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Terror and Guerrilla Warfare in Latin America, 1956–1970

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  03 June 2009

Timothy P. Wickham-Crowley
Georgetown University


Most of the extraordinary waves of terror which have swept many Latin American societies since 1970 have occurred in guerrilla-based insurgencies or even civil wars. Because of the massive body counts produced during these confrontations between revolutionaries and counterrevolutionaries based in or linked with a government, human rights organizations have issued a long series of reports about terror—especially that which has been carried out by incumbent regimes and death squads—and which has been supplemented by the exposés of the guerrillas themselves. Amnesty International, the Human Rights group in the Organization of American States (OAS), and Americas Watch have been the major international actors documenting the wave of terror. Many independent national groups, such as El Salvador's “Socorro Juridico” and other human rights organizations linked with church bodies have undertaken that more perilous task at home.

The Politics of Terror
Copyright © Society for the Comparative Study of Society and History 1990

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34 Comité de Solidaridad con los Presos Politicos, Libro Negro de la RepresiOn: Frente Nacional 1958–1974 (Bogotá: Editorial Gráficas Mundo Nuevo, 1974). This work is a good example of the use of political blinders in moral evaluation: No guerrilla violence against peasants is reported, except for one peasant who was ajusticiado (”judged,” the euphemism for executed). The two verbs employed to describe killings by government are consistently different from the words used for those slain by guerrillas.Google Scholar

35 See Mercier, , Guerrillas in Latin America, 236–7, for official casualty figures.Google Scholar

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41 Lamberg, , Die Castristiche Guerilla, 117;Google ScholarLa Prensa (Lima), 14 August 1965. Notably, , by late September the government claimed that only fifty guerrillas had been killed in the area in the previous two months; see La Prensa, 28 September 1965.Google Scholar

42 See La Prensa, various issues, especially 7 August 1965; Guardia, , Proceso a Campesinos, 20;Google ScholarMercier, , Guerrillas in Latin America, 84;Google ScholarGall, Norman, “Peru's Misfired Guerrilla Campaign,” The Reporter, 36 (26 01 1967), 38.Google Scholar

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44 Guardia, , Proceso a Campesinos, 4166,Google Scholar gives the trial evidence. Similar reports of peasants who had been killed by troops appear in a private letter from Guillermo Lobatón to Luis de la Puente on 20 June 1965; see Mercado, , Las Guerrillas del Peru, 154–5,Google Scholar or Gott, , Rural Guerrillas, 421–3.Google Scholar

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49 For a debate focussed on my second point, in this case concerning El Salvador's recent killings, see Berryman, Phillip, “Another View of El Salvador,” Dissent (Summer 1982), 356Google Scholar and “Gabriel Zaid Replies,” 359.Google Scholar

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78 See the comments by Villalobos, Joaquín in Marta Harnecker's collection of interviews with Central American revolutionaries, Pueblos en Armas (Mexico, D.F.: Ediciones Era, 1984), 173232;Google Scholar the report of a brief visit by Bourgois, Philippe, “What U.S. Foreign Policy Faces in Rural El Salvador: An Eyewitness Account,” Monthly Review, 34:1 (05, 1982), 1432;CrossRefGoogle Scholar and for a medical doctor's report of a longer period in administering medical care in the Guazapa region, see Clements, Charles, Witness to War: An American Doctor in El Salvador (Torontoet al.: Bantam, 1984).Google Scholar

79 Brownmiller, Susan, Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1975),Google Scholar ch. 3. For more on the selectivity of American terror in Vietnam, see Lewy, , America in Vietnam, ch. 11;Google Scholar and Wolfe, Tom, “The Truest Sport: Jousting with Sam and Charlie,” Mauve Gloves and Madmen, Clutter and Vine (New York: Bantam, 1977), 2458.Google Scholar

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81 See Wickham-Crowley, , “Guerrilla Governments,” 481;Google Scholar and ldem, “Winners, Losers, and Also-Rans: Toward a Comparative Sociology of Latin American Guerrilla Movements,” in Power and Popular Protest: Latin American Social Movements, Eckstein, Susan, ed. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989), 157.Google Scholar Some excellent detail on Barrientos's support among the Bolivian peasantry, including the 1966 electoral tallies, can be found in Bernard, Jean-Pierre, et al., Guide to the Political Parties of South America (Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England: Penguin, 1973), 135–46.Google Scholar

82 The figure of 10,000 for El Salvador has been widely disseminated; for the 7,000 Colombian guerrillas, see the Latin America Weekly Report, 31 August 1984;Google Scholar for the 6,000 Guatemalan guerrillas, see Dunkerley, James, Power in the Isthmus (London: Verso, 1988), 483;Google Scholar for Sendero Luminoso of Peru, I am indebted to private conversations with Smith, Michael and also to McClintock, Cynthia, “Peru's Sendero Luminoso Rebellion: Origins and Trajectory,” in Eckstein, , Power and Popular Protest, 63.Google Scholar

