Armed insurrections are one of three methods that the left in Latin America has traditionally used to gain power (the other two are competing in elections, or mass uprisings often organized by labor movements as general strikes). After the triumph of the Cuban Revolution in 1959, guerrilla warfare became the preferred path to power given that electoral processes were highly corrupt and the general strikes too often led to massacres rather than a fundamental transformation of society. Based on the Cuban model, revolutionaries in other Latin American countries attempted to establish similar small guerrilla forces with mobile fighters who lived off the land with the support of a local population. The 1960s insurgencies came in two waves. Influenced by Che Guevara’s foco model, initial insurgencies were based in the countryside. After the defeat of Guevara’s guerrilla army in Bolivia in 1967, the focus shifted to urban guerrilla warfare. In the 1970s and 1980s, a new phase of guerrilla movements emerged in Peru and in Central America. While guerrilla-style warfare can provide a powerful response to a much larger and established military force, armed insurrections are rarely successful. Multiple factors including a failure to appreciate a longer history of grassroots organizing and the weakness of the incumbent government help explain those defeats and highlight just how exceptional an event successful guerrilla uprisings are.
The strategy of irregular warfare has been used since ancient times, but the term “guerrilla warfare” seems to have originated in early-19th-century Spain during the Napoleonic wars. “Guerrilla” is the diminutive of the Spanish word for war—guerra. During the Napoleonic wars, British troops used the term guerrillero (warrior) to refer to the Spanish and Portuguese rebels. The form of irregular warfare waged by these resistance fighters, who were engaging French troops during the Napoleonic invasion and occupation, became known as “guerrilla warfare.” The term was then used to refer to rebel troops in the Americas who led the battles for independence against Spanish troops. More recently, “guerrilla warfare,” as both a strategy and an ideology, is most closely associated with the Cuban Revolution of 1959 and the subsequent publication of the treatise and manual Guerrilla Warfare by Ernesto “Che” Guevara. Guevara did not invent the idea of guerrilla warfare, but the unique (and ultimately successful) approach to making revolution in Cuba and Guevara’s important treatise on the subject did change the general understanding and meaning of the concept. Guevara’s explanation of guerrilla warfare in the context of the armed revolutionary struggle in Cuba changed the trajectory of Marxist revolutionary thought and actions in the 20th century as well.
The 1994 Zapatista uprising in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas was the culmination of centuries of repression and exploitation of the country’s indigenous minority at the hands of its Spanish and mestizo leaders and the landed elite. The Liberal Reform initiated in 1854, followed by the “modernizing” policies of President Porfirio Díaz (1877–1880; 1884–1911), and then the revolution that ousted him, would strengthen and institutionalize a new set of institutional frameworks, discourses, and practices that lasted through the 20th century. The Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional (Zapatista National Liberation Army, or EZLN) emerged from a history of complex and volatile relationships between indigenous peoples of the impoverished state and its economic and political elite, relationships that began a process of redefinition in the 1950s. Zapatismo is one of the expressions of indigenous and working-class struggles in this social and historical context. It can be distinguished from other rural and indigenous movements by its repudiation of the strategies of protest and negotiation within an institutional framework, its adoption of armed struggle, and its rejection of the conventional objectives of land and commercial agricultural production in favor of territorial autonomy and de facto self-government.
E. Mark Moreno
Chinacos were mounted guerrillas of the War of the Reform and the French Intervention (1857–1860, 1862–1867) who fought on the liberal republican side, operated out of central Mexican regions, and were known for their wide-brimmed sombreros and battle lances. What is known about them is largely the product of popular perception shaped by print depictions, some of which were created long afterward. They first appeared in the press when the War of the Reform was winding down and the victorious Juárez government, in carriage and on horseback, prepared to enter Mexico City in January of 1861. Before the French invasion that began in October of 1861 with the naval landing at Veracruz, the “chinaco” designation applied to irregular fighters. The newspaper and propaganda organ La Chinaca gave such fighters an image and narrative that endures to the present day. Still known among many Mexicans, their appearance in print media resulted from times of crisis as Mexico, after a military defeat by the United States and a major loss of territory, encountered the French Intervention in the 1860s. Chinacos as symbolic figures on horseback exemplify a historic pattern of guerrilla warfare in Mexico, dating at least to the US-Mexican War. There are different versions of the label chinaco, although there is strong evidence that it has roots in the chino designation assigned to Afro-Mexicans during the colonial era. It is also linked to “china,” or rural women known for their distinctive attire as depicted in popular reading.