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date: 26 September 2017

Political Violence and the Left in Latin America, 1967–1979

Summary and Keywords

In the late 1960s, several leftist political movements in Latin America began to claim the use of political violence as a means of social transformation. This second wave of leftist political violence was distinct from an earlier wave—composed of rural guerillas inspired by the Cuban Revolution, roughly a decade and a half earlier—in several ways. The later proponents of armed struggle emphasized the importance of cities in armed actions, not just rural settings. They also advocated interaction between armed organizations and other actors in social movements, including far-left nationalist and populist factions within traditional political parties and the Catholic Church. Armed action was seen by such groups as a valid response to increasingly repressive governments, and to limitations on political action that made social change through peaceful means impossible. The use of violence provided a way to develop collective action in the hostile environment of the Latin American Cold War, which was marked by extreme political and ideological polarization.

Keywords: Cold War, political violence, left, authoritarianism, revolution, Social Catholic Action

On October 8, 1967, Ernesto Guevara died in La Higuerita, Bolivia. A photograph showing him with his eyes open was offered as a proof of his identity, clearing doubts about his death. The paradox of a dead body with open eyes anticipated the impact of Guevara’s death on sectors that supported his continental strategy in Latin America. Initially, his defeat in Bolivia was seen as having a deterrent effect on various political and social movements that promoted the idea of a continental revolution. The supposedly infallible method of rural focos, as developed in Cuba, was no longer as compelling as it used to, since one of its major developers and ideologues had died after a short campaign.

For Cuba, 1967 was the year of the continental revolution.1 It started with the publication of Revolution in the Revolution? (¿Revolución en la revolución?) by Regis Debray, a propaganda book disseminating the foquismo (Focalism) in Latin America, and continued with the confirmation that Guevera had started a rural foco in Bolivia. The defense of armed struggle as the path toward social change in the continent by the 160 Latin American left leaders attending the Organization for Latin American Solidarity (OLAS) conference in Havana, as well as Guevara’s “Message to the Tricontinental,” encouraged the idea of a global war against imperialism. Guevara’s death, however, seemed to have weakened that strategy. His passing was construed as the end of a cycle of guerrillas that had started with the Cuban revolution (although there were some previous experiences in Colombia and Guatemala in the 1950s). 2

However, this cycle did not neutralize actors who sought to achieve social transformations through revolutionary violence. On the contrary, they renewed the repertoire of their struggle tactics and broadened the geography of their action. Debray himself, in La crítica de las armas, a self-critical text, recognized that 1967 was a year of meaningful change.

When OLAS appeared, the epicenter of the revolutionary struggle was moving from north to south, from the Caribbean (Guatemala, Venezuela, Santo Domingo, Colombia) to the “Southern Cone” (Chile, Argentina, Uruguay).The conference embodied the trends of the recent past, as well as shaped those of the future. Geographically and historically, Bolivia operated as a bridge between the two periods and the two regions, thus serving as a passageway of the revolutionary flow.3

This article seeks to reconstruct the trajectory of a second cycle of leftist political violence, shaped by the emergence of several political movements that claimed the use of political violence for social transformation. It implied a rupture with the initial orthodoxy of the rural guerillas encouraged by the Cuban revolution. Since the late 1970s, a number of political organizations, proponents of repertoires of armed struggle different from those of rural guerrilla, emerged. What was new in the strategies of these groups was the importance of cities in armed actions, as well as the progressive interaction between armed organizations and other social movements. As Debray put it, the geographical trajectory of these movements had an opposite direction to that of rural guerrillas of the 1960s. While the latter went from north to south, this second wave had its center of gravity in the south of South America, and it later spread toward the north of the continent and Central America during the second half of the decade. It ranged from attempts to develop urban guerrillas in Uruguay and Brazil to the formation of new guerrillas in Central America, the most successful iteration of which was the triumph of the Nicaraguan revolution in 1979, as well as the creation of significant military movements during the 1980s.

The history of these movements cannot be reduced to their military dimension. They were political movements, in some cases originated from social mobilizations, in others connected to groups who had broken away from leftist traditional parties or from nationalist or populist fractions. They were also linked to groups from the Catholic activism who incorporated armed action to their repertoire against the increasingly repressive governmental reactions; or to hostile scenarios that prevented social change through peaceful means. In this respect, the use of violence sought to expand the limitations of political action. It became a path to develop collective action in a hostile environment, where extreme political and ideological polarization had shaped the Latin American Cold War. In many cases, members of these political groups came from social movements after suffering strong violent repression by their governments. In each country, the political and socioeconomic backgrounds of the establishment of these groups differ. Some of them surfaced in democracies and others in dictatorships. Moreover, these groups emerged in countries with significant social development, such as those from the Southern Cone, and others with higher levels of inequality and poverty, as it was the case in Central America.

The Southern Cone: New Repertoires

Toward the end of 1968 the Movimiento de Liberación Nacional Tupamaros (Tupamaros National Liberation Movement, or MLN-T) emerged as an iteration of urban guerillas that challenged the models proposed so far.4 Uruguay was a relatively developed country within the Latin American context, and a stable democratic regime without proscriptions. In a context of crisis, economic stagnation and high inflation, the country witnessed an increase in union and student protests. Several activists linked to these political and social movements radicalized their positions in response to the absence of legal political alternatives and the democratic government’s repressive reaction to protests. Against this backdrop, the MLN-T organization was created in 1965, seeking to develop a strategy adequate to the geographical and social conditions of the country. In 1968, for the first time the MLN-T kidnapped a senior government official, an individual close to the president and a supporter of a hardline stance against the union movement. This action had significant impact, since it evidenced the operational capability of an organization that until then had kept a low profile. The Chilean magazine Punto Final introduced them to an international audience by reprinting one of their first public documents: 30 preguntas a un tupamaro (30 questions to a Tupamaro).5 The document presented a number of original ideas around armed struggle in Latin America. The premise was that the city was the main place in which to carry out armed actions.

