Lockdown reading: Origins of the Latin American guerrilla movements

Rebellions and revolutions have been the leitmotifs of Latin American politics


The book Latin American Guerrilla Movements: Origins, Evolution and Outcomes is the latest, published in December 2019, on this fascinating subject. It gives a comprehensive overview of the guerrilla movements with regional and sub-regional (Central America, Andean and Southern Cone) perspectives besides case studies on individual countries in the region. It brings out the Zeitgeist, the ideas, beliefs and sentiments which motivated and inspired the young guerrilla fighters.

The book has been edited by Dirk Kruijt, Eduardo Rey Tristán and Alberto Martín Álvarez who have impeccable research expertise on the guerrilla movements in Latin America. Local experts in the individual countries have given authentic account with their first-hand knowledge and face to face interaction with some of the guerrilla leaders. The 19 scholars who have contributed the articles, have maintained objectivity and neutrality, avoiding the partisan passion which is still polarising some parts of the region.

Of course, rebellions and revolutions have been the leitmotifs of Latin American politics throughout its history. First, it was the indigenous who resisted the Spanish conquistadores. Then the Creoles fought for independence from Spain and Portugal. After independence, the leftist guerrilla movements aspired to overthrow dictatorships and even democratically elected governments in order to establish Utopias of socialist nature. The guerrilla movements proliferated from the sixties to the nineties.

Sources of inspiration

There were four principal sources of inspiration for the revolutionaries: Dependency Theory, Liberation Theology, Che Guevara and the triumph of the Cuban revolution. Besides these regional sources, local and national martyrs as well as external sources from outside the region had also influenced the guerrilla groups.

The Dependency Theory awakened, opened the minds and instigated the university students and professors to rise against exploitation and imperialism. Some poets and writers added fuel to the revolutionary fire. Marti (Cuban poet Jose Marti who fought for the independence of Cuba) was invoked more than Marx in the revolutionary discourses.

The Liberation Theology of the clergy gave a new radical interpretation of the Bible and justified recourse to arms to fight social injustice and exploitation. The Latin American Episcopal conference in 1968 in Medellin (Colombia) endorsed Liberation Theology. Although the Vatican was against it, the Latin American priests at lower levels working in poverty stricken areas embraced Liberation Theology as a legitimate way for the poor to seek social justice. Camilo Torres, the Colombian priest who joined the ELN guerrilla movement and died in combat in 1966 said, “ If Jesus were alive today, he would have been a guerrillero”. The Nicaraguan priests, the Cardenal brothers (Ernesto and Fernando), recruited young catholics to the Sandinista struggle.

The universities, churches and Bible reading groups became the breeding grounds of revolution and principal centres of recruitment.

Che Guevara stood out distinctly as the icon for the young revolutionaries of the region. His ascetic devotion to the ideal, selfless sacrifice and martyrdom had romanticised the revolutionary fight against injustice and imperialism. Che had fought wars going beyond his country and continent. This had inspired a number of other Latin Americans who joined voluntarily and enthusiastically in the wars outside their own countries.


The victory of the small group of Cuban guerrillas against overwhelming odds and in defiance of the mighty US intoxicated the imagination of the Latin American youth. Mythology and legends were built around the heroes and nobility of the cause. Fidel Castro and Che Guevara proved that it was possible for guerrillas to militarily defeat a regular army and bring about a socialist revolution overcoming the opposition of the capitalist imperialism of US.

Cuba gave support to guerrilla groups in 14 countries out of the total of 19 in Latin America. They gave arms, training, advice and logistic support. It was the Cubans who brokered unification of the many guerrilla factions into one solid country structure in Nicaragua (1979), El Salvador (1982) and Guatemala (1982) and helped them at the crucial time.

The exceptions which did not get Cuban support were the Colombian FARC, Peru’s Sendero Luminoso and the Mexican insurgent groups. Cuba had, of course, supported ELN and M19 of Colombia. Cuba did not support the Mexican guerrillas as a mark of respect to the Mexican governments which always had a soft corner and sympathy for the Castro government.

While everyone knows the failure of the US-sponsored notorious Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba, one should note that there have been a number of failures of Cuban supported guerrilla invasions into Dominican Republic, Bolivia, Guatemala and Nicaragua. Hundreds of young fighters lost their lives in these adventures. There were six attempts of incursion by guerrilla groups into Dominican Republic between 1947 and 1973. But all of them were crushed by the Dominican government.

