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Guerrilla Movements and Armed Struggle in Cold War Mexico

Summary and Keywords

After decades of revolutionary upheaval and political violence that began early in the 20th century, Mexico had seemingly achieved stability and a relative level of social peace by the 1940s. The peasant revolution of 1910—beginning with its armed, insurrectionary phase (1910–1920) to the subsequent decades (1920–1940) that involved making “The Revolution” manifest in the everyday lives of Mexicans who (to borrow historian Jeffrey Pilcher’s metaphor) chose à la carte from the revolutionary menu—produced a durable political order characterized by an active level of popular participation and legitimacy. The peace was durable, yet potentially fragile since postrevolutionary rulers, contained within the confines of the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI) and its previous incarnations, could not take the peasant masses for granted. Revolution had taught these masses something about their power, both its limitations and potential, to shape the content and form of the Mexican state.

After 1940, as the PRI gradually exhibited its preference for political authoritarianism and an economic project that rapidly industrialized and urbanized the country while pauperizing the countryside, a series of disparate popular protest movements continually emerged. Usually peaceful and basing their alternative modernizing visions on the 1917 Constitution and the radical policies of President Lázaro Cárdenas during the 1930s, these movements—peasant, organized labor, and student movements—often faced repression and violence at the hands of state agents and/or local-regional caciques when demanding political democracy and economic justice. The spectacular massacre of protestors in public spaces and the selective assassination of dissident movement leaders represent two of the tactics employed by the PRI to quell popular resistance in the post–1940 era. Yet, such instances of state violence also stimulated political and tactical radicalization as some protestors organized revolutionary expressions of armed struggle and guerrilla warfare. From 1940 to 1982, more than three dozen armed organizations emerged in almost every region, in both urban and rural settings, displaying a wide variety of revolutionary ideologies and practices. Beginning with Rubén Jaramillo’s 1943 armed resistance in Morelos and ending with the formal dissolution of the urban Liga Comunista 23 de Septiembre in 1982, these armed struggles generally shared the goal of overthrowing the PRI regime, seizing state power, and articulating a socialist vision for a post-PRI Mexico.

Keywords: guerrillas, armed struggle, socialism, PRI, peasants, political democracy, social justice, Cardenismo, counterinsurgency, Dirty War, Cold War, university students, Marxism, Leninism, capitalism, radical politics

Mexico After Cárdenas

By the end of President Lázaro Cárdenas’s radical administration (1934–1940), important instances of popular and elite intransigence forced a pragmatic moderation of earlier social and economic policies. The year 1938, particularly after the expropriation of foreign-owned oil fields, marked a clear state shift toward moderation and compromise in the face of effective, often covert, resistance.1 Key provincial elite and cacique (political boss) networks weathered agrarian reform and peasant mobilization and organization, some adopting violent low-intensity warfare in states such as Guerrero, Veracruz, Chiapas, and Yucatán. Big business, symbolized by the “Monterrey Group,” thwarted the power of organized labor and became even more powerful after Cárdenas left office in 1940. The Catholic Church emerged from the conflictive 1930s ready to support a new president, Manuel Avila Camacho, who publicly declared himself a “believer” soon after taking office. If the conservative shift of the ruling party gradually began in 1938, it would subsequently take on a faster pace to the Right in a context marked by World War II, increasing economic integration with the U.S. economy, and a “Popular Front” strategy that dictated “national unity” and Partido Comunista Mexicano (PCM) collaboration with the “national progressive bourgeoisie” to combat international fascism.2 By the onset of the Cold War in the late 1940s and early 1950s, as new regional scholarship demonstrates, PRI leaders had rolled back some progressive policies of Cardenismo while using its institutions (e.g., unions, campesino leagues, cooperatives, schools) to establish a tenuous ruling legitimacy subject to pressures from above and below.3 Political authoritarianism—aided by newly established police apparatuses and a largely “domesticated” military charged with maintaining domestic order—and a capitalist modernization that embraced rapid industrialization and large-scale agrobusiness became the order of the day.

Thus began the “Golden Age” of the PRI. Beginning during World War II and extending into the Cold War, this nearly three-decades-long period of relative stability (1940–1968) also witnessed remarkable economic growth. The economy averaged 6 percent growth annually. Foreign observers extolled the development of Mexico’s “preferred revolution” as a model to emulate for the Third World, while the PRI worked hard to cultivate an image of modernization, middle-class affluence, and revolutionary nationalism for both international and domestic audiences.4 Yet the majority of the country, workers and peasants in particular, experienced the Golden Age as an era during which economic inequality and poverty intensified in a context of sustained economic growth. Living standards for campesinos in the countryside declined as the PRI favored export-oriented agrobusiness and imposed price controls on commodities to subsidize urban development.5 Workers demanding higher wages (in the face of declining purchasing power and rising inflation) and union autonomy criticized a model of rapid industrialization that favored capital accumulation and depended on the disciplining of organized labor through corrupt union leadership and coercion. Indeed, the first large-scale massacre of protestors in the post-Cárdenas era occurred in September 1941 when soldiers fired upon workers demonstrating in front of the Presidential Palace, killing nine and wounding eleven. Throughout the “Golden Age,” such instances of state violence complemented the structural economic violence that enriched a minority and pauperized millions. By 1950, the PRI’s vision of “industrial modernity [that linked] national and international capital” had produced a country in which “the bottom 20 percent of society received only 6.1 percent of national income and 50 percent of society received 19 percent [and] the top 10 percent enjoyed 49 percent of the national income.”6 Such inequality would only increase in subsequent decades as world war gave way to Cold War.

