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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.

Article

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.

Article

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.

Article

Since 1982 there have been at least 2,000 massacres in Colombia committed by different illegal groups and by members of the Colombian army and police. The development of the conflict in Colombia has a direct relation with the causes and consequences of these crimes, perpetrated in most cases by paramilitary armies, associated to varying degrees with the cocaine trade. Paramilitary groups were a counterinsurgency force organized by the State, or independent, and supported economically by drug cartels and some landowners and businessmen. Although guerrilla armies, insurgency, and communist groups created mostly in the 1960s perpetrated several massacres, these crimes were systematically used primarily by paramilitary groups to terrorize people in places where they had a particular interest, such as drug trafficking or vying for political power. In its book ¡Basta ya!, the Centro Nacional de Memoria Histórica has documented that 59% of the massacres were committed by paramilitary groups and 17% by guerrillas. Rutas del Conflicto is a project created by journalists that marks the evolution of these groups through more than 30 years of war. Using mapping and timeline tools developed especially for the project, it has documented more than 700 of these crimes, displaying the degree to which the tragedy has affected the lives of millions of people in Colombia.

Article

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.

Article

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.

Article

The role of religion shifted dramatically in Central American politics during the 20th century, as the Catholic Church moved from a position as conservator of the status quo to a powerful force for reform and human rights. The century also witnessed the rise, then the “boom,” of Protestant—specifically Pentecostal—religion. By the century’s end, Central America had become among the most Protestant regions of Latin America, with every country except Costa Rica and Belize measuring a large and rising evangélico minority. These changes unfolded alongside, and deeply affected, one of the most traumatic and violent periods in the region’s history, the so-called Central American crisis of the late 1970s and 1980s, when Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Guatemala became the battlegrounds for one of the last large proxy wars of the larger Cold War, between Marxist insurgencies and authoritarian governments.