In Latin America, guerrilla movements can be divided into several periods. The pre-Marxist period includes colonial resistance movements, early independence revolts, and revolutionary movements of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, typified by the Cuban independence movement, the Mexican Revolution, and the movement led by Augusto C. Sandino in Nicaragua. They are the prelude to the foco guerrilla movements of the 1960s and 1970s, spawned by the victory of Fidel Castro's Cuban Revolution in 1959. By the 1980s, other tactics had superseded the guerrilla cadre, such as the Indian focus of Guatemala's National Guatemalan Revolutionary Union (URNG) and Peru's Sendero Luminoso. All Latin American guerrilla movements, although they borrow from other groups, are primarily products of local rebel traditions.
These traditions began in the resistance to European colonization. Renegade bands (Cimarrones, or Maroons) in inaccessible mountainous areas throughout Latin America offered sanctuaries for runaway slaves and Indians, who raided the European settlements. The Sierra Maestra in Cuba, the mountainous frontier areas of Nicaragua and El Salvador, the jungles of Petén and Yucatán, the Andes of Peru and Bolivia, the plains of Venezuela and Argentina, and coastal Brazil were all places that nurtured revolt.
In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, major guerrilla-style Indian revolts had temporary successes: those of José Túpac Amaru and Julián Túpac Catari in the Andes, and the Caste War of Yucatán. After independence, guerrilla-style armies were successful in Guatemala (José Rafael Carrera), Cuba (José Martí and Máximo Gómez y Báez), and Mexico (Benito Juárez, Pancho Villa, Emiliano Zapata); in the 1920s and 1930s the anti-imperialist struggles of Sandino in Nicaragua and Agustín Farabundo Martí in El Salvador inspired later guerrillas.
The modern guerrilla era began with Castro's successful revolution against Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista, launched in late 1958. Castro's Twenty-sixth of July Movement was inspired by radical Christian Democracy, not the Communist Party. Purposely invoking nationalism, Castro made the headquarters of his army the Sierra Maestra, in Cuba's easternmost province. This had been the sanctuary of Martí and Gómez y Báez. There Castro, under the Marxist influence of his brother Raúl Castro and Argentine professional revolutionary Ernesto (Che) Guevara, developed the guerrilla tactics used later throughout Latin America. The main elements were a strong caudillist leader; revolutionary symbolism and myths utilizing movement leaders and past nationalist heroes; and a guerrilla nucleus (foco) inspiring national insurrection that was attached to, but not dependent on, local peasantry. After the Cuban triumph, Guevara proselytized this mixture (focoismo) as the winning revolutionary strategy for Latin America. He added the concept of the guerrilla as the revolutionary "new man," who, through the foco strategy, would make the "subjective" conditions necessary for revolutionary success. As articulated by Raúl Castro, "The foco is the little motor that sets in motion the big motor of the revolution."
With this formula, Guevara and Castro immediately started to urge other Latin revolutionaries to follow the example of the Cuban revolution, until then the only successful Marxist revolution in the hemisphere. Guevara's philosophy reached the masses through the articulate writings of the French intellectual Régis Debray. The heyday of focoismo was the 1960s and 1970s. Historian Donald Hodges sees Guevara's philosophy developing in four "insurrectionary waves." The first was against Caribbean-style dictators; the second, starting in 1962, expanded the struggle to "pseudo-democratic" regimes in Central and South America; the third, called "many Vietnams," was launched against U.S. neocolonialism; and the fourth, after Guevara's death in Bolivia, was the urban foco struggle in Uruguay and Argentina.
The first wave, immediately after Castro's triumph, was a series of abortive attempts to land foco units in Panama, Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic, and Haiti. The second was more serious: Guevara saw the Andes as the Sierra Maestra of Central and South America; this period featured struggles in Guatemala, Venezuela, and Colombia, and a rising competition with orthodox communism over the viability of focoismo.