Another unique characteristic of the actions by the Tupamaros was linked to the symbolic dimension of their practice. What was originally conceived as a robbery and kidnapping specifically aimed at strengthening the infrastructure of the organization, ended up having the connotations of political denunciation and the commitment to building an alternative power through “armed propaganda.” The capture of the city of Pando illustrates this point. Around fifty militants were camouflaged as members of a fake funeral procession coming from Montevideo, and they took over the police station, the fire station, the telephone operations center, and some city banks. Most of these actions displayed a degree of wit and imagination, emulating some TV shows of the time, which generated popular approval and, initially, the preoccupation of the authorities. In 1969, the success of their first actions led them to say that they were “indestructible.” Perhaps the most spectacular of them during this period was the escape of 110 prisoners from the Punta Carretas prison in 1971.

The year 1972 was a paradoxical one for the Tupamaros. On the one hand, awareness of their growth led them to develop more ambitious military actions against the government. On the other hand, that year was also marked by the rise of repressive measures against the MLN-T but also against all left and social movements, which led to their defeat at the end of that year. In September 1972 there were five thousand people prosecuted by military courts on charges of sedition.

The relatively successful MLN-T began to position itself as an unorthodox alternative to the orthodoxy that characterized the Cuban revolution.6 Meanwhile, similar positions were being articulated and tested in Brazil. In 1969, Carlos Marighella published Mini manual del guerrillero urbano (Short instructions for the urban guerrillero), which had obvious connections with the issues being raised in Uruguay.

Between 1966 and 1968 several organizations were being created throughout Brazil, which advocated armed struggle as a means to oppose the dictatorship. After the coup there were armed attempts initially led by former military men, and a rural foco was established in Caparao in October 1966, supported by Cuba, which was dismantled shortly afterward.

These groups––approximately twenty––claimed guerrilla struggle as the way to overthrow the dictatorship, and denounced leftist and nationalist parties as incapable of resisting the advance of repressive regimes.7 Marcelo Ridenti identifies three groups that had a significant influence in the origins of the urban armed left. Most of these were connected to disagreements within the Communist Party (PC). Another smaller set of groups emerged from a Maoist fraction of the PC, the Brazilian Communist Party. Lastly, a minor group close to Trotskyism, Politica Operaria (POLOP) created in 1964, had some influence on students and intellectuals.

Most of these groups were composed of urban movements linked to students and, to a lesser extent, to the labor sector. A significant number of them sought to achieve a convergence of different types of organizations, since they shared a relatively common assessment of the situation among the left, as well as similar political-military strategies. These guerrilla groups propounded a sort of compromise between the orthodoxy of Guevara’s rural guerrilla and the new tenets of an urban guerrilla. Although they started to emerge in 1966, the active social mobilization happening in Brazil in 1968, mostly carried out by students and trade unionists, as well as the strong repressive reaction of the dictatorship, contributed to their growth.

The strategic objective of all these organizations was the development of rural guerrillas. To achieve it they needed to be ready in terms of material supplies and human resources. Expropriation operations were carried out, together with kidnappings that sought to push for the release of political prisoners. This first stage took place in the cities. The year 1969 marked a period of more acceptance of armed struggle, which lasted until 1970. Since 1969 kidnapping diplomats had proved to be an effective measure to secure the release political prisoners and arouse public attention. Also, kidnappings in Brazil inspired other guerrilla groups in Latin America.

Although some actions seemed successful, the repressive practices started as a consequence of the legal change brought about by the Institutional Act Number 5. It generated “a coup within the coup” in Brazil, increasing the repressive dimensions of the regime and thus eventually narrowing the movement’s support. In this context, specialized security agencies with higher levels of autonomy were created, which exacerbated the systematized use of torture during interrogations to obtain information about leftist organizations. The actions of these agencies also caused increased numbers of disappearances and political imprisonment.8 The effectiveness of this repressive apparatus, with its systematic use of torture, led to the defeat of most organizations by 1972. The development of a rural guerrilla movement never materialized. The only exception was the Guerrilha do Araguaia, mostly composed of members of PC do B (Brazilian Communist Party), and to a lesser extent of Catholic militants coming from Acción Popular. They had opposed urban guerrilla activities and had sent activists to the area of Araguaia, in the state of Pará, Brazil, with the aim of starting a rural guerilla insurgency that survived until 1974.

Several leftist and Peronist activists were part of this wave of new organizations in Argentina, representing a second cycle of armed leftist organizations. The first one dates back to the late 1950s, when Juan Domingo Perón was overthrown and the subsequent persecution and repression of his followers generated a series of violent actions encouraged by the Peronist resistance, as well as a rapprochement between Peronist and leftist organizations. To this first cycle belong the actions of the Uturruncos in 1959 and the attempt to develop a rural foco by the Ejército Guerrillero del Pueblo (People’s Guerrilla Army or EGP), an organization supported by Guevara from Cuba. Most of these attempts were rural and had a limited scope.9

The military dictatorship established in 1966 provoked a strong popular reaction that materialized in a cycle of social mobilizations beginning with the Cordobazo, a sort of local insurrection that continued in Rosario and elsewhere. At the same time several armed organizations started to emerge, becoming increasingly visible and popular in 1969. Three of them came from Marxist organizations: the Ejercito Revolucionario del Pueblo (Revolutionary People’s Army, or ERP), the Frente Argentino de Liberación (Argentine Liberation Front, or FAL), and Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias (Revolutionary Armed Forces, or FAR); two of which had Peronist origins. The Montoneros, linked to the church and the Fuerzas Armadas Peronistas (Peronist Armed Forces, or FAP), embodied the Peronist tradition of resistance. Among the highlights of their first actions were some robberies and kidnappings that had a strong impact on political process. Perhaps the most important one was the kidnapping and subsequent execution of General Pedro Eugenio Aramburu, leader of the Revolución Libertadora (Liberation Revolution) against Peron. It was carried out by Montoneros, and it gave them major leadership among Peronist armed organizations during the years that followed. From 1972, the FAR and some fractions of the FAP joined the Montoneros.10

The social mobilization opposing the dictatorship had a significant impact on the political processes, creating the conditions for a political transition. In 1973 Perón returned to power through democratic elections where he won the majority of votes. These new circumstances caused armed groups that had originally emerged to fight the dictatorship to readjust their strategy. In the new democratic context, the two main groups, Montoneros and ERP, proposed short truces and then returned to armed actions, questioning the weaknesses of democracy and denouncing the action of government-sponsored repressive organizations.