83 Wickham-Crowley, , “Guerrilla Governments,” passim.Google ScholarMoore, Barrington, Jr., Injustice: The Social Bases of Obedience and Revolt (White Plains, N.Y.: M. E. Sharpe, 1978), ch. 1, especially 20–22.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

84 Barrington Moore clearly asserts the first principle, and the Nazi diaries that he quotes from strongly suggest the second; see Injustice, 413–34.Google Scholar

85 Callanan, Colonel Edward F., “Terror in Venezuela,” Military Review, 49 (02 1969), 4956;Google ScholarThe New York Times, 23 November 1963 and 2 December 1963;Google ScholarGall, , “Teodoro Petkoff I,” 16;Google ScholarGott, , Rural Guerrillas, 210.Google Scholar

86 For more thoughts on renegades, see Merton, Robert K., Social Theory and Social Structure, 3rd. ed. (New York: The Free Press, 1968), 209–11, 323;Google ScholarTilly, Charles, From Mobilization to Revolution (Reading, Mass.: Wesley-Addison, 1978), 106–14, deals analytically with the way in which the acceptability of an acting group, rather than just the quality of its actions, affects the way in which repressive forces treat it.Google Scholar

87 Schur, Edwin M., Labeling Women Deviant: Gender, Stigma, and Social Control (New York: Random House, 1984), 145–56.Google Scholar

88 Brownmiller, , Against Our Will, ch. 6.Google Scholar

89 Lerner, Gerda, The Creation of Patriarchy (New York: Oxford, 1986), 8081;Google ScholarBrownmiller, , Against Our Will, ch. 3.Google Scholar

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91 Fanon, Frantz, The Wretched of the Earth (New York: Grove Press, 1966).Google Scholar

92 On leftist radicalism, again see Moore, , Injustice, 420–33;Google Scholar on the breakdown of the gender of the guerrillas, see George, Black, Triumph of the People: The Sandinista Revolution in Nicaragua (London: Zed, 1981), 323–4;Google Scholar for El Salvador and Nicaragua both, see Stanford Central America Action Network (SCAAN), eds., Revolution in Central America (Boulder, Colo.: Westview, 1983), 383, 416–7;Google Scholar for Peru, McClintock, “Peru's Sendero Luminoso Rebellion,” original manuscript, and a private communication from Michael Smith.Google Scholar

93 Gall, , “The Continental Revolution,” 5;Google ScholarMinsterio, de Guerra, Las Guerrillas en el Peru, 60;Google ScholarLa Prensa (Lima), 23 June 1965;Google ScholarGuevara, , Reminiscences, 94.Google Scholar In the Peruvian case the army reported that the mass exodus was due to the “excitement” caused by the guerrillas.

94 Moore, , Injustice, 125;Google ScholarLupsha, Peter A., “Explanation of Political Violence: Some Psychological Theories versus Indignation,” Politics and Society, 2 (Fall 1971), 89104.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

95 Wickham-Crowley, , “Guerrilla Governments.”Google Scholar

96 Gall, , “The Legacy of Che Guevara,” 32 (quotation).Google Scholar Similar thoughts are also expressed in Aaron, Lt. Colonel Harold R., “Why Batista Lost,” Army, 15 (09 1965), 71;Google ScholarGrumland, Lt. Colonel Neal G., “The Formidable Guerrilla,” Army, 12 (02 1962), 65;Google Scholar and Johnson, Chalmers, “Civilian Loyalties and Guerrilla Conflict,” World Politics, 14 (07 1962), 652.CrossRefGoogle Scholar Benedict Kerkvliet has also suggested that government repression transforms mere protests into political rebellion; see The Huk Rebellion: A Study of Peasant Revolt in the Philippines (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1977), 260–2.Google Scholar

97 Friedenberg, Daniel, “Notes on the Cuban Revolution,” New Republic, 138 (17 01 1958), 15;Google ScholarBarquín, , Las Luchas Guerrilleras, I, 319;Google ScholarDraper, Theodore, Castro's Revolution: Myths and Realities (New York: Praeger, 1962), 126.Google Scholar

98 Zago, , Aquí No Ha Pasado Nada, 173–4Google Scholar; Debray, Régis, Strategy for Revolution, Blackburn, Robin, ed. (London: Jonathan Cape, 1970), 103.Google Scholar

99 El Nacional (Caracas), 31 August 1962.Google Scholar

100 Gilly, Adolfo, “The Guerrilla Movement in Guatemala I,” Monthly Review, 17 (05 1965), 2425;Google ScholarMunson, , Zacapa, 194–5;Google ScholarSchump, , Las Guerrillas en América Latina, 55;Google ScholarShort, A. P., “Conversations with the Guatemalan Delegates in Cuba,” Monthly Review, 18 (02 1967), 37.Google Scholar

101 Guevara, , Reminiscences, 192–4;Google ScholarHector, Bejar, “Bilan d'une Guérilla au Pérou,” Partisans, 37 (0406 1967), 98;Google ScholarBejar, , “Ne Pas Surestimer Ses Forces,” 111;Google ScholarWoodmansee, Lt. Colonel John W., Jr., “Mao's Protracted War: Theory and Practíce,” Parameters, 3:1 (1973), 4041.Google Scholar