Colombia had the earliest communist-backed guerrilla movement. The Colombian Communist Party (PCC) admitted in 1965 that it had undertaken guerrilla warfare as a secondary struggle in a prerevolutionary situation. This was necessitated by the 1964 government action to wipe out the independent peasant republics formed during La Violencia (1948–1957). The partisans regrouped as the Southern Guerrilla Bloc, and at the PCC's tenth congress (1965) they united with other units to become the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). In 1964, tired of the defensive strategy of the communist guerrillas (decried by Debray), the radical student Fabio Vásquez Castaño had formed an independent Guevarist guerrilla group, the Army of National Liberation (ELN). The radical priest Camilo Torres Restrepo joined it shortly before his death in 1965. Because the Communist Party always reverted to a noninsurrectionary strategy, the guerrilla movement in Colombia became just another player in the national anarchy.
As in Colombia, the Communist Party of Venezuela (PCV) gave ambivalent support to the guerrilla movement Armed Forces of National Liberation/National Liberation Front (FALN/FLN), led by a former army officer, Douglas Bravo. The PCV was originally pushed into supporting guerrilla action by the increasingly anticommunist stance of the populist president Rómulo Betancourt (1960–1962). However, legalization of the party in 1963 led to disavowal of guerrilla action and removal of Bravo and other guerrilla leaders from party leadership. This precipitated the major breach between focoismo and orthodox communism; Castro and Guevara (in absentia) supported Bravo and openly criticized the party. The conflict between young, revolution-prone New Leftists and older Communist Party functionaries had by then spread throughout Latin America.
At that stage, the third insurrectionary wave was in full swing. This consisted of a "Bolivarian/continental" strategy, using Bolivia as a central jumping-off point to encourage moribund guerrilla movements in Peru, Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, and Brazil. Guevara reasoned that the Cuban success had alerted the United States and its local bourgeois allies (thus rationalizing the lack of success for foco exports). Any revolutionary success would have to come through a prolonged "people's war." Vietnam, not Cuba, was the right model, and by 1967 Guevara hoped to spark "many Vietnams" in Latin America. The objective revolutionary conditions in Bolivia seemed perfect: peasant disillusion with a bourgeois land reform, low GNP, government reneging on mine labor reform, and increased encroachment by the United States into local politics. However, the preparations, strategy, and personnel were all faulty, and Guevara was captured and executed just months after establishing a guerrilla training camp in the Alto Beni area of southeastern Bolivia.
In Brazil, a variant of focoismo existed in Carlos Marighela's (also Marighella) Action for National Liberation (ALN), which criticized Guevarism for depending on one foco location (impractical for the continental dimension of Brazil). Instead, ALN opted to organize urban masses indirectly and from the rural areas. Due to failure to find satisfactory rural sanctuaries, ALN's urban organizing attempts were ended faster by the police than those of guerrilla groups in Argentina and Uruguay.
The death of Guevara ushered in Hodges's fourth insurrectionary period of urban struggle, which Debray, along with Hodges, saw as the future hope. The essential aspect of Uruguay's Tupamarus was a political-military foco, revolutionary nationalism easily identifiable by the urban masses. Raúl Sendic, a former student and union organizer, and Pedro Guillén were the founders. An escalating series of spectacular robberies, kidnappings of prominent individuals, and reprisals against mounting death squad activity ended in the brutal repression of September 1971; nearly 2,000 activists were captured and 29 were known dead.
Argentina's Montoneros, an independent urban guerrilla nucleus directed by Trotskyites, outlasted the Tupamarus by eight years. In 1959–1962, Cuban-style training camps were started by the Armed Forces of Liberation (FAL), a dissident Communist Party youth faction implementing Guevara's call to resist "pseudo-democratic" regimes. In 1969 the FAL evolved into the Montoneros, founded by Fernando Abal Medino and named after gaucho cavalry units in the 1810 War of Independence. The Montoneros were part of the radical Peronist wing, but after a series of urban disruptions (most famous the 1969 Corodobazo), kidnappings, and other urban actions, President Juan Perón officially broke with the Montoneros in May 1974. The military consequently cracked down on the Montoneros' rural foco in the city of Tucumán, and the Montoneros reciprocated by storming the army barracks at Monte Chingola. In 1977, the Treaty of Rome united the Montoneros and the Authentic Peronist Party (PPA) into the Montonero Peronist Movement. However, a month later the army effectively destroyed the People's Revolutionary Army (ERP), a Montonero army, and in 1979 a Montonero counteroffensive to the escalating dirty war of the military regime collapsed, ending the movement's effectiveness.