From World War to Cold War

Throughout the 1940s, organized labor in Mexico (and much of Latin America) actively confronted such inequality and articulated their demands for independent unions through direct action. Indeed, the Cold War began in Latin America in the late 1940s in response to the “linked and mutually reinforcing … postwar advance of labor, the Left, and democracy.”7 By 1947–1948, the creation of the Dirección Federal de Seguridad (DFS) as a political police force responsible for preserving national security and purging leftist union leaders (replaced by charros, corrupt officials linked to the PRI) inaugurated the Cold War. For the PRI, the discourse of anticommunism served as a delegitimizing charge consistently levied against dissidents and protestors that demanded political and economic reforms via constitutionally established mechanisms like elections. Though the ruling party proved relatively flexible in response to a wide range of popular protests throughout the 1940s (the massacre of civilians in Mexico City in 1941 and León, Guanajuato in 1946 being key exceptions), it clearly hardened its response to electoral, labor, and campesino dissidence beginning in the early 1950s using the DFS and the military. Notwithstanding everyday forms of state violence that revealed local-regional configurations of cacique power (at times to the annoyance of PRI leaders in Mexico City), the bloody repression of both the 1952 presidential campaign of General Miguel Henríquez Guzmán and the 1958–1959 strikes of railway workers, university students and schoolteachers bookended the decade that witnessed the consolidation of PRI authoritarianism.

While some gradually learned—in the face of state violence and brutality—how to accommodate to PRI authoritarian rule, popular protest and resistance nonetheless continually challenged the ruling party. The repressive practices and inequitable policies of the PRI generated social movements fueled by memories of the 1910 revolution and Cardenismo, the 1917 Constitution, and the PRI’s own rhetorical radicalism as the “revolution turned government.”8 Throughout the 1950s, a disparate assortment of local and national popular movements—ejidatarios, landless campesinos, organized labor—sought to protect progressive social and economic rights enshrined in the Constitution in the face of the PRI rollback. Multiclass civic movements that demanded the removal of despotic state governors and caciques in states like San Luis Potosí and Guerrero articulated demands for real political democracy at the regional level. The organizing of strikes and direct actions by university students beginning in 1956 at the National Polytechnic Institute (IPN) in Mexico City, growing into the broader 1958 student uprising, signaled, as historian Jaime Pensado demonstrates, the emergence of a New Left.9 Characterized by youth, antiauthoritarianism, creative direct action, and a distrust of Old Left leaders in unions and the PCM, this broad New Left would come to include independent socialist intellectuals and schoolteachers and students from rural Teachers Training Colleges (Normales Rurales) who actively participated in a wave of land invasions that broke out in northern Mexico during the late 1950s and early 1960s. In addition to these movements and the PRI’s tendency to react in violent, repressive fashion, the Cuban Revolution (and subsequent U.S. attempts to undermine it) also helped fire the political imagination of Mexican reformers, radicals, and revolutionaries. Indeed, the Caribbean revolution helped revitalize an increasingly fractured Mexican Left by the early 1960s, culminating with the Lázaro Cárdenas-led Movimiento de Liberación Nacional (MLN) in August 1961 and its call for “the actualizing of the principles of the Mexican Revolution, consecrated in our political Constitution.”10 For a younger generation of leftists, shaped by their experiences in violently repressed social movements and the political failures of the PCM during the labor struggles of the late 1950s, revolutionary Cuba seemingly offered “new” tactical suggestions in the form of armed struggle to achieve radical change.

With the exception of Rubén Jaramillo’s first rebellion in 1943, these political and social contexts shaped the more than three dozen rural and urban guerrilla movements that emerged in Cold War Mexico beginning in 1965 with the Grupo Popular Guerrillero de la Sierra (GPG) in the northern state of Chihuahua. For the vast majority of the guerrillas, working within the legal framework established by the Mexican Constitution to seek reform and the redress of grievances long preceded a later decision to take up arms and seek the revolutionary overthrow of the PRI. Such reformist activism often began at the local, communal, or neighborhood level, running the risk of provoking the violent wrath of local caciques or police, and was radicalized in the face of state inaction, state violence, and/or targeted persecution. The practical need for armed self-defense when faced with such violence also contributed to the process of political radicalization. A corrido (ballad) composed by campesino Rosendo Radilla in the early 1970s articulated a common sentiment found in guerrilla testimonies: “my rights were taken away/and they turned me into a guerrillero.”11

The taking away of rights also produced guerrilleras. Women played key roles in Mexican guerrilla movements serving as active combatants and providing logistical support, though few reached leadership positions. Women, from largely campesino and urban middle-class backgrounds, constituted an estimated one-fourth of all guerrillas from this period, with urban groups like the Liga Comunista 23 de Septiembre (LC23S) including the largest number. Fewer women participated in rural movements inasmuch as they faced more stringent patriarchal structures, which made their guerrilla involvement that much more transgressive. For urban guerrilleras too, belonging to a group advocating armed struggle transgressed patriarchal gender roles, even as gender equality and women’s rights largely remained secondary (even “bourgeois”) “concerns” subsumed by the broader revolutionary struggle to seize state power. Unsurprisingly, then, guerrilla organizations largely reproduced the gender dynamics of broader Mexican society in their attempts to overthrow the PRI.12 Some personal testimonies, though, recall the limited, at times contradictory, existence of more egalitarian “prefigurative politics” of gender equality internally within some insurrectionary organizations.13

