Danker, Uwe. "Bandits and the State: Robbers and the Authorities in the Holy Roman Empire in the Late Seventeenth Century." In The German Underworld: Deviants and Outcasts in German History, edited by Richard J. Evans, pp. 75107. London and New York, 1988.

Gaunt, William. Bandits in a Landscape: A Study of Romantic Painting from Caravaggio to Delacroix. New York, 1937.

Glanz, Rudolf. Geschichte des niederen jüdischen Volkes in Deutschland: Eine Studie über historisches Gaunertum, Bettelwesen und Vagantentum. New York, 1968.

Hobsbawm, E. J. Bandits. Harmondsworth, U.K., 1972.

Küther, Carsten. Räuber und Gauner in Deutschland. Göttingen, 1976.

Lüsebrink, Hans-Jürgen, ed. Histoires curieuses et véritables de Cartouche et de Mandrin. Paris, 1984.

Murphy, Agnes Genevieve. Banditry, Chivalry, and Terror in German Fiction, 17901830. Chicago, 1935.

Ortalli, Gherardo, ed. Bande armate, banditi, banditismo e repressione di giustizia negli stati europei di antico regime. Rome, 1986.

Reglà, Joan. El bandolerisme català. 2 vols. Barcelona, 19621963.

Spraggs, Gillian. Outlaws and Highwaymen: The Cult of the Robber in England from the Middle Ages to the Nineteenth Century. London, 2001.

Robert JÜtte

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Banditry can be defined simply as the act of taking property from another by using force or the threat of force. But Latin American bandits have appeared in varied and complex guises. Some common criminals simply brutalized and abused their fellow men. However, banditry also arose because throughout Latin American history, elite rule restricted access to economic opportunity and political expression. Runaway slaves or maroons sometimes became highwaymen, stealing from travelers to survive. Domination by the wealthy forced the rural masses to defend their interests through various means. Eric J. Hobsbawm coined the term "social bandits" to describe Robin Hood-style outlaws who championed the oppressed peasants.

When elites denied them access to land or to a living wage, the rural masses struck back using legal and extralegal tactics, including banditry. In early twentieth-century southern Bolivia, the peasants used banditry, mass mobilization, or litigation, depending on the strength of their corporate identity and cohesiveness. During the Mexican Revolution, peasants formed regional bandit gangs to combat the encroachment of large haciendas or other forces of change that disrupted traditional Indian village life.

Some outlaws gained reputations as social bandits and were celebrated in folklore and music. The Latin American masses sometimes viewed bandits as heroes striking a blow against their rich oppressors. Argentina's rural poor identified with the persecution suffered by legendary gauchos like Juan Moreira and Martín Fierro. Lampião (Virgolino Ferreira da Silva) and Antônio Silvino in Brazil, Pío Romero in Bolivia, and Manuel García in Cuba became symbols of popular resistance to oppression.

But bandit myth, like most myth, expresses only half-truths. Peasant stories about bandits exhibit what Erick D. Langer has termed "a selective memory." Such tales romanticize bandits and ignore their ignoble deeds, such as robbing, terrorizing, and killing peasants. Few romanticized bandits actually lived the heroic, idealized lives attributed to them in popular culture or in Hobsbawm's social bandit model.

Myth and folklore color some famous bandits so completely that accurate historical depiction is difficult. To compound matters, official government sources often purposely blur the distinction between bandit and revolutionary. Elitist officials typically labeled as bandits any groups that threatened their political monopoly. The U.S. press and government officials of the 1920s termed Augusto Sandino's Nicaraguan forces "bandits" to discredit them. Sixty years later Ronald Reagan publicly referred to members of the Sandinista government as "thugs." The unduly positive images of historical bandits generated in folklore were offset by the negative images from politically motivated government sources.


Why did bandits steal? A desire for profit motivated many gangs. Unlike mythical bandits, however, actual gangs acted more often on the basis of self-interest and opportunism than in the defense of peasant-class interests. As Paul J. Vanderwood has shown, the marginalized rural poor fomented disorder, including bandit attacks, and profited from the resulting conflict. Guerrilla bandits (discussed below) are one example of those who profited from disorder.