Mexico also had urban guerrillas in the 1970s. In 1974, the Fuerzas Revolucionarias Armadas del Pueblo (FRAP) kidnapped President Luis Echeverría's father-in-law, the governor of Jalisco. In the mountains of Guerrero, 10,000 army troops took over a year to eliminate former schoolteacher Lucio Cabañas and his guerrilla army, after they had kidnapped a gubernatorial candidate, Senator Rubén Figueroa, and assassinated the Acapulco chief of police. Later in the 1990s, a guerrilla movement calling itself the Zapatista Liberation Front emerged in Chiapas. Just before his assassination the presidential candidate of Mexico's Institutional Revolutionary Party, Luis Donaldo Colosio, made a spectacular peace accord with the Zapatistas. However, as of early 1995, the Zapatistas were still active, and several political assassinations were attributed to them.
In 1979, as the Montonero downfall signaled the end of South American focoismo, two Central American guerrilla movements took the spotlight. The Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) was founded in 1961 by Carlos Fonseca Amador and others who had gone into exile after the abortive attempt to oust Luis Somoza Debayle during Guevara's Caribbean dictators stage of insurrection. Fonseca learned from the Cuban Revolution the need to fuse Marxism with local national and anti-imperialistic traditions. He thus studied the guerrilla campaign of Augusto César Sandino, who led the Army for Defense of the National Sovereignty (EDSN) against a combination of the U.S. Marines and Nicaraguan National Guard from 1927 through 1933.
In contrast with the Cuban scenario, it was a coalition of middle-class and working-class urban mass organizations that provided the impetus that overthrew Anastasio Somoza Debayle; the crucial battles were, therefore, fought by urban groups in Nicaragua's cities and towns, under guerrilla leadership. After triumph in 1979, the FSLN was attacked by a right-wing guerrilla force, the Contras. On the Honduran frontier, it was composed of former Somoza National Guard members and peasants disaffected with Sandinista Marxism, and was supplied and trained by the CIA. On the Costa Rican border, a guerrilla group independent of CIA control, and led by former Sandinista Captain Zero (Edén Pastora), fought a more modest campaign. The election in 1990 of Conservative president Violeta Barrios De Chamorro ended both the active contra conflict and the Sandinista attempt to build a hybrid socialist society. After that, various informal remnants of the contra movement, known as recontras, kept up hostilities against both the government and former Sandinista opponents.
The history of the El Salvador guerrilla movement is more complicated than that of Nicaragua. The 1969 Soccer War with Honduras generated a crisis within the Salvadoran Communist Party (PCS), leading the party secretary, Salvador Cayetano Carpio, to found the guerrilla Popular Liberation Front-Farabundo Martí (FLP), named for Agustín Farabundo Martí, the popular communist and former aide to Sandino who led the disastrous 1932 revolt that culminated in the Matanza massacre of 10,000 to 30,000 Indian peasants. Carpio did not adhere to the foco theory, opting for the "prolonged people's war" concept of Vietnam and posited by Guevara in Bolivia. In 1972, however, a more middle-class group of Christian Democratic Party (PDC) deserters formed the foco-style Revolutionary Army of the People (ERP). Internal disputes in the guerrilla camps led to the assassination of the writer Roque Dalton and the suicide of Carpio. In 1980, the stalling of reforms by the new provisional government led to the formation of the umbrella opposition body, the Democratic Revolutionary Front (FDR), and to the establishment of a united guerrilla command (FMLN) as the military arm of the FDR in the same year brought on a decade-long civil war. In 1991, as a result of the collapse of Soviet support and U.S. impatience with the prolonged conflict, the FMLN and the government signed a demilitarization pact in exchange for political recognition of the Left.
In the 1980s and early 1990s, three other guerrilla groups took center stage, none of them foco-oriented. They claimed to represent Indian interests in Guatemala, Peru, and Chiapas, Mexico.