It is amazing that despite its own severe shortage of resources and the constant struggle for survival against the unrelenting threat and sanctions from US, the Cubans had gone out of their way to inspire and support revolutionary groups in other Latin American countries and even in Africa.


The communist theories of the various schools (Marxist, Leninist, Trotskyist, Maoist) and the success of the Soviet, Chinese, Algerian and Vietnamese revolutions also had their share of influence in Latin America. Some of the Latin American guerrillas went for training to Russia, China, Vietnam, Algeria, Lebanon and North Korea.


Some countries saw a brief guerrilla activity for a few years while others had experienced long periods in different phases. The first wave ‘of rural guerrilla foquismo’ was from Castro’s campaign starting in 1956 till the death of Guevara in 1967. The second was of urban guerrilla warfare in the Southern cone countries. The third was the wave of political-military organisations from early 1970s onwards in Central America and Andean countries. Even before these phases, in December 1947, under the auspices of progressive Guatemalan president Juan José Arévalo, exiles from the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua and Costa Rica signed the Pacto del Caribe, which pledged to overthrow the dictators ruling those and other Caribbean nations.

The guerrilla fighters believed that political, economic and social transformation would only be possible through the use of political violence rather than via the ballot box. They included students, intellectuals, professors, school teachers, priests, peasants, militant communist party cadres, trade union activists and a few army officers too. Most of them were young, idealistic and with the noblest intentions for a better society. They had sacrificed their personal lives, careers and families for a larger cause.

The revolutionary movements proliferated with different ideologies, dogmas, inspirations and circumstances . Many of the original groups split and splintered due to schisms, doctrinal differences, personality clashes between leaders, external support and local situation. The groups chose names and acronyms starting with E (Exercito - army), F (Frente or Fuerza) and M (Movimiento) and numbers for historic dates and in the name of martyrs like Marti, Sandino and Che Guevara.

Here are some examples:




MI26M, MR13, OPR-33, M19, M26J, LC23S and 1J4

Colombia faced the longest guerrilla war for 70 years (still going on a smaller scale) followed by Guatemala with 36 years and El Salvador for 20 years. Cuba had the shortest guerrilla war of just two years. Colombia suffered the largest number of killings, followed by Guatemala and Peru.Mexico had around 40 armed groups in different points of time. Colombia had about 30 guerrilla groups.

There were a number of similarities and commonalities in the evolution and operation of the revolutionary movements which had similar world view, ideological framework, shared reportoire and methodology of action. But there are four cases which do not fit the common pattern and stand out distinct. These four had no Cuban inspiration or support. These are the Colombian FARC, Mexican Zapatista insurgency in 1994, and the two Peruvian guerrilla movements in the 1980s and 1990s Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) and Tupac Amaros (MRTA). FARC, the largest guerrilla group of the region, rose from the period of “La Violencia” following the assassination of Leftist presidential candidate Jorge Gaitan in 1948. The Sendero Luminoso group was unique with their leader Abimael Guzman having built a personality cult around him as the “fourth sword of Communism”, after Marx, Lenin and Mao.

The revolutionaries from the southern cone had joined together and formed Junta Coordinadora Revolucionaria (JCR) with the guerilla movements from Argentina, Uruguay, Chile and Bolivia. The JCR made a public appearance with a press conference in February 1974 after the failed attack on the Argentine army barracks at Azul. They had plans to expand to the whole region and even reach out to the rest of the world. The Cubans kept away from this group seeing it as a rival for regional influence. The JCR faded out by 1978.

The mainstream communist parties in some of the countries refused to support the armed revolutionaries since USSR pursued peaceful coexistence with the governments of the region.

Sierra Maestra was a symbol of the Cuban revolution which started in the mountainous jungles of Cuba and worked through villages before reaching the cities and capital. But there were no such mountains and jungles in Uruguay, Brazil and Argentina and so the manuals had to be changed in the southern cone countries for urban guerrilla warfare. Guevara’s campaign to use the Bolivian jungle as the transit point for starting guerrilla wars in Argentina and Peru ended up as a disaster with his death in 1967.


The main objective of all the revolutionary movements was to take over power and bring about social justice and utopia. The only cases where they succeeded were Cuba and Nicaragua. The special circumstances of the two countries facilitated the success. The decadent, corrupt and discredited dictatorships in both these countries had lost the support of their own people. Even the US had abandoned them at the crucial time towards the end. These had caused the collapse of the regimes unable to stand up against the determined and popular revolutionary movements which had built up support in both the urban as well as rural areas.

