The Tupamaros Were Propaganda-Savvy Urban Guerrillas
But the Uruguayan rebel group ran headfirst into a CIA-sponsored torture program
In 1963 a new leftist rebel group emerged in Uruguay as the country struggled with economic decline. The rebels called themselves the Tupamaros in honor of Tupac Amaru II, the leader of a failed 18th century revolt against colonial Spanish rule in Uruguay.
Their source of inspiration died nearly 200 years earlier, but their tactics were cutting edge for 20-century Latin American revolutionary movements.
Instead of relying on direct military engagements and seizing control of territory, the Tupamaros favored what they referred to as “armed propaganda,” a play on the leftist theory of “propaganda of the deed.” The idea was to let their actions speak for themselves in order to win people over to their cause.
Under the motto “Words divide us; action unites us,” the Tupamaros robbed banks and hijacked food trucks, redistributing the food and money to the poor. They quickly earned the nickname “the Robin Hood guerrillas.”
As their insurgency dragged on, the Tupamaros became increasingly militant, turning to kidnappings of politicians and foreign diplomats and engaging in shootouts with police and the military. The growing popularity and increased violence of the Tupamaros attracted the attention of not only the Uruguayan government but also American officials who feared a leftist takeover of the country.
Under the guise of USAID and the Office of Public Safety, the United States helped the Uruguayan government crack down on the Tupamaros and other left-wing groups.
Despite being effectively defeated in 1972, the Tupamaro legacy lives on Uruguay and the aged rebels have enjoyed a political resurgence in recent years. Several Tupamaros have been voted into public office, and one former guerrilla fighter was elected president.
For much of the first half of the 20th century Uruguay’s economy grew at an impressive rate, making it one of the wealthiest and most prosperous nations in Latin America. In the 1940s and ’50s, the economy centered around foreign wars. Uruguay supplied beef, leather and wool to the Allies in World War II, and continued supplying the United States during the Korean War.
When the Korean War ended, so did the contracts with the U.S. military. Uruguay’s economy stagnated. The standard of living for the middle and working classes began to decline. The government initially tried to avoid implementing harsh austerity measures that would cut social services, and instead turned to spending the national currency reserves and taking loans from foreign investors.
As historian Lindsay Churchill notes, at the same time the country’s economy was faltering the populace was also, perhaps somewhat paradoxically, becoming more educated. Uruguay had an inordinate number of print publications per capita in circulation, and between 1955 and 1975 the number of students receiving university educations increased by 117 percent. Financial hardship combined with an educated, urban middle-class made a fertile breeding ground for leftist ideologies.
Amidst this backdrop, the Tupamaros were born.
Raúl Sendic Antonaccio, a prominent lawyer and union activist, and small group of friends and fellow Marxist leftists founded the Tupamaros-National Liberation Movement (MLN-T) in 1963. One of the group’s first actions involved hijacking a truck filled with chickens and turkeys that was headed to a Christmas banquet.
Twenty Tupamaros “holding revolvers and knives” attacked the truck. They called themselves “junior José Artigas unit,” a references to Uruguayan independence José Gervasio Artigas, a 19th century Uruguayan freedom fighter. The Tupamaros left a note that read, “Revolutionaries share in the Christmas of the poor and call upon them to form committees in each district to fight against rising prices.”
They handed out the turkeys and chickens in poor neighborhoods of the capital, Montevideo.
The National Interest’s Pablo Brum writes that in subsequent actions the Tupamaros raided banks and stole the money to redistribute, and seized records so that they could expose the corruption of investment bankers. They took over radio stations during sporting events in order to broadcast their propaganda. They attacked a naval academy, taking all the weapons and equipment as the cadets stood by and helplessly and watched.
During such actions, shots were rarely fired and the Tupamaros often left a note reading “The people passed through here.”
As support for the Tupamaros grew, the government response to them become more aggressive and brutal. Weary of another Latin American country potentially falling to leftists, as had recently happened in Guatemala and Cuba, the United States began dumping resources into Uruguay to help the government suppress the rebellion. Under the auspices of the United States Agency for International Development and the Office of Public Safety, the CIA began helping Uruguayan police combat the Tupamaros in 1965.