Eleodoro Benel (1873–1927), a bandit leader in northern Cajamarca, Peru, was one of many such grasping, rural petty tyrants whose main goal was self-aggrandizement. Such profiteers formed whatever alliances they deemed useful. Bandit leaders cooperated more often with the powerful, not the humble, elements of society.

Economic self-interest also motivated many nineteenth-century bandits, as in Cuba's La Habana Province, where they consciously pursued their own personal gain in an opportunistic fashion. Manuel García's career as a profit-minded bandit antedated his service to the Cuban independence movement.

In addition to a desire for economic gain, personal and familial conflict drove some men to banditry. Family feuds, endemic to the Brazilian backlands, moved Lampião to take up the outlaw life. The Brazilian "good thief," Antônio Silvino, followed the leads of his father and godfather into bandit life. And the gauchos of the Argentine plains often turned into outlaws after killing someone in a knife fight. There were so many cimarrón (wild, feral) bandits on the rural roads between central Peru and Salta in Argentina that they became a favorite topic in fiction, such as the short novels of Juana Manuela Gorriti, Gubi Abaya and El ángel caído.

Local elites, not the peasant masses, generally provided the support, material assistance (food, arms, clothing), hiding places, and intelligence needed by bandit gangs. In Brazil, Silvino and Lampião cooperated with elites, not the peasant masses. Bandits in Peru, Mexico, and Argentina operated in a similar fashion. These elite-bandit alliances helped keep local oligarchies in power and gave a degree of legitimacy to the outlaws. A politically powerful family could insulate bandits from police and legal authorities.


If officials labeled revolutionaries as bandits, bandits sometimes professed to have political aims, to cover their crimes with a veneer of legitimacy. Christon Archer coined the term "guerrilla bandits" to describe opportunists who used war as an excuse to pillage. Marginal rural people became guerrilla bandits, drawn to war by coercion or by promises of booty. They exhibited little loyalty and switched sides according to their assessment of the best potential profit. Guerrilla banditry became common in Venezuela, Mexico, Cuba, and elsewhere during the wars for independence and civil wars of the nineteenth century.


Unlike pre-political social bandits or self-serving guerrilla bandits, political bandits had a consciousness of and loyalty to a larger political movement. They did not switch sides for financial gain but instead labored for a political, partisan, or regional agenda. They exhibited clear partisan rather than class leanings. Political banditry was evident in independence-era Cuba, early-twentieth-century Cajamarca, Peru, and the Colombian Violencia of 1945–1965, which left between 100,000 and 300,000 people dead. The Cuban independence period illustrates both political banditry and the interpretive debates going on in the study of banditry. Louis A. Pérez, Jr., sees banditry in western rural Cuba as motivated by peasant resentment of their marginalization by expanding sugar plantations. In contrast, Rosalie Schwartz argues that western Cuba's banditry reflects neither class conflict nor social banditry. First, many bandit gangs emerged before the process of sugar plantation expansion began. Second, the land concentration that Pérez considers a cause of banditry in fact came after many bandit gangs had emerged.

The peasant villages that purportedly supported and sustained social bandits did not exist in the bandit-infested areas of western Cuba. Manuel García put banditry and extortion at the service of the independence movement. His letters and broadsides show a clear political agenda, not typical of Hobsbawm's social bandit.

The Colombian Violencia offers another example of banditry, which even Hobsbawm acknowledges to be "in essence more political than social." The serrano (mountain region) uprisings during the Mexican Revolution offer another good example of political banditry cutting across class barriers. In both cases, conflict and banditry broke down along partisan or regional, not class, lines. In both cases, there was a political consciousness and agenda at work, a situation not typical of the pre-political social bandit. Even Gilbert Joseph, who defends to a degree Hobsbawm's views, agrees that the political strategies of the peasants were not archaic "in the sense of being outmoded or pre-political."