Between 1973 and 1975 the Montoneros and ERP, the two organizations that grew the most during this period, increased their membership and developed military infrastructure. Both organizations attacked military headquarters and attempted to control various regions of Argentina, thus articulating urban actions and rural guerrilla activities. In this regard, they were the most developed organizations, military-wise, in the Southern Cone. In 1975, after the army’s involvement in the government’s repressive actions, guerrilla actions were mitigated and eventually defeated after the coup on March 24, 1976.11

In Chile, since the late 1950s a leftist sector, critical to the electoral strategy of the Frente de Acción Popular (Popular Action Front, or FRAP) promoted by the PC and some fractions of the Socialist Party, began to emerge. These sectors were linked to disruptive social movements that carried out Spontaneous Urban Insurrections or Uprisings in 1957, and to labor movements led by Clotario Blest from the Central Unitaria de Trabajadores (United Workers’ Federation, or CUT). In this context, in 1965 the Movimiento de Izquierda Revolucionaria (Revolutionary Left Movement, or MIR) was created, a movement led by Blest where groups oriented toward Trotskyism, socialism, anarchism, and communism converged. Although this movement claimed a revolutionary orientation and questioned the electoral strategy of the FRAP, its military tenets were relatively vague and linked to insurrectional proposals mainly promoted by Trotskyist fractions. In 1967 a new generation emerged, mainly composed of students that sought to create a specialized armed group within the MIR, in tune with and connected to the processes that other countries from the Southern Cone were going through.12 In 1969 this strategy began to pay off. Although most of its grassroots activists promoted “direct actions” in mass fronts, such as land expropriations both in the cities and rural areas, a smaller group, high in the cadre structure, developed a military force through bank heists and other robberies. “Bank expropriations” were carried out according to criteria established by the armed propaganda developed by the Tupamaros.

The triumph of Salvadore Allende’s Unidad Popular (Popular Unity), which brought the socialist party to power through pacific means, held the formation of the armed organization in abeyance. The MIR agreed on a truce with the “compañero” president Allende and provided critical support to the process. In this context, it played an active role in the promotion of social mobilizations in rural areas, poor city outskirts and among workers through land occupation, the capture of cities, and self-management proposals for factories. There they tested self-defense tactics. Furthermore, they devoted themselves to the development of a task force that would be prepared to defend the government in the event of a coup or a hypothetical civil war.

After the coup, the MIR developed a strategy of armed resistance through continuing with the task force and developing of a mass front. The unexpected dimensions of the dictatorship’s repression proved the initial strategy ineffective.13 In 1975, the MIR was practically defeated, although it reemerged from exile. Toward the end of the decade the MIR initiated a return strategy; even if it was unsuccessful, it prolonged its existence and the idea of armed struggle in the cycle of popular mobilization of the 1980s. Unlike other armed organizations from the Southern Cone that did not survive the repressive onslaught of dictatorships, the MIR maintained its armed branch in the context of the transition.

From 1972 to 1976 some of these organizations carried out joint actions. In November 1972, a group of Argentine PRT-ERP activists and Uruguayan Tupamaros who had sought refuge in Santiago de Chile decided, together with MIR militants, to coordinate their efforts by establishing a coordinating body that would be presented publicly in February 1974 as Junta de Coordinación Revolucionaria (Revolutionary Coordination Board, or JCR). This decision had matured gradually over the course of a number of meetings held since the late 1960s, and the realization that the political process in the Southern Cone were shared common characteristics. On the one hand, new types of armed left-wing organizations were emerging, which by then started to see each other as sister organizations, and, on the other hand, there was a counterrevolutionary reaction that had its vanguard in the Brazilian dictatorship and seemed to be advancing to the rest of the Southern Cone. All of this led to the creation of a body that would respond to the “urgent need to coordinate the revolutionary struggles in the Southern Cone of Latin America.”14

The Andes: A Diverse Reality

In Bolivia, Peru, and Ecuador the second wave of guerillas did not seem to have a significant impact on their respective political processes. This was largely because, at least in Bolivia and Peru, leftist armed movements suffered hard political and military setbacks during the 1960s. The well-known Ejército de Liberación Nacional (National Liberation Army, or ELN), founded by Guevara in Bolivia, and influenced by organizations from the Southern Cone, attempted to reformulate its initial rural foquismo, but only for a short period of time.15 In Peru, organizations from the 1960s were defeated and some changed their strategy when faced with social reforms brought about by the Gobierno Revolucionario de las Fuerzas Armadas (Armed Forces Revolutionary Government). During the 1980s, groups such as MRTA in Peru and Alfaro Vivie Carajo in Ecuador emerged, initially connected to organizations from the Southern Cone.

The emergence of the April 19 movement in Colombia was different than previous rural guerrilla movements from the 1960s and 1950s, which were in serious withdrawal by the seventies.16 M-19 emerged from a protest movement against the electoral fraud of April 19, 1970, against the candidate of Alianza Nacional Popular (ANAPO): army official Gustavo Rojas Pinillas. M-19 was initially composed of members of the socialist faction of ANAPO, activists who had broken away from the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC) and the Communist Party.

The first action of M-19 was stealing Simón Bolivar’s sword in 1974. Such action set the tone of their guerrilla practices, initially influenced by actions of armed propaganda developed by guerrillas in the Southern Cone. Its emergence occurred in a context of increasing social mobilizations linked to urban outskirts, workers, and students. In 1977, this growth culminated with a major civic strike that was compared to the mobilizations of 1947, when Jorge Eliécer Gaitán (d. 1948) was murdered. The harsh repression against such mobilization anticipated the characteristics of president Turbay Ayala’s administration in 1978, which, supported by the most radical fractions of the army, unleashed a fierce repression against social movements and leftist groups, in line with the repressive practices developed by the dictatorships of the Southern Cone.