Guerrilla movements generally displayed important differences in ideology and political organizing based on their rural or urban geographic extraction. In addition, Old Left political parties in Mexico (the PCM and the Partido Popular Socialista [PPS]) produced many of the cadres and leaders who would go on to engage in New Left armed struggle in spite of official party dictates. Rural guerrilla movements, from Jaramillo to the schoolteacher-led guerrillas in Chihuahua and Guerrero, articulated eclectic, broadly defined socialist political programs underscored by local-regional campesino traditions of radical politics traceable to the 1910 revolution. Organizationally, such movements (with the crucial help of schoolteachers formed in rural teacher training schools [normales] largely linked to Old Left groups) managed to forge bases of popular support among smallholder and landless campesinos and agricultural laborers, with extended familial networks playing key roles in recruitment, obtaining supplies, and procuring intelligence. In contrast, urban guerrillas, from a relatively middle-class background and with years of formal education, demonstrated a different revolutionary literacy that placed a premium on an insurrectionary reading of Marxism-Leninism which fused theory and praxis in the strict service of proletarian—and not “petit bourgeois” campesino—revolution. LC23S leadership, in particular, viewed campesino as a class position in need of shedding to acquire one more proletarian—and hence “revolutionary.” While not overstating the urban–rural gap (some groups did manage to fuse the cultural and political distance between the geographies, including within the LC23S), it did generally contribute to the failure of armed organizations to coordinate on a national level, interface with nonviolent labor, student, and campesino movements, and collectively confront the PRI’s unleashing of a “Dirty War” by the early 1970s.

By 1982, the PRI had militarily defeated the cycle of guerrilla movements that began with the Jaramillo uprisings of the 1940s and 1950s and ended with the formal dissolution of the LC23S. To do so, the PRI waged “Dirty War”: a term that encapsulates the moments and systematic practices of state-sponsored terrorism used by the regime to target individuals and groups deemed as threats. At the height of the Dirty War, from the late 1960s to the early 1980s, a constellation of repressive apparatuses, which included police forces, intelligence services, military battalions, death squads and paramilitary units, attacked guerrillas and their supporters. Recent scholarship and government investigations have uncovered the systematic use of torture, illegal detainment, secret prisons, sexual violence, extrajudicial executions, disappearances, and even the use of “death flights.” Rural communities in Guerrero and Chihuahua reported suffering aerial bombing, forced displacement, public executions, and the use of strategic hamlets carried out by the Mexican military during a series of counterinsurgency campaigns. Guerrero alone suffered at least 600 disappearances from 1969 to 1979, according to a government report produced in 2006.14 Without neglecting the vanguardism and sectarianism that plagued them (as with most of their contemporary Latin American partisans), Mexico’s Cold War guerrillas failed in actualizing their revolutionary visions, “defeated by what turned out to be in the end a stronger, more ruthless enemy.”15

Rubén Jaramillo and the Jaramillistas

The armed uprisings that Rubén Jaramillo led beginning in 1943 in the state of Morelos represent a historical and political link between movements anchored in the radical agrarianism of 1910 and guerrilla New Left groups that later emerged in a Cold War context shaped by other revolutionary referents like Cuba. As a campesino teenager who joined the Morelos revolutionaries in 1915, Rubén Jaramillo never forgot the Zapatista lessons of armed struggle and self-defense in the subsequent decades that witnessed the consolidation of the postrevolutionary state. Indeed, the “taking up of arms” which he led in 1943, 1946, and 1952 reflected the urgent reapplication of those lessons when Jaramillistas charged the PRI with “betraying” campesinos as the country urbanized and industrialized. In this radically transformed context, Jaramillo and his followers fought not for the return of land, but for a “socialist society in which land and industry were in the hands of campesinos and workers.”16 Such a vision, clearly articulated in the Plan de Cerro Prieto forged during the 1943 rebellion, represented a mix of Zapatista agrarianism, Cardenista populism, and Marxist analysis that connected local grievances to national and global structures of exploitation. The Plan also reflected another characteristic of the decades-long Jaramillista movement which alternated between legal (electoral) and guerrilla resistance: a political radicalization stimulated by both state repression and the forging of alliances with landless rural laborers, urban industrial workers, and communists.

After several assassination attempts and joined by 100 campesinos, Jaramillo took to the hills in 1943 after a repressed campesino and workers strike at the Zacatepec Emiliano Zapata sugar cooperative. This initial expression of armed self-defense, culminating with the publication of the Plan de Cerro Prieto and several skirmishes with federal forces in late 1943 and early 1944, coincided with other instances of armed campesino resistance to President Manuel Avila Camacho’s 1942 military conscription order. After military forces failed to capture Jaramillo and destroy his poorly armed rebels—owing to the rebels’ extensive support network in southern Morelos and western Puebla—Avila Camacho offered amnesty to the Jaramillistas. In 1946, after losing the gubernatorial election for Morelos amidst violence and charges of PRI fraud, Jaramillo once again engaged in armed self-defense after rural guards tried to assassinate him during an assembly of sugarcane farmers. Supported by a rural populace angered by a federal campaign to slaughter cattle infected or possibly infected by hoof-and-mouth disease, the campesino leader remained in “armed hiding” until 1951, covertly supporting popular protests and defending campesinos from state violence.17 Jaramillo came out of hiding once again to run as governor in 1952, this time allying his Partido Agrario-Obrero Morelense (PAOM) Campesinos with General Enríquez’s Guzmán’s national presidential campaign to unseat the PRI. As in 1946, the 1952 campaign ended with charges of electoral fraud and escalated the level of state terror and violence committed against PAOM militants and supporters of Enríquez Guzmán. For the third and final time Jaramillo took up arms with dozens of campesino fighters, issued an updated Plan de Cerro Prieto, and even attempted to take over several cities in southern Morelos. After reemerging from hiding in the late 1950s and receiving an official pardon from President Adolfo López Mateos in early 1962, federal army troops would kidnap and execute the long-time campesino leader, his wife and activist Epifania Zúñiga, and their three sons in May.

