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Tupamaro [Uruguay]

One simple definition of political violence is the use of force and coercion by organized domestic groups to achieve their national political objectives. As so defined, political violence was virtually endemic in most Latin American countries in the mid-20th Century. Not only did would-be revolutionaries on the periphery of the political spectrum resort to insurgency campaigns to destroy the established order, but elite groups close to the center of power also turned to coups and other coercive acts to preserve that order, protect their special interests, and cope with national problems.

Perhaps the most dramatic case of political violence in Latin America in the early 1970s was the urban insurgency of the Tupamaros in Uruguay. The name Tupamaro sprang from history and perhaps also legend. Tupac Amaru was the last surviving member of the Inca royal family and was executed by the Spanish conquerers in Peru in 1571. Some 200 years later a Peruvian mestizo adopted the name Tupac Amaru II, to lead a nativist uprising against Spanish rule; he too was executed, and in an unbelievably barbaric way.

In the early nineteenth century, rebellious elements in the distant regions of Uruguay were dubbed "tupamaros" -- derisively by those in authority, with pride by those challenging it. The term was subsequently applied to a succession of outlaw and rebellious groups across Latin America. The Tupamaros repeatedly disrupted the traditional tranquility of the country through such actions as the kidnapping of foreign and local dignitaries, the robbing of banks, the bombing of foreign business enterprises, the theft of documents that revealed the corruption of domestic entrepreneurs, the murder of policemen, and the seizure of radio stations for the delivery of revolutionary lectures.

The formal name of the Uruguayan revolutionaries is the Movement for National Liberation. The leaders of the Tupamaros were mainly members of the intelligentsia and young professionals, The great majority of recruits over the years probably have come from the ranks of university students, but the movement also attracted some members from all walks of life, including businessmen and bureaucrats, as well as sugar workers and other laborers, and perhaps some congenital outlaws and adventure-seekers.

The main problem for these restless and idealistic youths was not one of jobs and security, but of real influence and significant accomplishment in a dull and static society. Their rationale, copying Castro's example and Che Guevara's propaganda, was to areate a revolutionary situa­ tion through a relentless campaign of violent action. Their goal was to polarize society and to sensitize the population to the point where revolution would become possible. Drift and complacency, along with the prevailing bourgeois mentality, were literally to be shot out from under the populace. In time, military action would preclude any other form of political contention, and the well-organized and -led revolutionary forces would win.

The founders, most prominently Raul Sendic, were originally connected with Uruguay's Socialist Party and other legally-constituted political groups on the far left. For a time in the early 1960s, they engaged in organizational work in the countryside to radicalize the sugar workers, one of the few downtrodden groups in the country. Then in 1963, discouraged by the poor returns for their electoral and union activities and influenced by Castro's insistence that Latin American revolutionaries make revolutions -- Sr. Sendic and company turned to a campaign of political violence.

Their first inning as guerrillas came in July 1963, with a successful raid on a provin­ cial rifle club where they commandeered a dozen weapons. At the time, there were probably no more than a dozen or so active insurgents. 11. The Tupamaros' choice of urban terrorism as a tac­ tic was determined first and foremost by geography. There is little in the way of mountainous or otherwise inaccessible countryside in Uruguay, but the metropolitan area of Montevideo, which contains roughly one-half of the country's 2.9 million inhabitants, provides a myriad of streets and buildings which supply a bounty of vulnerable targets and invulnerable hide­outs. If the Tupamaros had any doubts on the matter when they started in 1963, the course of revolutionary warfare in Latin America over the next several years would have served to confirm their choice of battleground.

The Tupamaros had been in the field since 1963, yet as recently as 1968, few observers took them to be a particularly potent guerrilla group, or thought Uruguay to be particularly susceptible to a major insurgency campaign in any case. True, Uruguay had suffered for years from a deteriorating economy and a rather feckless political leadership; but it still seemed blessed (by Latin American stan­ dards) with a remarkably open political system, a high standard of living, a basically homogenous and relatively complacent population, and a dearth of obvious social injustices. As in the past, there was always some prospect of a military coup to ease the way out of a governmental crisis, but terror and counterterror as a way of life seemed a world away.

Their challenge to the authority of the state was perhaps best seen during 1970-1971 by their ability to hold their victims in "people's prisons" for as long as they chose, and yet to arrange for massive jailbreaks of captured insurgents from government prisons. The Tupamaros were attempting to duplicate through urban terrorism that which Fidel Castro accomplished through guerrilla warfare in the mountainous countryside of Cuba in the late 1950s -- the forceful overthrow of the established political system.

There was little reliable data on total membership, but from the style and frequency of Tupamaro raids, one could envisage (in December 1971) perhaps 500 or so terrorists, and at least an equal number of would-be adherents (mainly high school students) and part-time helpers. The Uruguayan population was approaching three million, so that the same rates of participation applied to the US population would produce a minimum of 75,000 terrorists and ardent supporters.

The Tupamaros over the years acquired something of a Robin Hood reputation because of the light­ heartedness of some of their capers, and because many of their exercises were intended to discredit the powerful and benefit the poor (e.g., the exposure of corruption; the distribution to working class districts of stolen foods).