102 See Wickham-Crowley, , “Guerrilla Governments,” 492–3Google Scholar for more details on all but the final case; for some evidence that Sendero Luminoso's support in the Andes has fallen because they failed to protect the peasantry, see McClintock, , “Peru's Sendero Luminoso Rebellion,” 90.Google Scholar

103 For information by Amnesty International (A.I.) on a variety of cases, see their The Republic of Nicaragua (Nottingham, England: The Russell Press, 1977);Google Scholar a capsule summary is in “Guatemala: A Government Program of Political Murder,” in Guatemala in Rebellion: Unfinished History, Fried, Jonathanet al., eds. (N.Y.: Grove, 1983), 139–45;Google Scholar and a summary of their findings for the early period under Montt, Ríos, in Latin America Weekly Report (London), 15 10 1982, 11;Google Scholar for Guatemala in 1983, see as well the summary of the Americas Watch findings, in Extermination in Guatemala,” New York Review of Books, 30:9 (2 06 1983), 1316;Google Scholar two summaries of A.I.'s reports on Peru and El Salvador appear in, respectively, Latin America Weekly Report, 23 09 1983, 10;Google Scholar and Latin America Political Report (London; same periodical), 21 03 1980, 12.Google Scholar Independent church authorities also criticized and documented government terror as well, especially in Nicaragua and El Salvador. For more detail on government terror, mostly from left-wing sources, see, for Nicaragua: Tijerino, Doris, Inside the Nicaraguan Revolution, As Told to Margaret Randall (Vancouver: New Star, 1978), 165–75;Google ScholarLatin America Political Report, 29 June 1979, 194–6;Google ScholarNew York Times, 2 March 1977, Section 2, p. 1.Google Scholar For Guatemala, see Black, Georgeet al., Garrison Guatemala (New York: Monthly Review, 1984), 9497;Google Scholar Concerned Scholars, Guatemala, Guatemala: Dare to Struggle, Dare to Win (San Francisco, Calif.: Solidarity, 1982), 6772;Google Scholar and Proceso (Mexico City), no. 412 (24 09 1984), 4043,Google Scholar for an extensive list of massacres and body counts. For El Salvador, see Navarro, Vicente, “Genocide in El Salvador,” Monthly Review, 32:11 (04 1981), 116;CrossRefGoogle Scholar on reports of U.S. government backing for terror, see Nairn, Allan, “Behind the Death Squads,” The Progressive, 48:5 (05 1984), 2029,Google Scholar and Christian, Shirley, “El Salvador's Divided Military,” Atlantic Monthly, 251:6 (06 1983), 5060Google Scholar on the military and civilian links to terror. For Peru, see McClintock, Cynthia, “Sendero Luminoso: Peru's Maoist Guerrillas,” Problems of Communism, 32:5 (0910 1983), 3032.Google Scholar

104 Guerrilla terror also has expanded in scope, with the insurgents using far more kidnapping, extortion, bank robbery, attacks on economic and utility targets, and interdictions of road traffic than in the past. All of these have occurred in El Salvador, at least a few in other locales. On Sendero's terror in Peru, with the estimated civilian deaths well into the thousands, see McClintock, , “Sendero Luminoso,” 19, 32;Google ScholarMario, Vargas Llosa, “Inquest in the Andes,” New York Times Magazine, 31 07 1983, 1823et passim (which also documents government terror)Google Scholar; (Latin America) Weekly Report, 18 January 1985, 10;Google Scholar and 13 January 1984, 10–11. Widespread agreement on the Sendero's wave of terror is not shared in the literature on El Salvador, where left-wing scholars routinely deny such features. For suggestive evidence, including references to the guerrillas' self-recorded killings of thousands of civilians, see Kemble, Penn, “The Liberal Test in El Salvador,” The New Republic, 14 03 1981, 1819;Google ScholarMcColm, R. Bruce, El Salvador: Peaceful Revolution or Armed Struggle? (New York: Freedom House, 1982), 2324, 43;Google ScholarFalcoff, Mark and Robert, Royal, eds., Crisis and Opportunity: U.S. Policy in Central America and the Caribbean (Washington, D.C.: Ethics and Public Policy Center, 1984), 199200, 269;Google ScholarEnglebert, Michel G. (Interviewer), “Flight: Six Salvadorans Who Took Leave of the War,” The Progressive, 47:3 (03 1983), 3843, including victims of both sidesGoogle Scholar; and (Latin America) Weekly Report, 16 03 1984, 1;Google Scholar for a more general view, see Zaid, Gabriel, “Enemy Colleagues: A Reading of the Salvadoran Tragedy,” Dissent (Winter 1982), 1340.Google Scholar

105 This is clearest in Guatemala and El Salvador; in the former, the government under General Efraín Ríos Montt (1982–83) legitimated terror by the army (not the death squads) against civilians as justifiable attacks on “subversives”; for a typical defense (that is, by minimization and justification) of the terror by the guerrillas in El Salvador, see Berryman, “Another View of El Salvador,” and Zaid's critique, in “Gabriel Zaid Replies.”