The conservative-leaning government of Jorge Pacheco Areco enacted price and wage freezes in 1968, and implemented far-reaching programs to quell labor and student unrest and the Tupamaro insurgency. Torture, arbitrary detentions and disappearances became common. Tensions escalated when the CIA brought in Dan Mitrione, a veteran torture instructor who had previously worked in Brazil and specialized in electric shock and slow strangulation, to expand the Uruguayan government’s torture program.
While torture was part of government’s unofficial policy prior to Mitrione’s arrival, he is often credited with making it widespread among the Uruguayan police force and extolling the value of applying “the precise pain, in the precise place, in the precise amount, for the desired effect.” He was known in particular for his expertise in applying as much electrical shock as possible to the genitals without causing death and for pioneering the use of thin wire that could be placed between the teeth to intensify pain during electrocution.
The Tupamaros responded to the escalation of violence in kind, and specifically targeted Mitrione. They kidnapped the CIA agent in July of 1970. The Tupamaros rarely killed anyone, and did not have a reputation for killing those they kidnapped. Instead, they would exchange them for cash ransoms or the release of imprisoned Tupamaros.
However, with the government assault on them proving more effective, several leaders of the movement were killed or arrested while Mitrione was being held in the Tupamaros underground “People’s Prison.” When the deadline for Mitrione’s ransom came and went and the new Tupamaro leadership was uncertain of how to respond, they executed him.
Mitrione’s was one of several high-level kidnappings carried out by the Tupamaros in 1970 and 1971. Others including the kidnapping of of the Brazilian consul Aloysio Dias Gomide on the same day as Mitrione, the kidnapping of American agronomist Claude Fly in March of 1971, and the kidnapping of British ambassador Geoffrey Jackson in January of 1971.
In 1972, Uruguayan Pres. Juan Maria Bordaberry was installed with support from the military, which later ousted him. In 2010, Bordaberry was sentenced to 30 years in prison for assassinating two political opponents. Uruguay Educa photo
A band of Tupamaros kidnapped Jackson from his vehicle in broad daylight as he was en route to a meeting with Uruguayan business leaders. The guerrillas rammed Jackson’s vehicle with a van, and then several armed gunmen exited the van and seized Jackson, injecting him with a tranquilizer. They took him to People’s Prison and held him there for six months before his release.
By 1972 the government had effectively eliminated the Tupamaro leadership and their rebellion dissipated. Even though the threat of armed revolution was over, the military still orchestrated a bloodless coup the following year and remained in power until 1985. During that time, many Tupamaro guerrillas remained in imprisoned. With the restoration of the civilian government in 1985, however, a general amnesty was issued and the Tupamaros were released.
With their “Robin Hood” legacy still obviously intact, many Tupamaors then ran for elected office, winning elections or being appointed to key positions by those who did. The most prominent among them were Eleuterio “El Nato” Fernández Huidobro who served as Minister of Defense from 2011 until his death in 2016, and Jose Mujica.
Mujica had been shot six times during a shootout with police in 1970. He then escaped from prison twice, once by a tunnel dug into the prison, before being placed in solitary confinement for much of the remainder of his incarcerated time. After being released in 1985, he was elected as national representative in the Uruguayan congress and then as senator. He served as minister of agriculture from 2005-2008 before being elected president of Uruguay in 2009.
His reputation preceded him.
Armed campaigns “need not always be a race to the bottom,” Brum wrote at The National Interest. “People will remember the acts of each side; Mujica could not have won the elections without the MLN’s Robin Hood reputation from the days of armed propaganda. Terrorists, who by definition seek a shortcut to defeating their political enemies by intimidating and hurting society, are very rarely capable of inspiring a veritable following.”
Staying true to his Tupamaro roots, Mujica’s presidency was characterized by a pragmatic approach toward economic reform and battling poverty. He was known for sticking to his humble background, often wearing sandals, jeans and guayabera shirts while in office. Due to term limits, Mujica did not run for reelection in 2014, but his party, the democratic socialist Broad Front coalition, remains in power.