Initially, the context of repression and the expectations created by Central American guerrillas encouraged the M-19. The strengthening of the movement led them to develop relatively spectacular and influential actions, such as stealing five thousand weapons from the army, and the capture of the Dominican Republic’s embassy, with diplomats from different countries held hostage for more than sixty days, and their demand for the release of prisoners.

The sociologist Eduardo Pizarro in a classic work describes some characteristics that express the originality of this movement in relation to other experiences of the 1960s. Its actions focused on cities, where they appealed to marginal and middle-class groups, and from there rural actions were conceptualized and developed. Moreover, there was a major concern to influence the national political debate through armed actions, without prioritizing land control, as had been the case in the 1960s. M-19 continued in operation into the 1980s, where complex developments led them to oscillate between continuing with armed actions and seeking peace agreements.

The Revolutionary Emergence in Central America

This article began with a reference to Debray’s idea about the center of gravity of the Latin American left moving from north to south. The 1970s, however, ended with a movement in the opposite direction. The triumph of the Nicaraguan revolution initiated a new cycle of revolutionary proposals in Central America, which had been anticipated since the mid-1970s.

Guerrilla movements in Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Guatemala had a central role in the international conflict that unfolded in Central America during the 1980s. Both the growth and future influence in political processes of these movements had roots in the 1970s, although they were part of processes starting decades earlier.17

In 1980 in El Salvador, the convergence of five armed groups in the newly formed Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional (Front for National Liberation Farabundo Martí, or FFMLN) was connected to a series of organizations from the 1970s.18 During the 1960s, rapid industrialization and economic growth promoted by the Alianza Para el Progreso (Alliance for Progress) had changed the landscape of the country. However, this process did not affect inequality levels. The problematic relation between modernization and inequality, which worsened after the war with Honduras in 1969, triggered the growth of social movements demanding the democratization of the country. Several of these movements, which were in tune with new left and countercultural groups, leaned toward radicalization when faced with repressive responses by paramilitary groups, as well as after the electoral fraud committed by the army against the reformist coalition led by the Christian-Democrat José Napoleón Duarte in 1972. In this context, a group of young men and women linked to the student movement, together with trade union leaders and rural organizations, started to articulate the idea of an armed organization. The majority of these activists came from the Social Catholic Action movement, Christian Democracy, and the Communist Party.

The group referred to as “el grupo” was one of the first ones to incorporate, early in the 1970s, a new repertoire of actions linked to armed struggle that proved to be successful in the Southern Cone. It carried out kidnappings and actions against security forces. Within the group, differences around the political and military strategies emerged, which led to the creation of new organizations. In the mid-1970s, the influence of the Vietnamese experience began to influence Latin American movements, and it was referred to in debates around urban and rural actions.

The Fuerzas Populares de Liberación (Popular Forces of Liberation, or FPL) and the Ejército Revolucionario del Pueblo (People’s Revolutionary Army, or ERP), originally part of “el grupo,” began to conduct political work in rural areas. Urban activists, priests, and rural leaders participated in this initiative, which led hundreds of peasants to join these organizations toward the end of the decade, thus becoming a key part of the insurgent strategy developed by the FMPLN in the 1980s.

Toward the middle of the decade, activists from different rural and urban movements joined the four armed organizations that had emerged after the first attempts at armed actions: FPL, ERP, Partido Revolucionario de los Trabajadores Centroamericanos (Revolutionary Party of Centroamerican Workers), and Resistencia Nacional (National Resistance). The membership of armed organizations increased due to, among other things, a peak in repressive practices by the military government, including the murder of peasants; the electoral fraud of 1977; paramilitary actions causing thousands of deaths in 1979 and 1980; bloody repression against public demonstrations in 1980; and the murder of key figures from the Catholic Church. Several approaches to the issue have pointed out how state and paramilitary repression led activists to join the armed struggle, which became more popular in rural areas as well as in the cities. This is why several fractions of the left, traditionally opposed to armed struggled, were gradually adopting this strategy. Perhaps the most obvious example was the Salvadorian Communist Party, who joined the FPMLN at the end of the decade.

The Guatemalan guerrilla movement also suffered a setback in the first wave of guerrilla activity during the 1960s. At the beginning of the decade a ferocious repression, carried out mostly by paramilitary groups, reached more than thirty thousand people by the year 1973, thus destroying organizations that were active since the early 1960s. Moreover, as it was the case in Nicaragua, the political atmosphere in the region, favorable to mass action linked to the experience of Allende`s Unidad Popular in Chile, called the foquista method developed during the 1960s into question. In this context, guerrilla groups were redefined and began to organize, focusing on political work in rural as well as in urban areas. During the 1970s, three organizations emerged from what was originally the Fuerzas Armadas Rebeldes (Rebel Armed Forces, or FAR). One of them kept the name and began to combine armed struggle with political work connected to the urban union movement. The other two organizations were the Organización Revolucionaria de los Pueblos Armados (Revolutionary Organization of the Armed Peoples, or ORPA) and the Ejército Guerrilleros de los Pobres (Guerrilla Army of the Poor, or EGP), which adopted a strategy of political work with indigenous communities. The EGP coordinated their work in indigenous communities and in the outskirts of the cities, thus acquiring significant visibility in the second half of the decade. Meanwhile, the ORPA strictly operated as an underground organization until 1979. Lastly, in 1978, after the Panzós massacre, when the army murdered fifty-seven indigenous people, there was a fracture within the PGT, a group traditionally critical and ambiguous toward the development of armed struggle, which led a substantial number of people to approach the FAR and EGP. In 1982 this set of groups created an alliance called Unidad Revolucionaria Nacional Guatemalteca (Guatemalan National Revolutionary Army, or URNG). The reappearance of these armed organizations during the second half of the 1970s took place in a context of increased union activity in cities, the most significant example of which was a strike by Coca-Cola workers; at the same time there was also a rural mobilization demanding land. The government’s reacted to these social mobilizations by implementing repressive operations, mainly carried out by paramilitary groups. This, in turn, led to an increase in participation in armed organizations.19

In Nicaragua, there was a long tradition of resistance against the Somoza family. Within this tradition, the Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional (Sandinist Front of National Liberation, or FSLN) was created. It was a guerrilla organization that emerged in the early 1960s, mainly composed of people coming from the Nicaraguan Socialist Party, who sought to integrate Marxism to the national tradition of Sandinismo. During the 1960s, the FSLN adopted the model of the first guerrilla organizations that followed the foquismo rural. In 1967, following the defeat of Pancasan, as well as Guevara’s death, this strategy begun to be reconsidered. In the early 1970s, urban groups developing significant political work, together with the opposition, were set up.