Marxist guerrilla activity started in Guatemala in 1960, when two army refugees from a barracks uprising, Marco Antonio Yon Sosa and Luis Agusto Turcios Lima, formed the 13 November Revolutionary Movement (MR-13). As in Colombia and Venezuela, the Communist Guatemalan Workers Party (PGT) initially spoke for all guerrilla groups, which united in the communist-backed Rebel Armed Forces (FAR). The FAR broke up when the PGT dropped insurrection to back populist presidential candidate Julio César Méndez Montenegro, who, upon election, allowed the counterguerrilla offensive that by August 1967 reduced the FAR, with a rural support unequaled in Latin America, to a handful of survivors hiding in Guatemala City.
By the 1980s, Guatemala's guerrillas were making a comeback under the umbrella organization National Guatemalan Revolutionary Union (URNG). Major new leftist guerrilla groups included the Guerrilla Army of the Poor (EGP) and the Organization of People in Arms (OPRA). The government's scorched-earth policy, "frijoles y fusiles" (beans and bullets), plus URNG's refusal to cater to Mayan interests, led to a guerrilla decline. The rebels made a comeback starting in 1985, but despite an Indian-guerrilla fusion group, the failure of the white-led Marxist guerrillas to endorse specific Indian issues (such as an autonomous Indian state) left the movement's future uncertain.
In Peru, the effort to rouse the Indian majority to insurrection was temporarily successful. Peru's long history of rebellion goes back to the first known guerrilla campaign: the Inca pretender Manco Capac launched raids against the Spanish invaders from his Andes hideouts. The same tactic was repeated in the 1740s by Juan Santos Atahualpa. A century after the revolts of José Túpac Amaru and Julián Túpac Catari, Indian guerrillas in central Peru and Bolivia fought hacienda encroachment on lands of traditional Andean communities (Ayllus). In 1963, Trotskyite peasant organizer Hugo Blanco led an abortive uprising near the Inca capital of Cuzco, followed by foco guerrilla groups in south-central Peru. The most famous was the Movement of the Revolutionary Left (MIR), a radical APRA offshoot (APRA-Rebelde). These guerrilla groups of the 1960s and 1970s, although they spoke the Indian language and were integrated into Indian society, were co-opted by government agriculture reform, the basis of Indian discontent. However, by the 1980s reforms either did not work or were not implemented, creating a disillusionment receptive to the most extreme of all Latin American guerrilla groups, the Sendero Luminoso, named after the first nationalist Marxist philosopher José Carlos Mariátegui's allusion to a "shining path" (sendero luminoso) for Peruvian national aspirations.
Officially known as the Communist Party of Peru, a Maoist splinter of the Moscow-oriented Peruvian Communist Party, the Sendero was organized in the 1970s in Peru's most backward province, Ayacucho, where its claim that feudalism is the main obstacle still makes sense. Sendero has a hierarchical military structure topped by President Gonzalo (Abimael Guzmán); a strategy, opposite to the selectivity of focoismo, that has every party member also a soldier; and the prominence of women in intermediate leadership as well as the rank and file.
However, as in Guatemala, no serious integration of Indian programs appears in Sendero's strictly Marxist communiqués. The surprise capture of Guzmán, on 12 September 1992 at least temporarily disoriented the organization. In the wake of Guzmán's arrest, Óscar Ramírez assumed leadership of the group. In 1999 he too was arrested. In 2003 a militant splinter group known as Proseguir, or "onward," continued to be active, albeit on a small scale. The Peruvian government has accused the group of working with drug traffickers.
In 2003 a Shining Path group attacked Argentinean workers on a natural-gas pipeline project in Ayacucho. They held workers and police hostages and demanded ransom, which was purportedly paid by the Argentinean company, Techint. That same year, the Peruvian government launched another offensive against Sendero, capturing many leaders, but as of 2006, small-scale attacks and incidents continued.