From Land Invasions and Self-Defense to Socialist Revolution in 1960s Chihuahua

Generally considered as Mexico’s first modern socialist guerrilla movement, the Grupo Popular Guerrillero de la Sierra (GPG) emerged in the highlands of northwest Chihuahua in 1964 from a previous constellation of campesino agrarian struggles violently frustrated by local caciques linked to powerful national and transnational economic interests and state politicians.18 Led by rural schoolteachers Arturo Gamíz and Pablo Gómez, and campesino Salomón Gaytán, the organization developed over the course of 1964–1965 from a group advocating armed self-defense to a small Che Guevara-style rural guerrilla foco (a small group of revolutionaries). This foco would engage in armed actions intending to both expose state weakness and attract mass popular participation in the making of a broader revolutionary insurrection in the cities and the countryside. Over the course of a year and a half, the rural schoolteachers, normalista students, and peasant serranos (highlanders) who made up the GPG launched attacks against hated caciques and allied rural police forces. In early 1965, while in Mexico City covertly receiving military training from a former army captain (and likely government spy who claimed to have trained Fidel Castro and his group ten years earlier), GPG leaders began planning their most audacious military operation: an assault on the army barracks located in Ciudad Madera, a small logging city in northwestern Chihuahua.

That the GPG enjoyed popular support in the northwest Chihuahua highlands speaks to the historical traditions of armed self-defense employed by local serrano populations since the late 1700s and the prior participation of GPG militants in a series of agrarian movements beginning in the late 1950s. Frustrated by the lack of agrarian reform and the repressive power deployed by caciques and logging companies, smallholding campesinos, rural schoolteachers, and students organized by the PPS-linked Unión General de Obreros y Campesinos de México (UGOCM) carried out land invasions, long-distance marches, occupations of federal agrarian offices, and the takeover of urban public spaces in Chihuahua City. The inflexible ruling style of Governor General Práxedes Giner Durán (1962–1968)—an old Villista veteran and one-time senator president of the federal Senate—also helped stimulate popular radicalization with his penchant for violently repressing public protests. In the face of caciques (protected by military soldiers and state police forces) who raped, razed homes to the ground, kidnapped, and murdered, armed self-defense emerged as a political option. Imprisonment and detention, as PPS/UGOCM militants Arturo Gámiz and Pablo Gómez experienced in 1963, also encouraged a different course of action. By early 1964, Gámiz joined forces with the Gaytán family—a family of dispossessed campesinos with Villista ancestors active in the UGOCM—and began to carry out offensive attacks on caciques and their property.

The assault on the Ciudad Madera army barracks occurred early on September 23, 1965, with a much depleted GPG force. A group traveling through the mountains on foot led by Salvador Gaytán, equipped with automatic weaponry, never made it to the city on time due to heavy rains. A separate group of university students and campesinos also failed to arrive as planned for the assault. The remaining thirteen ill-armed GPG guerrillas, including Gámiz, Goméz, and Gaytán, fought against 125 soldiers for nearly one and half hours. Eight of them, including the three leaders, died during the firefight, while five managed to escape into the mountains with the help of the local populace. Five soldiers died and ten were injured. Governor Giner Durán refused to hand over the bodies of the fallen guerrilleros to their families, ordering their burial in a common grave. Military forces poured into the region, detaining and violently attacking dozens of campesinos as they combed the mountains looking for GPG survivors. Those survivors would go on to form two separate guerrilla movements in the late 1960s, while the GPG became a revolutionary referent for subsequent guerrilla movements. Indeed, Mexico’s largest urban guerrilla group would commemorate the Madera barracks attack with their name: Liga Comunista 23 de Septiembre.

Guerrero Burns

In similar fashion to the socialist Chihuahua guerrillas, the armed movements organized in the southwestern state of Guerrero during the late 1960s emerged from a cycle of violently repressed reform movements and the targeted persecution of movement leaders. Beginning in the late 1950s, popular efforts to obtain meaningful political and economic reforms legalistically within the political framework of the 1917 Constitution ended in state-sanctioned bloodshed and terror. Massacres, assassinations, and quotidian forms of violence carried out by army troops and state police agents became primary instruments of state domination as the PRI inflexibly responded to an increasingly radicalized region. What began in 1959 with a broad, multiclass civic movement that demanded the ouster of a despotic governor, continued with the formation of state and national opposition political parties to electorally challenge the PRI, culminated in 1968 with two separate guerrilla organizations that called for socialism, national liberation, and a “poor people’s” revolution. Led by schoolteachers Genaro Vázquez and Lucio Cabañas, respectively, the Asociación Cívica Revolucionaria Nacional (ACNR) and El Partido de los Pobres (PDLP) managed to organize important networks of popular rural support in their attempts to wage revolution from the countryside—attempts also facilitated by urban cells in Guerrero’s main cities and Mexico City. Normalista teachers and students, along with smallholding campesinos and ejidatarios, formed part of the guerrilla groups. With its call for “a war of the poor against the rich and the Government of the Wealthy,” the PDLP arguably represented the most serious rural guerrilla threat—in political terms—that the PRI faced after the Jaramillistas.19