The earthquake of 1972, which brutally destroyed large areas of Managua, had a major impact on the political process of the time, evidencing the limitations of Somoza’s politics. His demagogic attempts to capitalize on the tragedy, as well as high levels of corruption in the governmental relief operations, eroded his support, as did the political maneuvering that culminated in the fraudulent election of 1974.

Against this backdrop, the kidnapping in 1974 of several government officials and diplomats at a party at the home of former minister of agriculture José María Castillo Quant, put the FSLN at the center of the political scene. The kidnapping was successful, since most of the demands were met: release of prisoners, money for the FSLN, and dissemination of these demands.20

The government responded by imposing a state of siege that resulted in the killing of around three thousand people. Several student, worker, and Catholic groups, as well as important peasant groups suspected of supporting guerrillas, were severely persecuted. Between 1974 and 1977, the actions of the FSLN increased significantly, both in rural and urban areas, despite internal conflicts of the organization.

Beginning in 1972, there was a fragmentation in the FSLN, linked to criticism coming from Havana on guerrilla actions and defeats experienced during the 1960s. The FSLN was divided into three sectors, which jeopardized the existence of the organization. Discrepancies were related to strategic issues and, to a lesser extent, ideological ones. On the one hand, the proletarian wing focused their work on cities and the working class; on the other hand, supporters of the Guerra Popular Prolongada (Prolonged Popular War) prioritized working in rural areas, inspired by Maoist influences. The last group, the “terceristas,” highlighted the political dimensions of the conflict through the perspective of the Southern Cone experience. Although this division evidenced the weakness of the FSLN, it eventually boosted political work in different areas of the country. This was capitalized on between 1974 and 1977, when the membership of the FSLN grew by the thousands. Such growth took the organization to new levels, which enabled it, in the context of the rapid isolation of the Somoza administration, to set up various military fronts, which culminated with the victory of the revolution in 1979.

The last country to be mentioned in this article is Mexico, not because the discussion began with southern countries and traveled north, but because attempts by armed organizations in Mexico were quite unique. Perhaps the main difference had to do with the geopolitical situation of the country in the context of the Latin American Cold War. The government’s political proximity to Cuba left Mexican guerrilla movements unable to find support from the island leaving them in isolation from other Latin American organizations that had intense exchanges with the Cuban Revolution during that period. Moreover, while Mexico’s ruling party, the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI), had a Latin Americanist discourse, received refugees, and challenged the dictatorships from the Southern Cone in international for, it developed a “dirty war” against Mexican armed groups, denying them their political identity by obscuring the dimensions of the conflict. In the last decade, some researchers have begun to do historical reconstruction work on the urban and rural experiences of the 1960s and 1970s, as well as on the brutal repression with which the Mexican government responded to it.21

During the 1970s three organizations were particularly significant. All of them emerged in response to repressive processes unleashed at the end of the 1960s, the most illustrative of which was the massacre of Tlatelolco in 1968, which was directed against the student movement. One of them was the Partido de los Pobres (Party of the Poor), which followed the line of social movements of the 1960s in the state of Guerrero. The other two groups were organizations that adopted a political form after 1968. The Movimiento de Acción Revolucionario (Revolutionary Action Movement, or MAR) emerged as groups of students from the Patricio Lumumba University came together, and they were supported by North Korea. The Liga Comunista 23 de Septiembre (Communist League September 23rd) was the largest group of the period. It conducted several kidnappings and robberies. In the early 1980s the actions of these groups were weakened as a result of the dirty war.

Discussion of the Literature

As it has been shown throughout this overview of different regions in Latin America, literature on this subject is vast, diverse, and growing. Despite this diversity, it is possible to outline some common criteria present in the work conducted on every country. But first, it is important to identify the different genres through which historical narratives have been produced.

Memoirs and testimonies have played a central role in each of the national scenes. In many cases they were inaugural texts, which were later intervened and discussed by this new, emerging genre. These first accounts helped to define periods for relevant experiences, challenged state views and, in some cases, integrated a self-critical dimension of guerrilla actions. Also, in some cases memoirs offered particular views that enabled the interpretation of experiences shaped by gender or ethnic identity. Lastly, the testimonial genre was also put in conversation with accounts of victims of political repression. This literature had a major public impact, since for the first time societies were able to read about the experience of the leftist political violence as told by those who experienced it. Also, some activists or sympathizers of those experiences became academics and wrote essays, which are more or less biographical works, illustrative of different forms of political philosophy. These testimonials reflected on the violent practices of the organizations, their impact, and their legacy for contemporary societies.

Lastly, there are historical accounts, produced from two different disciplines: history and historical sociology. Some historians examined the topic from the perspective of the radicalization of social movements, focusing on the contexts that surrounded the emergence of these types of organizations, while others focused on the specific study of said organizations. Those who studied the context of radicalization have adopted different approaches that mostly focus on a particular actor. These endeavours have resulted in important contributions to the understanding of the ways in which different groups, such as intellectuals, students, countercultural movements, and social movements (urban poor movements, peasants, indigenous people) reflected on, lived, and in some cases engaged in leftist political violence. On the other hand, sociologists and political scientists have studied these movements mostly from the social history perspective of the theory of revolution and social movements.