See alsoCaste War of Yucatán; Colombia, Revolutionary Movements: Army of National Liberation (ELN); Colombia, Revolutionary Movements: Army of Popular Liberation (EPL); Colombia, Revolutionary Movements: M-19; Colombia, Revolutionary Movements: Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC); Colombia, Revolutionary Movements: United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC); Communism; Cuba, Twenty-Sixth of July Movement; Paramilitaries in Latin America; Peru, Revolutionary Movements: Army of National Liberation (ELN); Peru, Revolutionary Movements: Shining Path; Terrorism.
On pre-Marxist guerrilla movements, see Steve Stern, ed., Resistance, Rebellion, and Consciousness in the Andean Peasant World, 18th to 20th Centuries (1987), especially Florencio Mallon, "Nationalist and Anti-state Coalitions in the War of the Pacific: Junin and Cajamarca, 1879–1902" and pt. 1 of the book, "From Resistance to Insurrection: Crisis of the Colonial Order." Donald Hodges, Intellectual Foundations of the Nicaraguan Revolution (1986), provides detailed insights.
Works by guerrilla leaders or their theoreticians include Fidel Castro, Revolutionary Struggle 1947–1958, edited by Rolando E. Bonachea and Nelson P. Valdes, vol. 1 of his Selected Works (1972). Ernesto (Che) Guevara published selected works (1970). The most notorious is Handbook of Revolution. The most erudite defense of focoismo is offered by Régis Debray, Revolution in the Revolution?, translated by Bobbye Ortiz (1967).
The tactics of Uruguay's Tupamarus are explained by that group's leading ideologue: Abraham Guillén, Estrategia de la guerrilla urbana (1965). Other works by guerrilla leaders include Hugo Blanco, Land or Death: The Peasant Struggle in Peru (1972); Carlos Marighela, For the Liberation of Brazil, translated by John Butt and Rosemary Sheed (1971); Camilo Torres, Revolutionary Priest: The Complete Writings and Messages of Camilo Torres, translated by June de Cipriano Alcantara (1971), and Douglas Bravo Speaks: Interview with Venezuelan Guerrilla Leader (1970). First-hand accounts of life in guerrilla camps include Charles Clements, Witness to War (1984); and Omar Cabezas, Fire from the Mountain, translated by Kathleen Weaver (1985).
Donald Hodges, The Latin American Revolution: Politics and Strategy from Apro-Marxism to Guevarism (1974), focuses on the fact that contemporary New Left movements sprang from earlier nationalism. His Argentina, 1943–1987 (1988), is the main work on the Montoneros. Richard Gott, Guerrilla Movements in Latin America (1971), focuses on Guevarism up to Che's death.
Works presenting negative appraisals of guerrilla movements include Carlos Ivan Degregori, Que difícil es ser Dios (1989), a Marxist criticism of the Sendero Luminoso; Robert Moss, Terrorism Versus Democracy (1971), on the Tupamarus; Theodore Draper, Castroism: Theory and Practice (1965); and Tad Szulc, Fidel (1986).
Other analyses of guerrilla movements are John A. Booth, The End and the Beginning: The Nicaraguan Revolution (1982); James Dunkerley, Power in the Isthmus (1988); and Carol Smith, Indians and the State in Guatemala (1990).
Castro, Daniel. Revolution and Revolutionaries: Guerilla Movements in Latin America. Wilmington, DE: SR Books, 1999.
Finn, Devin. Following the Shining Path of Peru to the Road Not Taken in Colombia. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003.
Gross, Liza. Handbook of Leftist Guerilla Groups in Latin America and the Caribbean. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1995.
Taylor, Lewis. Shining Path: Guerilla War in Peru's Northern Highlands, 1980–1997. Liverpool, U.K.: Liverpool University Press, 1997.
Wickham-Crowley, Timothy P. Exploring Revolution: Essays on Latin American Insurgency and Revolutionary Theory. Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe, 1991.
Wickham-Crowley, Timothy P. Guerillas and Revolution in Latin America: A Comparative Study of Insurgents and Regimes since 1956. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1991.
"Guerrilla Movements." Encyclopedia of Latin American History and Culture. . Encyclopedia.com. (May 19, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/guerrilla-movements
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