Vázquez, a prominent social movement leader who rose to prominence in the 1960 civic uprising that ousted the state governor, formed the ACNR in late 1968 after escaping from a prison in northern Guerrero. Years of activism—organizing opposition political parties and independent peasant unions—landed him in prison in 1966. After suffering numerous assassination attempts, a small group of teachers and campesinos who had worked with him throughout the decade liberated him and fled into the Guerrero highlands. Using a preexisting network of popular support forged in previous moments of popular protest, Vázquez and his comrades attempted to organize the ACNR as a political-revolutionary party, with a main rural guerrilla force (“Popular Armed Nucleus”) engaged in military actions while supported by clandestine rural and urban cells. With a Four-Point Manifesto that was both socialist and anti-imperialist in political vision, the ACNR defined insurrection as a process of national liberation, “the overthrow of the ruling oligarchy formed by major capitalists and large landowners allied to Yankee imperialism.”20 Yet, the ACNR project remained largely embryonic. From 1968 until Vázquez’s mysterious death in early 1972, the group’s actions tended to focus on armed actions like the kidnapping and/or execution of wealthy Guerrero caciques, bank “expropriations,” and the effective (even national) distribution of their communiques. Their most spectacular action, the kidnapping of university rector and oligarch Jaime Castrejón Díez in November 1971, led to a hefty ransom payment and the release of imprisoned ACNR activists to Cuba. But it also put police agents on the trail of ACNR leadership, leading to Vázquez’s death and the group’s demise by February 1972.

In contrast, the PDLP managed to create a more formidable revolutionary project: a poor people’s “party” supported by an armed campesino wing of 100 to 200 (named the Brigada Campesina de Ajusticiamiento [BCA]) based in the coastal highlands north of Acapulco. It boasted the support of dozens of smallholding peasant communities, poor neighborhoods in Acapulco, and members of the state university in Chilpancingo (Guerrero’s capital). Led by Cabañas, a rural schoolteacher trained in Ayotzinapa and a PCM militant with a long history of social activism in defense of poor rural communities, the PDLP articulated a fundamentally socialist vision as defined and understood by the campesino communities that supported them. This vision—gleaned from the PDLP’s first Ideario (manifesto) published in 1972, oral testimonies, and the torture transcripts of captured militants—contains traces of Zapatista agrarianism, the unfulfilled promises of Cardenista modernization, local-regional demands for an end to boss (cacique rule) and direct democracy, and even calls for equality for women and indigenous communities.

Fired by popular calls for vengeance, after a decade of state and cacique terror, this vision fueled a guerrilla insurgency that from 1968 to 1974 arduously worked to organize and politicize rural communities throughout coastal Guerrero; executed hated caciques and state police agents responsible for earlier massacres; and successfully carried out several ambushes of military units that poured into the state to wage counterinsurgency from 1972 to 1974. By early 1974, the PDLP had established a sort of contingent, incomplete “liberated zone” in the Guerrero Mountains where they could move freely with at least 150 fighters—including some 20 guerrilleras—when visiting campesino communities. Yet their decision to kidnap Rubén Figueroa, powerful cacique and influential PRI militant at the local and national levels, in mid-1974 proved disastrous. The act intensified an already brutal military counterinsurgency that violently targeted the PDLP’s civilian base of support using tactics like torture, extrajudicial executions, disappearances, and death flights. By December 2, 1974, when soldiers killed Cabañas and two of his companions (while detaining and disappearing another), this form of counterinsurgent terror had succeeded in freeing Figueroa, disappearing hundreds of guerrilla fighters and civilian supporters, and finally dismantling the PDLP.

Urban Guerrillas and the Liga Comunista 23 de Septiembre

Founded on March 15, 1973, in the city of Guadalajara, the LC23S constituted a Marxist-Leninist, mainly urban, and national umbrella group of radicalized university student organizations that viewed armed struggle as the only feasible political option after the Mexico City student massacres of 1968 (Tlatelolco) and 1971 (San Cosme). Each of the seven groups that comprised the LC23S represented the culmination of prior regional instances of organized student struggles that began in the late 1960s only to face state violence in the form of massacres, police repression, and paramilitary violence. The Federación Estudiantil Revolucionaria (FER) in Guadalajara began in 1970 as an independent student and barrio youth organization that sought to wrest control of the University of Guadalajara from a thuggish, violent PRI-backed rival student group. Members of Los Procesos, Los Enfermos, and Los Lacandones emerged conterminously from similar struggles initially waged on university campuses and expanded onto the city streets of Mexico City, Monterrey, and Culiacán. Based in Culiacán, Los Enfermos even managed to extend their fight against provincial political elites beyond the city to the tens of thousands of agricultural laborers who worked in the region’s vast commercial agricultural sector. Of the groups that comprised the LC23S, Los Macías, Los Guajiros, and the Movimiento de Acción Revolucionaria-23 de Septiembre (MAR-23) were the first to adopt armed struggle in the late 1960s, demonstrating an earlier history of political radicalization in Mexico City universities (especially at the IPN) and northern Mexico. Both Los Guajiros and the MAR-23 traced their radical activism directly to the Chihuahua guerrillas of the mid-1960s, including in their ranks supporters and relatives of the Gámiz-led GPG. Indeed, the MAR-23 represented a fusion of GPG survivors and a group of communist university students who studied at the Patrice Lumumba People’s Friendship University in Moscow and later received military training in North Korea in the late 1960s.21

Ideologically, LC23S militants came from four main leftist currents that included the PCM, particularly its youth wing (JCM); the Spartacist Leninism of José Revueltas; Jesuit-fired Liberation Theology rooted in Monterrey; and normalista radicalism. Raúl Ramos Zavala, theoretical precursor of the LC23S who was killed before its official founding, had been a prominent leader in the JCM. Ignacio Arturo Salas Obregón, leader of the guerrilla group until his disappearance at the hands of police agents in 1974, once belonged to the Movimiento Estudiantil Profesional (MEP) in Monterrey—a radical Christian organization influenced by Liberation Theology. Salas Obregón was also the principal theoretician, responsible for implementing a “militarist” orientation that envisioned the LC23S as the vanguard leading Mexican proletarians in an insurrection that would develop into a broader “revolutionary civil war.” University students formed part of that proletariat since, as LC23S theorist Ignacio Torres Olivares argued, the higher educational system constituted a “new industrial branch,” thoroughly integrated into processes of capital accumulation.22 The ultimate goal: “the destruction of the bourgeois State and the consolidation of the dictatorship of the Proletariat.”23