Discussions presented in these studies have been very diverse, while at the same time most of them have focused on the origins, the legitimacy, and the rationality of leftist political violence. Although this might seem an oversimplification, it is possible to say that the debate revolved around two points of view. One highlighted structural issues that were politically and socially contextualized, explaining and in some cases justifying radicalization. The other explained leftist political violence as an ideological or cultural drift, and frequently described it as a phenomenon distant to national political processes, mainly influenced by the Cuban revolution and the 1968 global movement. This debate has surfaced at different levels: from the Latin American regional Cold War to subregions such as Central American or the Southern Cone, and finally to national and local levels.22

It seems difficult to identify a set of interpretations that provides a general overview of the issue, since most essays focus on particular cases. This section will review general works, and it will then mention some national examples. This selection does not necessarily imply a sample of the best works available; a criteria of diversity of approaches has prevailed.

One of the general views of the period is provided by Jorge Castañeda’s Utopia Unarmed, a book about the main characteristics of the movements of the 1960s and 1970s and their continuation in Latin American during the post–Cold War era.23 This work successfully offers a general overview and some main concepts through which the left of that period can be interpreted. However, its excessive interpretations and its conspiratorial tone in terms of the role of Cuba can be problematic. The work of Timothy Wicham Crowley, Guerillas and Revolution in Latin America: A Comparative Study of Insurgents and Regimes since 1956, offers a different and more comprehensive view of its subject. From a historical sociology perspective, the author reviews the main characteristics of both waves of rural guerrillas. Taking a comparative approach, he studies key factors that led to the triumph of some of them and the defeat of most. Another work that has taken a regional perspective to thinking about the relationship between political violence and intellectuals is Claudia Gilman’s Entre la pluma y el fusil: Debates y dilemas del escritor revolucionario en América Latina; even if the periods she identifies goes beyond the scope of this article, it is a very useful book for those interested in the issue from an intellectual perspective.24

In terms of national cases, Richard Gillespie’s Soldados de Perón: Los montoneros and Vera Carnovale’s Los combatientes: Historia del PRT-ERP are illustrative of major developments in the historiography on the issue of leftist armed organizations. The former emphasizes the context of the emergence of the Montoneros and the latter is mostly based on oral history by ERP activists. Adopting a similar approach, activists who became professional historians produced works such as “Por las sendas argentinas,” el PRT-ERP, la guerrilla marxista, by Pablo Pozzi; La izquierda armada: Ideología, ética e identidad en el MLN-Tupamaros, by Clara Aldrighi; and Combate nas trevas: a esquerda brasileira: Das ilusões perdidas à luta armada, by Jacob Gorender. Among books looking at social contexts of the radicalization of these organizations, Elisabeth Jean Wood’s Insurgent Collective Action and Civil War in El Salvador and Jeffrey Gould’s To Lead as Equals: Rural Protest and Political Consciousness in Chinandega, Nicaragua, 1912–1979 are notable for looking at the radicalization of rural sectors in Central American. Peter Winn’s Weavers of Revolution: The Yarur Workers and Chile’s Road to Socialism sheds light on the role of workers in these processes.

Recent studies have integrated new views to the discussion, incorporating the idea of different waves that were part of the so-called new left in Latin America (church renovation, counterculture, youth, universities, ideological debates within the left, regional exiles). Eric Zolov’s dossier for The Americas is a recent example of such production.25

As stated above, the testimonial genre was a significant one. Among the many books in this genre, Fernando Gabeira’s O Que É Isso, Companheiro? and Miguel Bonasso’s Recuerdos de la Muerte are notable for their significant public impact.26 Also, both books illustrate the diversity in the historical experience as expressed in these accounts, ranging from the testimonary of a revolutionary activist to those who were victims of human rights violations.

Lastly, the biographical genre is becoming more popular. Mostly written by journalists and historians, most of the historical leaders of these armed organizations have been portrayed in texts of uneven quality. Matilde Zimmermann’s Sandinista: Carlos Fonseca and the Nicaraguan Revolution is a good illustration of these biographical books.

Primary Sources

The historical production of the period has been based on three types of archives. On the one hand, there is important accumulated information mainly linked to files produced by security agencies that have been or are in the process of being declassified, as it is the case in Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay, Mexico, and even the United States. These files have valuable information but it is important to consider that they have been produced from a bureaucratic perspective by governmental agencies imbued with a national security doctrine. On the other, documentation centers have been created, sometimes with materials provided by former activists that were later affiliated with universities, seeking to preserve the documentation of armed groups. Some of these centers have created websites that are particularly useful for research activities, including CEDINCI, El Topo Blindado (Argentina), CEIU (Uruguay), Fondo Documental Ruiz Tagle (FLACSO) and Archivo Chile (Chile), the recently created Center on Political Struggles in Brazil (1964-1985) (Brazil), Inhca (Nicaragua), and CIDAI (Salvador). Lastly, there are several initiatives seeking to recreate the experiences of activists from an oral history perspective.

Further Reading

Brands, Hal. Latin America’s Cold War. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010.Find this resource:

Carnovale, Vera. Los combatientes, historia del PRT-ERP. Buenos Aires: Siglo XXI, 2011.Find this resource:

Castañeda, Jorge G.Utopia Unarmed: The Latin American Left after the Cold War. New York: Knopf, 1993.Find this resource:

Gould, Jeffrey. To Lead as Equals: Rural Protest and Political Consciousness in Chinandega, Nicaragua, 1912–1979. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1990.Find this resource:

Grandin, Greg. The Last Colonial Massacre. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004.Find this resource:

Gillespie, Richard. Soldados de Perón: Historia crítica sobre los Montoneros. Buenos Aires: Editorial Sudamericana, 2008.Find this resource:

Gilman, Claudia. Entre la pluma y el fusil: Debates y dilemas del escritor revolucionario en América Latina. Buenos Aires: Siglo Veintiuno Editores Argentina, 2003.Find this resource:

Wood, Elisabeth Jean. Insurgent Collective Action and Civil War in El Salvador. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2003.Find this resource:

Zimmerman, Matilde. Sandinista: Carlos Fonseca and the Nicaraguan Revolution. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2000.Find this resource:

Zolov, Eric. “Introduction: Latin America in the Global Sixties.” The Americas 70, no. 3 (January 2014).Find this resource:


(1.) See: Tanya Harmer, “Two, Three, Many Tevolutions?: Cuba and the Prospects for Revolutionary Change in Latin America, 1967–1975²” Journal of Latin American studies 45, no. 1 (2013), 61–89.

