In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Guerrilla Insurgencies in Latin America

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Bibliographies
  • Theories of Revolution and Insurgency

Political Science Guerrilla Insurgencies in Latin America
David S. Palmer, Thomas A. Marks
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 November 2011
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 November 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756223-0026


Insurgency in Latin America, though employing a variety of violent and nonviolent tactics, is usually associated with guerrilla warfare grounded in Marxist ideology and committed to overthrowing the state through violence. As insurgency has played out in the region since the 1950s, several groups, notably FMLN in El Salvador and FARC in Colombia, progressed to the use of large military units, and all used terror as a shaping mechanism to intimidate and to remove resisting local actors and government structures. For the most part, however, guerrilla warfare was dominated by hit-and-run actions by small units, greatly overshadowing other weapons in the insurgent arsenal. The term “guerrilla” gained currency in Spain in the campaign by patriots to harass Napoleon’s forces in the early 1800s. Similar tactics were employed by Peruvian irregulars led by Andrés Avelino Cáceres against Chilean invaders during the War of the Pacific (1879–1883) and in a number of other cases of 19th- and early-20th-century internal conflicts in the region (e.g., Mexico, Nicaragua, Colombia). The focus of this annotated bibliography, however, is on the Latin American guerrilla insurgencies that emerged with the Cuban Revolution and subsequent efforts throughout the region by dissident factions, usually Marxist in ideological orientation, to overthrow governments deemed capitalist and reactionary. Guerrilla groups, often Cuba-inspired and at times Cuba-supported, began to operate in such countries as Guatemala, Venezuela, Colombia, Peru, Bolivia, and Uruguay in the 1960s; in Nicaragua, El Salvador, Brazil, and Argentina in the 1970s; and in Peru again in the 1980s. Although successful only in Nicaragua, where the Sandinistas drove the repressive Somoza dictatorship from power, several other guerrilla insurgencies have had a major impact on the countries in which they operated. In fact, following peace agreements in Uruguay with the return to democracy in 1985 and in El Salvador in a United Nations–brokered accord in 1992, former guerrilla groups reinvented themselves as political parties and won presidential elections in 2006 and 2010, respectively. As of 2011, the only guerrilla insurgencies still active are operating in Colombia, Mexico, and Peru.

General Overviews

Although the edited volume Castro 1999 includes reviews of early examples of insurgencies, including the Tupac Amaru indigenous uprising in highland Peru against Spanish control in the 1780s and the Caste War in the Yucatán peninsula of Mexico in the 1840s and 1850s, most work on the subject concentrates on the 1960s to 1990s, when guerrilla groups proliferated in the region. Guevara 1985 and Debray 1967 provide rationales and justifications for revolution from the practitioner’s and contemporary sympathetic interpreter’s perspective, as do some of the chapters in Castro 1999, while Wickham-Crowley 1992 offers the most comprehensive comparative overview of insurgent etiology derived from the theory of revolution literature. Gott 1971 provides a journalist’s fine-grained, often sympathetic review of the state of guerrilla activities in the 1960s, including the most detailed case studies of the period. Gorritti 1991 and Bagley and Palmer 1989 couch their analyses of guerrilla activities and government responses in the context of the importance of civilian democratic control to overcome such threats, while they, along with several chapters in Castro 1999 and Loveman and Davies in Guevara 1985, review insurgency dynamics in case studies of the major country examples.

  • Bagley, Bruce, and D. Scott Palmer. “Latin American Insurgencies.” In Latin America and Caribbean Contemporary Record. Vol. 6, 1986–1987. Edited by Abraham F. Lowenthal, A79–A99. New York: Holmes & Meier, 1989.

    A summary overview of the most important insurgent movements in Latin America during the 1960s through 1980s. Extensive coverage of Colombia, Guatemala, Peru, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Ecuador, and Chile, plus short summaries of Argentina, Uruguay, and Brazil.

  • Castro, Daniel, ed. Revolution and Revolutionaries: Guerrilla Movements in Latin America. Wilmington, DE: Scholarly Resources, 1999.

    History of Latin American guerrillas since the 1780s, emphasizing post-1959 insurgencies, with chapters by practitioners (e.g., Camilo Torres, Luis de la Puente, Héctor Bejar, and Carlos Marighella) and scholars. Covers Guatemala, Colombia, Peru, Bolivia, Uruguay, and Argentina, noting in particular the diversity of approaches and practices.

  • Debray, Régis. Revolution in the Revolution: Armed Struggle and Political Struggle in Latin America. Translated by Bobbye Ortiz. New York: Grove, 1967.

    A French intellectual extrapolates from the Cuban Revolution’s success the strategies and tactics required for similar outcomes in Latin America. Excoriates established communist parties and labor movements for bureaucratic ossification, and argues that only guerrillas concentrated in small rural areas (focos) can generate a successful socialist revolution. Dated, but influential in the 1960s.

  • Gorriti Ellenbogen, Gustavo. “Latin America’s Internal Wars.” Journal of Democracy 2.1 (1991): 85–98.

    A Peruvian journalist’s incisive analysis of the trajectory of guerrilla insurgencies in the region and the ongoing violence in Guatemala, El Salvador, Colombia, and Peru. Sees US-sponsored counter-drug programs in Colombia and Peru as counterproductive to internal defense, and concludes that only democracy can overcome insurgent threats.

  • Gott, Richard. Guerrilla Movements in Latin America. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1971.

    A former English journalist’s detailed, masterful study of the early years of guerrilla insurgencies in Guatemala, Venezuela, Colombia, Peru, and Bolivia, based on primary sources and extensive research in the field. Considered to be the most significant work on the subject at the time. Spanish translation by Patricia Samsing de Jadresic, Las guerrillas en América Latina (Santiago, Chile: Editorial Universitaria, 1971).

  • Guevara, Ernesto. Guerrilla Warfare. Introduction and case studies by Brian Loveman and Thomas M. Davies, Jr. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1985.

    The core writings by Latin America’s most celebrated revolutionary on the theory and practice of guerrilla war, with summary commentary and case studies of Guatemala, Venezuela, Colombia, Peru, Bolivia, Nicaragua, and El Salvador by the compilers. Essential reading.

  • Harnecker, Marta. Pueblos en armas: Entrevistas a los principales comandantes guerrilleros de Nicaragua, El Salvador, Guatemala. Mexico City: Universidad Autónoma de Guerrero, 1983.

    A leading analyst of revolutionary activity provides extended interviews, organized by key themes, with key guerrilla figures of the Central American insurgencies of the 1970s and early 1980s (five Nicaraguan, three Salvadoran, and six Guatemalan).

  • Wickham-Crowley, Timothy P. Guerrillas and Revolution in Latin America: A Comparative Study of Insurgents and Regimes since 1956. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1992.

    A systematic sociological study, loosely chronological, comparing successful and unsuccessful guerrilla movements and why they were absent in places. Analysis revolves around themes of levels of peasant support, guerrilla military power, and cross-class opposition versus government strength. Comprehensive and inclusive.

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