From 1973 until 1982, more than 500 LC23S militants organized in urban cells throughout the country—also extending into rural regions like Oaxaca, Guerrero, and the highlands where Sinaloa-Sonora-Durango-Chihuahua intersect—engaged in armed actions and the distribution of their newspaper Madera in schools and factories. Armed actions included the kidnapping and/or execution of prominent individuals, bank “expropriations,” attacks on police forces, and even a (failed) mass student–worker uprising in Culiacán in January 1974. Plagued by internal factionalism, battered by state forces—including a paramilitary death squad named the White Brigade—and largely lacking popular support, the LC23S dissolved in 1982. Dozens of guerrillas remain disappeared.

Chiapas and the Fuerzas de Liberación Nacional

The Fuerzas de Liberación Nacional (FLN) represents a unique guerrilla movement in the broader history of Cold War-era Mexican armed struggles. Founded in the politically polarized industrial hub of Monterrey on August 6, 1969, by a group of middle-class professionals and students, the FLN rejected the militarism that characterized other armed movements. Initially organized as a vanguardist Guevarista foco—theoretically leading an alliance of workers, campesinos, and progressive middle-class members—it worked to covertly “build, with infinite patience, collaborative networks that could expand and guarantee the guerrilla’s survival.”24 Rather than work to spark insurrection, à la the LC23S, FLN guerrillas trusted in their Marxist interpretation of an imminent revolution amidst national and global capitalist crises and prepared for its arrival. Armed actions would only attract the repressive attention of state forces, they believed. From 1969 to 1973, the FLN grew to include 120 members and established networks and safe houses in several eastern Mexican states, Mexico City, and Nepantla (state of Mexico). By 1972, it decided to establish an armed cell in the Lacandon jungle of Chiapas. This effort to form the Núcleo Guerrillero Emiliano Zapata (NGEZ) failed disastrously, leading to the deaths and disappearances of six prominent FLN militants in March 1974, including leader and founder César Germán Yáñez. An inability to connect with local indigenous Carib communities—who coincidentally had just received land from the PRI—allowed military forces to locate and kill the guerrillas. Earlier police operations against FLN safe houses in Nepantla and Monterrey (during which five FLN guerrillas were killed) produced torture-derived intelligence that revealed the existence and location of the NGEZ in Chiapas.

Despite such blows, surviving FLN founders Mario Sáenz and Fernando Yáñez managed to reconfigure the organization in the late 1970s. In a new national context characterized by laws that legalized the electoral Left (1977) and granted amnesty to political prisoners (1978)—and a Latin American context fired by the Sandinista Revolution in Nicaragua (1979)—the FLN discarded its foquista strategy in favor of a Maoist- (and Vietnamese-) inspired “people’s war of national liberation.”25 Chiapas again became the chosen location, and FLN guerrillas returned in 1978–1979 armed with the lessons of the failed NGEZ to focus on slowly organizing and recruiting a popular base of support. They arrived to find a region polarized by acute conflicts over land tenure between indigenous campesino communities and livestock ranchers. Amidst such conflicts, a Liberation Theology-minded Diocese of San Cristóbal, led by the “Red Bishop” Samuel Ruiz and Maoist groups, had encouraged community organizing and radical campesino mobilizations. With the help of Tzeltal and Tzotzil Mayan youths with radicalizing experiences in agrarian conflicts with caciques, the FLN founded the Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional (EZLN) in November 1983 not too far from their failed prior attempt. And it was this indigenous campesino army that would shock the world on January 1, 1994 when it launched a revolution against the Mexican state.26


Notwithstanding some early, often sympathetic works produced by Mexican scholars and journalists during the 1970s and 1980s, the history of Cold War guerrilla movements remained largely unknown until after the 1994 Zapatista uprising. The PRI’s waging of Dirty War—underscored by media and government representations of guerrillas as simple expressions of social deviance or organized criminality—did much to conceal and silence these histories. As the most isolated of contemporary Latin American armed revolutionary movements, Mexican guerrillas faced an additional struggle that contributed to the subsequent burial of their histories: they sought to overthrow an already “revolutionary” regime that did not hesitate to proclaim its radicalism, with international revolutionary credentials bolstered by their diplomatic relations with Fidel Castro and their acceptance of leftist South Americans fleeing military dictatorships during the 1970s. Families of disappeared guerrillas and ex-guerrillas waged isolated struggles in the attempt to recovery history and memory. At best, if acknowledged at all, Mexican guerrillas resembled the character of El Chivo in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s film Amores Perros: a repentant university professor who lost everything, including his family and moral compass (he subsequently worked as an assassin), when he decided in his youthful exuberance to wage armed struggle.27 At worst, they led suicidal struggles and bear responsibility for provoking the PRI regime to order the tortures, rapes, disappearances, and extralegal executions that characterized the Dirty War. A Mexican version of the “Two Demons” thesis, which posits a military and political equivalence between state forces and guerrillas, was expressed most clearly by journalist Julio Scherer in his 2004 book, Los Patriotas, coauthored with Carlos Monsiváis.