Banditry, then, can be an expression of mass discontent, a means of achieving a political agenda, or a yearning for economic betterment. Banditry could be a tactic of rural elites as well as the rural poor; outlaw networks often cut across class lines. Many bandit gangs developed and profited from close ties to regional and local power brokers: the Caudillos (political bosses) or coroneis (planter elite).

What about female bandits? We know that a woman called María Bonita died with Lampião in a hail of gunfire in 1938. And "La Carambada," a female bandit who dressed in male clothing, robbed travelers in Querétaro, Mexico, during the mid-nineteenth century. Women most likely lived with male bandit gangs at their hideouts.

A more recent phenomenon has come to light regarding Salvadoran gang members. Many of these hoodlums learned their trade in exile in Los Angeles and other U.S. locations and were later deported back to Central America, where they have been applying what they learned.

Richard Slatta, Gilbert Joseph, and others have begun placing Latin American banditry in a broader, more comparative perspective. Wider comparisons highlight the similarities and differences among bandits as well as the roles of culture, regionalism, and other variables. Yet more research is needed. Instead of blithely accepting bandit images from folk legends and literature as fact, scholars must use them as lenses for viewing peasant cultures. Even if folk views of heroic bandits do not reflect historical reality, they do reflect much about the yearnings and values of Latin America's rural masses.

In sum, Latin American elites and masses both participated in banditry. The rural poor sometimes used banditry to express political sentiments. At other times banditry represented an economic alternative in a world of opportunity narrowly restricted by the elite. On occasion, economic self-interest and political rebellion came together, as in the case of guerrilla banditry.

Latin American elites long have recognized the dangerous political potential of banditry and have made vigorous efforts to contain it. But although they have been victimized by the elite, the rural poor have not remained passive victims. If denied legitimate means of survival and participation, people will strike back violently at their oppressors.

See alsoGangs; Maroons (Cimarrones); Quiroga, Juan Facundo.


Billy Jaynes Chandler, The Bandit King: Lampião of Brazil (1978).

Eric J. Hobsbawm, Bandits, rev. ed. (1981).

Paul J. Vanderwood, Disorder and Progress: Bandits, Police, and Mexican Development (1981).

Christon I. Archer, "Banditry and Revolution in New Spain, 1790–1821," in Biblioteca Americana 1, no. 2 (1982): 58-89.

Gonzálo G. Sánchez and Donny Meertens, Bandoleros, gamonales y campesinos: El caso de la Violencia en Colombia (1983).

Richard W. Slatta, ed., Bandidos: The Varieties of Latin American Banditry (1987).

Erick D. Langer, Economic Change and Rural Resistance in Southern Bolivia, 1880–1930 (1989).

Louis A. Pérez, Jr., Lords of the Mountain: Social Banditry and Peasant Protest in Cuba, 1878–1918 (1989).

Rosalie Schwartz, Lawless Liberators: Political Banditry and Cuban Independence (1989).

Richard W. Slatta, "Banditry as Political Participation in Latin America," in Criminal Justice History: An International Annual 11 (1990): 171-187.

Gilbert M. Joseph, "On the Trail of Latin American Bandits: A Reexamination of Peasant Resistance," in Latin American Research Review 25, no. 3 (1990): 7-53.

Additional Bibliography

Balboa Navarro, Imilcy. La protesta rural en Cuba: Resistencia cotidiana, bandolerismo y revolución 1878–1902. Madrid: Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas, 2003.

Gorriti, Juana Manuela. Dreams and Realities: Selected Fiction of Juana Manuela Gorriti. Translated by Sergio Waisman. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.

Solares Robles, Laura. Bandidos somos y en el camino andamos: Bandidaje, caminos y administración de justicia en el siglo XIX, 1821–1855: El caso de Michoacán. Morelia, Mexico: Instituto Michoacano de Cultura; Instituto de Investigaciones Dr. José María Luís Mora, 1999.

Zilberg, Elana. "Fools Banished from the Kingdom: Remapping Geographies of Gang Violence between the Americas (Los Angeles and San Salvador)." American Quarterly 56, no. 3 (September 2004): 759-779.

                                         Richard W. Slatta

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