But unfortunately the revolutions in these two countries have outlived their glory and are crying out for democratic liberation now. The Cuban people are tired and exhausted by the meaningless revolutionary rhetoric while they struggle every day with shortages, queues, poor infrastructure and suppression of freedom.

The Sandinistas, who came to power in 1979 after shedding more blood than the Cubans, set an excellent example by embracing democracy. They held free and fair elections in 1984 and came back to power. Their government survived despite the brutal Contra war unleashed on them by the CIA. Besides killings, the Contras pursued scorched earth policies destroying the economy, farms and factories. The Sandinista government had to spend over fifty percent of their precious resources on the war for survival. The Sandinistas left power peacefully and gracefully after losing the elections in 1989. They sat out in the opposition for 17 long years and then came back to power through the ballot in 2006 and 2011. Daniel Ortega won a third term in the 2016 elections, by constitutional manoeuvrers to bypass the two-term limit and amidst accusations of rigging of the elections. Ortega and his wife Rosario Murillo, who is the Vice President, are now running the country like a family franchise. There have been protests against their corrupt and authoritarian regime.

Thousands of the young guerrillas were killed, tortured and forced into exile by the brutal counter insurgency forces of states and paramilitary units with support from the anti-communist campaign of US. The indigenous communities of Guatemala and El Salvador had suffered disproportionately large number of massacres by right wing death squads besides the armed forces. Hundreds of thousands were forcibly uprooted from their villages and displaced on the ground that they had given refuge and support to guerillas. At the same time the revolutionaries had also caused death and destruction in the pursuit of their cause. Some of them had resorted to kidnappings, extortion, hijackings and bank robberies besides bombings and attacks on security forces and government buildings.

After the end of dictatorships and restoration of democracies in the region in the eighties, some of the guerrilla groups have reinvented themselves as political parties and some fighters have become political leaders. The Pink Tide of the region in the first decade of the new century helped in the insertion of the ex-guerillas into power through the ballot. In El Salvador, the FMLN guerilla group became a legal political party and came to power in 2009 and returned in 2014. In Colombia, FARC became a political party, although it had done poorly in the 2018 polls.

Jose Mujica the Uruguayan guerrilla fighter, who spent 14 years in jail, became President in 2010. He did not show any symptoms of rancour or thirst for revenge. He was pragmatic, progressive and balanced in his policies. Even as President, he lived an austere and simple life refusing the ostentations of the office. Dilma Rouseff, a guerrilla leader who survived the tortures of military dictatorship, became President of Brazil. But unfortunately she committed a series of political errors and got impeached by the corrupt and crooked congressmen on a trivial excuse. President Sanchez Ceren was the first guerrilla leader to become president of El Salvador in 2014. Before the peace agreement, he was Commandante Leonel González, his pseudonym. Some guerrilleiros became vice presidents (Alvaro Garcia in Bolivia under Evo Morales), ministers (Ali Rodrigues oil minister under President Chavez, Nilda Gare defence minister of Argentina under president Cristina Kirchner Fernandez), mayors (Gustavo Petro in Bogota), legislators and governors in the new democratic era of the region since the 1980s. 

The Colombian ELN (National Liberation Army) is the only large (about 2000) guerrilla group active in Latin America now. They held peace talks in 2014 and 2017 but without result. Now they are keen for negotiations but the government has rejected talks till the guerillas stop their violence. The group had declared a temporary ceasefire in April this year due to the corona virus emergency. Some of their top leaders were killed by military bombing in the second week of May. In response, the group has announced resumption of attacks against the government.

One thing missing in the book is the role played by literature. Poems and writings had provided food for the revolutionary souls. Roque Dalton, the famous militant poet of El Salvador became a member of the People’s revolutionary Army (ERP). Tragically, he was murdered by his own comrades because of internal dispute in 1975. His poems were banned by the dictatorship till 1992. Since 2013, El Salvador has honoured him by declaring his birth day on 14 May as “National Poetry Day”.

Another missing thing is the role of US in the counter insurgency operations. I guess this will need a separate and even longer book.

I recommend the book to Indian scholars and students of Latin America. It would also be useful to compare with the Indian insurgent groups such as the Naxalites who are still active and control significant territories in the tribal areas.

For Indian readers, the book is available only on Kindle. Hard cover and paperback editions will have to wait till the end of the coronavirus restrictions.

The author is an expert in Latin American affairs

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