In contrast, more recent academic studies produced in Mexico and the United States tend to collectively contextualize these guerrilla movements within longer histories of state violence, authoritarianism, economic exploitation, and popular political radicalization—and how such processes unfolded in specific rural and urban locales. Aided by the use of oral histories and declassified state documents, they demonstrate how important numbers of campesinos, students, teachers, and middle-class professionals arrived at the decision to adopt armed struggle only after exhausting legalistic methods to seek the redress of grievances. The exercise of state terror in response to post–1940 popular protests that based their demands on the Constitution and the 1910 Revolution predated guerrilla violence. Studies by Bartra (2000), Bellingeri (2003), Padilla (2008), Aviña (2014)—and the various contributors to the edited volumes Movimientos armados en México (2006), Challenging Authoritarianism in Mexico (2012), and Liga Comunista 23 de Septiembre (2014)—outline similar processes of radicalization. These key works also seriously engage the eclectic and creative revolutionary imaginaries of Cold War guerrillas that demonstrated international (e.g., Cuban Revolution) and local ideological influences and that, in some instances, managed to obtain popular support.

Primary Sources

Until the early 2000s, the testimonies, oral histories, and books produced by guerrillas who survived the Dirty War represented a valuable, if disparate and unorganized, repository of primary sources. By the 1990s and 2000s, a group of ex-guerrillas began organizing conferences, compiling their own archive—full of guerrilla communiques, interviews, newspapers, and manifestos—and publishing historical studies. With an online presence (though not updated since 2009), the Centro de Investigaciones Históricas de los Movimientos Sociales emerged from these guerrilla efforts to recover silenced histories and historical memories.

Read critically, against the criminalizing and counterinsurgent grain, regional and national newspapers (especially their “nota roja” sections) housed in the Hemeroteca Nacional at the Universidad Autónoma de México (Mexico City) also represent helpful primary sources—as do leftist political journals from the 1960s and 1970s like Política, ¿Por qué?, and Punto Crítico which included interviews with guerrillas and the publication of their communiques. An early effort, using the national newspaper El Universal, to re-create the history of Mexican guerrilla movements began in 1994 with the three-volume set, Los Movimientos Armados en México, 1917–1994.

With regard to archives, the Mandeville Special Collections Library at the University of California, San Diego, contains hundreds of Mexican guerrilla documents: communiques, manifestos, letters, and newspapers. El Colegio de México hosts a similar archival collection online, principally organized by Dr. Verónica Oikión Solano, that also includes access to all 58 Madera newspaper editions produced by the LC23S. The Autonomous University of Sinaloa houses Caminemos, the official newspaper of the local student movement. Despite recent restrictions to access and research opportunities, the millions of declassified military, DFS, and Investigaciones Políticas y Sociales (IPS) documents at the Archivo General de la Nación (Mexico City) constitute an indispensable source base. And finally, the tireless, invaluable work conducted by Kate Doyle and her “Mexico Project” at the National Security Archive has provided important primary sources produced by U.S. government institutions on guerrilla movements and the Dirty War.

Further Reading

Aviña, Alexander. Specters of Revolution: Peasant Guerrillas in the Cold War Mexican Countryside. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014.Find this resource:

    Armando Bartra. Guerrero Bronco: campesinos, cuidadanos y guerrilleros en la Costa Grande. Mexico City: Ediciones Era, 2000. Originally published in 1996.Find this resource:

      Bellingeri, Marco. Del agrarismo armado a la guerra de los pobres: Ensayos de guerrilla rural en el México contemporáneo, 1940–1974. Mexico City: Ediciones Casa Juan Pablos/Secretaría de Cultura de la Ciudad de México, 2003.Find this resource:

        Carr, Barry. Marxism and Communism in Twentieth-Century Mexico. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1992.Find this resource:

          Castellanos, Laura. México armado, 1943–1981. Mexico City: Editorial Era, 2007.Find this resource:

            Cedillo, Adela. El fuego y el silencio: historias de las FPL. Mexico City: Comité 68 Pro Libertades Democráticas, 2008.Find this resource:

              Gamiño Muñoz, Rodolfo, Yllich Escamilla Santiago, Rigoberto Reyes Sánchez, and Fabián Campos Hernández, eds. La Liga Comunista 23 de Septiembre: Cuatro décadas a debate: historia, memoria, testimonio y literatura. Mexico City: Universidad Autónoma de México/Universidad Autónoma de Tlaxcala, 2014.Find this resource:

                Elizabeth Henson, “Madera 1965: Obsessive Simplicity, the Agrarian Dream, and Che.” PhD diss., University of Arizona, 2015.Find this resource:

                  Herrera Calderón, Fernando and Adela Cedillo, eds. Challenging Authoritarianism in Mexico: Revolutionary Struggles and the Dirty War, 1964–1982. New York: Routledge, 2012.Find this resource:

                    Hodges, Donald and Ross Gandy. Mexico under Siege: Popular Resistance to Presidential Despotism. London: Zed Books, 2002.Find this resource:

                      Keller, Renata. Cold War Mexico: Cuba, the United States and the Legacy of the Mexican Revolution. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015.Find this resource:

                        Maya Nava, Alfonso, et al. Los movimientos armados en México, 1917–1994. 3 vols. Mexico City: El Universal, 1994.Find this resource:

                          McClintock, Gladys. The Logic of Compromise in Mexico: How the Countryside was Key to the Emergence of Authoritarianism. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2016.Find this resource:

                            Montemayor, Carlos. La guerrilla recurrente. Mexico City: Random House Mondadori, 2007.Find this resource:

                              Oikión Solano, Verónica and Marta Eugenia García Ugarte, eds. Movimientos armados en México, siglo XX. 3 Vols. Zamora, MI: El Colegio de Michoacán/CIESAS, 2006.Find this resource:

                                Padilla, Tanalís. Rural Resistance in the Land of Zapata: The Jaramillista Movement and the Myth of the Pax Priísta, 1940–1962. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008.Find this resource:

                                  Pensado, Jaime. Rebel Mexico: Student Unrest and Authoritarian Political Culture During the Long Sixties. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2013.Find this resource:


                                    (1.) Alan Knight, “Cardenismo: Juggernaut or Jalopy?” Journal of Latin American Studies 26.1 (February 1994): 73–107.