(2.) For this first wave of guerrillas see: Richard Gott, Guerrilla Movements in Latin America (London and New York: Seagull, 2008); and Timothy P. Wickham-Crowley, Guerrillas and Revolution in Latin America: A Comparative Study of Insurgents and Regimes since 1956 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1991).

(3.) Regis Debray, La crítica de las armas (Mexico: Siglo XXI, 1975), 13.

(4.) See: Clara Aldrighi, La izquierda armada: Ideología, ética e identidad en el MLN-Tupamaros (Montevideo, Uruguay: Ediciones Trilce, 2001), Astrid Arradas, “Armed Struggle, Political Learning, and Participation in Democracy: The Case of the Tupamaros in Uruguay,” PhD diss., Princeton University, 1998; Eleuterio Fernández Huidobro. Historia de los Tupamaros, 3 vols. (Montevideo, Uruguay: Tupac Amaru, 1986); Alain Labrousse, Una historia de los Tupamaros: De Sendic a Mujica (Montevideo, Uruguay: Editorial Fin de Siglo, 2009); Eduardo Rey Tristan, A la vuelta de la esquina, la izquierda revolucionaria uruguaya, 1955–1973 (Montevideo, Uruguay: Editorial Fin de Siglo, 2006).

(5.) “30 preguntas a un tupamaro,” Punto Final, sección documentos (July 2, 1968), n. 58.

(6.) Aldo Marchesi, “Revolution Beyond the Sierra Maestra: The Tupamaros and the Development of a Repertoire of Dissent in the Southern Cone, Montevideo (1962–1968),” The Americas 70, no. 3 (January 2014).

(7.) See: Fernando Gabeira, O que é isso, companheiro?: Depoimento (Rio de Janeiro: Editora CODECRI, 1979); Jacob Gorender,Combate nas trevas: a esquerda brasileira: Das ilusões perdidas à luta armada (São Paulo: Editora Atica, 1987); Mário Magalhães, Marighella: O guerrilheiro que incendiou o mundo (São Paulo, SP: Companhia das Letras, 2012); Marcelo Ridenti, “Esquerdas armadas urbanas: 1964–1974, in Marcelo Ridenti and Daniel Arao Reis, comps., Historia do Marxismo no Brasil (Campinas, Brazil: Unicamp, 2007); Daniel Aarao Reis Filho, Ditadura militar, esquerdas e sociedade (Rio de Janeiro: Zahar, 2000); Denise Rollemberg, O apoio de Cuba à luta armada no Brasil: O treinamento guerrilheiro (Rio de Janeiro, RJ: Mauad, 2001).

(8.) Arquidiócesis de San Pablo 1985, Brasil Nunca Mais (Petrópolis, Brazil: Ed. Vozes, 1985), 63.

(9.) For EGP see: Gabriel Rot, Los orígenes perdidos de la guerrilla en la Argentina: La historia de Jorge Ricardo Masetti y el Ejército Guerrillero del Pueblo (Buenos Aires: Ediciones El Cielo por Asalto, 2000). For Peronist resistance see: Ernesto Salas, Uturuncos: el origen de la guerrilla peronista (Buenos Aires: Editorial Biblos, 2003).

(10.) For a general view of the historical process see: Pilar Calveiro, Política y/o violencia. Una aproximación a la guerrilla de los años 70 (Buenos Aires: Norma, 2005); María José Moyano, Argentina’s Lost Patrol: Armed Struggle, 1969–1979 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1995); María Matilde Ollier, Orden, Poder y Violencia (Buenos Aires: Centro Editor de América Latina, 1989); Maristella Svampa, “El populismo imposible y sus actores, 1973–1976,” in Daniel James, dir., Violencia, proscripción y autoritarismo (1955–1976), Nueva Historia Argentina, vol. 9 (Buenos Aires: Editorial Sudamericana, 2003); Maria Cristina Tortti, El “viejo” partido socialista y los orígenes de la “nueva” izquierda: 1955–1965 (Buenos Aires: Prometeo Libros, 2009). For Montoneros see: Richard Gillespie, Soldados de Perón: historia crítica sobre los Montoneros (Buenos Aires: Editorial Sudamericana, 2008) and Lucas LanusseMontoneros: El mito de sus 12 fundadores (Buenos Aires: Vergara, 2005). For ERP see: Vera Carnovale, Los combatientes, historia del PRT-ERP (Buenos Aires: Siglo XXI, 2011); Pablo Pozzi, “Por las sendas argentinas…” El PRT-ERP. La guerrilla marxista (Buenos Aires: EUDEBA, 2001); María Seoane, Todo o Nada. La historia secreta y pública de Mario Roberto Santucho, el jefe guerrillero de los años setenta (Buenos Aires: Editorial Sudamericana, 1991).

(11.) Comisión Nacional sobre la Desaparición de Personas (CONADEP) Nunca Mas (Buenos Aires: Eudeba, 2006).