Then the Tupamaros turned a much more ruthless face to the public. Late in 1969 the terrorists started gunning down policemen to intimidate the security forces and launched daring attacks meant to demoralize and destroy the effectiveness of the government generally. In July­ August 1970 they kidnapped a total of five members of the diplomatic community: one escaped; three were in time released; but one victim, a police advisor from the United States, was assassinated.

Geoffrey Jackson, when British ambassador in Uruguay, was held hostage in brutal circumstances by the Tupamaros guerrillas, and described his experiences in Peoples' Prison. He determined in his own mind that wherever they took him or whatever they might do, he would remain the ambassador and maintain the codes and traditions of his office. Besides being a man of great courage he is a practising Catholic, and he has a deep love and knowledge of literature. Whenever possible he would divert his mind from his predicament to pleasanter thoughts. At one time he tried to comfort a young student girl guarding him, when she had pangs of homesickness.

In 1970, the Tupamaros, a revolutionary Marxist guerilla group in Uruguay, abducted and held for ransom Daniel Mitrione, a US police officer who served as an adviser to the Uruguayan police. In this instance, the Nixon Administration stepped back and did not pressure Uruguayan officials to meet the kidnappers’ demands. Ten days later, the Tupamaros killed Mitrione. While Mitrione was working for the US Agency for International Development, at that time it was alleged that the agency was used as a front for training foreign police in counterinsurgency methods.

In the 1972 Costa-Gavras movie "State of Siege", Yves Montand's character is based on Dan Mitrione, whose fate was similar to the ones portrayed by Montand. "State of Siege" is a terrific movie with the same look and feel as Costa-Gavras's other classic of the period, "Z". The movie is uplifting and depressing, humorous and appalling. Viewers are forced to meander through contrasting elements deeply personal and highly political.

In despair of coping with the challenge solely through ordinary police action, the government has sponsored a campaign of "counterterrorism" to eliminate known insurgents and intimidate suspected supporters. Prior to the Tupamaros, the Uruguayan political intelligence apparatus, consisted of only four or five men who did not even have a car and only a small house for headquarters.

During 1970, officially-sponsored terrorist groups started operating against suspected Tupamaros and their sympathizers to even the odds somewhat. In 1972 the military dictatorship took power in Uruguay. The whole structure that had been erected by 1975 was built to meet this new kind of warfare.

Uruguay provided more information regarding the number of people in jail and those released. As of September 1976 the total number of subversive prisoners in Uruguayan jails was 2,054. Also 1,800 prisoners had been released without any further ado and have resettled themselves except for those few who have chosen to go abroad. If Uruguay had simply killed the terrorists and dumped them into the Rio de la Plata nothing would have been heard from human rights organizations. Instead the Tupamaros were put in jail under better conditions than ordinary criminals.

The total number of people killed during the Tupamaro era on both sides (military, police, and Tupamaros) were only 200 or 150, or even less.

The decisive politicizing of the Uruguayan military apparently began in September 1971 when President Pacheco put them in charge of all anti-guerrilla activity. Martin Weinstein writes: "The military, given carte blanche and unhampered by judicial or constitutional restraints, proceeded to employ repressive techniques that moved far beyond those that any administration had dared to employ in any systematic or sustained manner. The use of torture and drugs were weapons the Tupamaros could not withstand. In the ensuing months the army enjoyed almost total success against the guerrillas, all but destroying their infrastructure, capturing hundreds of active supporters and detaining thousands of other suspects."

Their victory over the Tupamaros apparently gave the Uruguayan military a self-confidence they had never had before. How much they were influenced by the Brazilian military's economic performance, or if they were directly influenced by the Brazilians to take over control of Uruguay is not clear. Certainly they had in President Bordaberry a man who had demonstrated a capacity for authoritarian rule and a determination to bring Uruguay out of its long stagnation.

The armed forces were not content with a civilian strong-man, however. In February 1973, they mounted what Weinstein calls a "quasi-coup." Bordaberry was permitted to continue in office, but he shared powers with a newly created National Security Council whose members would include the commanders-in-chief and a number of ministers. Congress was later dissolved by Bordaberry. Some deputies were jailed; leftist political parties and organizations disbanded, trade unions were abolished, key labor leaders imprisoned, opposition newspapers were closed, and many editors and reporters arrested.

Uruguay was the contemporary example of a country eliminating its terrorist threat. Galvanized at last by the murder of US police advisor Dan Mitrione, it decisively defeated the Tupamaros. In the process a moderate, progressive, pluralistic and civilian-run country was transformed into a military dictatorship. On the historical continuum of leftist revolution this was seen by some as a desirable outcome. In defeat, the Tupamaros made a major contribution by creating the objective circumstances in which an insurgency can grow.

The MLN-T — the former urban guerrilla organization established in 1962 and disbanded by the armed forces in 1972 — was given amnesty by the General Assembly in March 1985. The MLN-T reorganized and appeared in the political arena in July 1986 but was not legally recognized until May 1989. With several hundred members, it was politically insignificant. In order to run candidates in the November 1989 elections, the MLN-T, together with other ultra-leftist forces — the PVP, PST, and MRO—created the People's Participation Movement (Movimiento de Participation Popular — MPP).

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Page last modified: 18-05-2017 19:42:35 ZULU