                                    (2.) Ibid., 106–107.

                                    (3.) For instance, see Tanalís Padilla, Rural Resistance in the Land of Zapata: The Jaramillista Movement and the Pax Priísta, 1940–1962 (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008); and Gladys McCormick, The Logic of Compromise: How the Countryside Was Key to the Emergence of Authoritarianism (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2016).

                                    (4.) Stanley Robert Ross, “Mexico: The Preferred Revolution,” in Politics of Change in Latin America, eds. Joseph Maier and Richard W. Weatherhead (New York: Praeger, 1964).

                                    (5.) Padilla, Rural Resistance, 9–10.

                                    (6.) Ifigenia M. de Navarrete, “La distribución del ingreso,” in El perfil de México en 1980 (Mexico City: Siglo Veintiuno, 1971), cited in Stephen Niblo. Mexico in the 1940s: Modernity, Politics and Corruption (Wilmington, DE: Scholarly Resources, 1999), 4.

                                    (7.) Leslie Bethell and Ian Roxborough, “Introduction: The Postwar Conjuncture in Latin America: Democracy, Labor, and the Left,” in Latin America Between the Second World War and the Cold War: Crisis and Containment, 1944–1948 (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 16.

                                    (8.) Recent scholarship also chronicles different expressions of conservative resistance in the post–1940 era. See Susan Gauss, Made in Mexico: Regions, Nation, and the State in the Rise of Mexican Industrialism, 1920s–1940s (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2010); Luis Alberto Herrán Ávila, “Las guerrillas blancas: anticomunismo transnacional e imaginarios de derechas en Argentina y México, 1954–1972,” Quinto Sol 19.1 (January–April 2015): 1–26; and Jaime Pensado, “‘To Assault with the Truth:’ The Revitalization of Conservative Militancy in Mexico During the Global Sixties,” The Americas 70.3 (January 2014): 489–522.

                                    (9.) Jaime Pensado, Rebel Mexico: Student Unrest and Authoritarian Political Culture During the Long Sixties (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2013).

                                    (10.) Movimiento de Liberación Nacional, Programa y Llamamiento (Mexico City: El Movimiento, 1961), 5. For a recent, innovative look at the impact of the Cuban Revolution in Mexico, see Renata Keller, Mexico’s Cold War: Cuba, the United States, and the Legacy of the Mexican Revolution (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015).

                                    (11.) Alexander Aviña, Specters of Revolution: Peasant Guerrillas in the Cold War Mexican Countryside (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), 111. Mexican soldiers detained and disappeared Radilla in late 1974.

                                    (12.) Lucía Reyes, “Subjugating the Nation: Women and the Guerrilla Experience,” in Challenging Authoritarianism in Mexico: Revolutionary Struggles and the Dirty War, 1964–1982, eds. Adela Cedillo and Fernando Calderón (London: Routledge, 2012), 167–181.

                                    (13.) Aviña, Specters of Revolution, 166–168; Padilla, Rural Resistance, 161–183; Adela Cedillo, “Mujeres, guerrilla y terror de Estado en la época de la revoltura en México,” La Guerra Sucia en México Blog,

                                    (14.) Fiscalía Especial para Movimientos Sociales y Políticos del Pasado, “Borrador del Informe de la Guerra Sucia” (2006),

                                    (15.) John Beverley, “Rethinking the Armed Struggle in Latin America,” Boundary 2 36.1 (2009): 58.

                                    (16.) Padilla, Rural Resistance, 86.

                                    (17.) Ibid., 145.

                                    (18.) This section on the GPG relies primarily on two sources: Beth Henson, “Madera 1965: Primeros Vientos,” in Challenging Authoritarianism in Mexico, eds. Cedillo and Calderón, 19–39; and my conversations with Salvador Gaytán (ex-GPG militant) in Chihuahua on April 4, 5, and 6, April 2007.

                                    (19.) Aviña, Specters of Revolution, 139.

                                    (20.) Ibid., 116.

                                    (21.) Fernando Pineda Ochoa, En las profundidades del MAR (El oro no llegó de Moscú) (Mexico City: Plaza y Valdés, 2003).

                                    (22.) Torres Olivares developed these ideas in his Tesis de la Universidad Fábrica. See Fernando Calderón, “From Books to Bullets: Youth Radicalism and Urban Guerrillas in Guadalajara,” in Challenging Authoritarianism in Mexico, eds. Cedillo and Calderón, 117.

                                    (23.) Romain Robinet, “A Revolutionary Group Fighting Against a Revolutionary State: The September 23rd Communist League Against the PRI-State (1973–1975),” in Challenging Authoritarianism in Mexico, eds. Cedillo and Calderón, 129–147.

                                    (24.) Adela Cedillo, “Armed Struggle Without Revolution: The Organizing Process of the National Liberation Forces (FLN) and the Genesis of Neo-Zapatism (1969–1983),” in Challenging Authoritarianism in Mexico, eds. Cedillo and Calderón, 152.

                                    (25.) Ibid., 157.

                                    (26.) By 1993, a vastly expanded EZLN had broken from the FLN and acted as an independent military force responding to the orders of their indigenous base of support—a base that included mostly the indigenous communities of the Lacandon jungle.

                                    (27.) Beverley, “Rethinking Armed Struggle,” 50.