(12.) For historical context see: Mario Garcés and Sebastián Leiva, El golpe en La Legua. Los caminos de la historia y la memoria (Santiago: LOM Ediciones, 2005); Pinto Vallejos, Julio “¿Y la historia les dio la razón? El MIR en dictadura, 1973–1981,” Verónica Valdivia et al., Su revolución contra nuestra revolución. Izquierdas y derechas en el Chile de Pinochet (1973–1981) (Santiago: LOM, 2006); and Peter Winn, Weavers of Revolution: The Yarur Workers and Chile’s Road to Socialism (New York, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986). For MIR see: Centro de Estudios Miguel Enríquez (CEM)Miguel Enríquez y el proyecto revolucionario en Chile: Discursos y documentos del Movimiento de Izquierda Revolucionaria (Santiago: LOM Ediciones: Centro de Estudios Miguel Enríquez, 2004); Eugenia Palieraki, “Une gauche nouvelle? Histoire critique de l’extrême gauche chilienne des années 1960, Bulletin de l’Institut Pierre Renouvin 2011/1 (N° 33); Andrés Pascal Allende, El MIR Chileno, una experiencia revolucionaria (Argentina: Ediciones Cucaña, 2003); Julio Pinto Vallejos, “¿Y la historia les dio la razón? El MIR en dictadura, 1973–1981,” in Su revolución contra nuestra revolución. Izquierdas y derechas en el Chile de Pinochet (1973–1981); Patricio Rivas, Chile, un largo septiembre (Santiago: LOM Ediciones, 2007); Carlos Sandoval, Movimiento de Izquierda Revolucionaria, 1970–1973 (Concepción, Chile: Escaparate Ediciones, 2004); Luis Vitale, Contribución a la historia del MIR (Santiago: Ed. Instituto de investigación de Movimientos Sociales “Pedro Vuskovic,” 1999).

(13.) Comisión Nacional de Verdad y Reconciliación. Informe Rettig (Santiago: Ed. del Ornitorrinco, 1991).

(14.) See: John Dinges, The Condor Years: How Pinochet and His Allies Brought Terrorism to Three Continents (New York: New Press, 2004); and Aldo Marchesi, “Geografías de la protesta armada, guerra fría, nueva izquierda y activismo transnacional en el cono sur, el ejemplo de la Junta de Coordinación Revolucionaria (1972–1977),” Sociohistórica, Cuadernos del Cish, Nº 25, segundo semestre de 2009. Universidad Nacional de la Plata, Argentina.

(15.) See: Gustavo Rodriguez Ostria, Sin tiempo para las palabras, Teoponte, La otra guerrilla guevarista en Bolivia (Cochabamba, Bolivia: Grupo Editorial Kipus, 2006) and Osvaldo “Chato” Peredo, Volvimos a las montañas (Santa Cruz, Bolivia: Osvaldo Peredo Leigue Edición, 2003).

(16.) For historical context see: Charles W Bergquist, Ricardo Peñaranda, and Gonzalo Sánchez, Violence in Colombia: The Contemporary Crisis in Historical Perspective (Wilmington, DE: SR Books, 1992); and Forrest Hylton, Evil hour in Colombia (London and New York: Verso, 2006). For M 19 see: onanexto famoso, Eduardo Pizarro, “Revolutionary guerrilla groups in Colombia” in Violence in ColombiaMaría Eugenia Vásquez Perdomo, My Life as a Colombian Revolutionary. Reflections of a Former Guerrillera (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2005), Darío Villamizar Herrera, Jaime Bateman: Biografía de un revolucionario (Bogota: Editorial Planeta Colombiana, 2002).

(17.) Among the vast bibliography see: Gilles Bataillon, Genèse des guerres internes en Amérique centrale: 1960–1983 (Paris: Belles lettres, 2003); James Dunkerley, Power in the Isthmus: A Political History of Modern Central America (New York: Verso, 1990); Jeff Goodwin, No Other Way Out: States and Revolutionary Movements, 1945–1991 (Cambridge, UK, and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001); Walter Lafeber, Inevitable Revolutions: The United States in Central America (New York and London: W. W. Norton, 1993); Carlos Vila, Between Earthquakes and Volcanoes: Market, State, and the Revolutions in Central America (New York: Monthly Review, 1995); Edelberto Torres-Rivas, History and Society in Central America (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1993).

(18.) See: Joaquin M. Chavez, “Catholic Action, the Second Vatican Council, and the Emergence of the New Left in El Salvador (1950–1975),” The Americas 70, no. 3 (January 2014); Aldo Lauria-Santiago and Leigh Binford, eds., Landscapes of Struggle: Politics, Society, and Community in El Salvador (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2004); Elisabeth Jean Wood, Insurgent Collective Action and Civil War in El Salvador (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2003).

(19.) For the historical process see: Greg Grandin, The Last Colonial Massacre (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004); Deborah Levenson Strada, Trade Unionists against Terror: Guatemala City, 1954–1985 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1994). On guerrilla organizations see: Mario Payeras, El trueno en la ciudad. Episodios de la lucha armada urbana de 1981 en Guatemala (Mexico City: Juan Pablos Editor, 1987).

(20.) For the historical process see: Jeffrey Gould, To Lead as Equals: Rural Protest and Political Consciousness in Chinandega, Nicaragua, 1912–1979 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1990). For the FSLN see: Lucrecia Lozano, De Sandino al triunfo de la revolución (Mexico City: Siglo XXI, 1985); Matilde Zimmerman, Sandinista: Carlos Fonseca and the Nicaraguan Revolution (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2000). For testimonies see: Omar Cabezas, La montaña es algo mas que una inmensa estepa verde (Mexico City: Siglo Veintiuno Editores, 1982).

(21.) See: Verónica Oikión Solano and Marta Eugenia García Ugarte, Movimientos armados en México, siglo XX (Mexico City: CIESAS, 2006).

(22.) For the debate at a continental level see: Hal Brands, Latin America’s Cold War (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010); and Grandin, The Last Colonial Massacre; For a regional level see the debate on the origins of Operation Condor, see: Dinges, The Condor Years. For a national level see two classical works on Chile: Peter Winn, Weaver of Revolution; and Arturo Valenzuela, The Breakdown of Democratic Regimes: Chile (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978).

(23.) Jorge G. Castañeda, Utopia Unarmed: The Latin American Left after the Cold War (New York: Knopf 1993).

(24.) Claudia Gilman, Entre la pluma y el fusil: debates y dilemas del escritor revolucionario en América Latina (Buenos Aires: Siglo Veintiuno Editores Argentina, 2003).

(25.) Eric Zolov, “Introduction: Latin America in the Global Sixties,” The Americas 70, no. 3 (January 2014).

(26.) Miguel Bonasso, Recuerdo de la Muerte (Buenos Aires: Bruguera, 1984).