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Bandits, Peasants, and Politics

Bandits, Peasants, and Politics
The Case of "La Violencia" in Colombia
Translated by Alan Hynds; foreword by Eric J. Hobsbawm

A study of social banditry in Colombia during a near-civil war.

Teresa Lozano Long Institute of Latin American Studies, University of Texas at Austin
March 2001
This is a print-on-demand title. Expedited shipping is not available.
247 pages | 6 x 9 | 20 photos, 5 maps, 4 tables |

The years 1945-1965 saw heavy partisan conflict in the rural areas of Colombia, with at least 200,000 people killed. This virtual civil war began as a sectarian conflict between the Liberal and Conservative parties, with rural workers (campesinos) constituting the majority of combatants and casualties. Yet La Violencia resists classification as a social uprising, since calls for social reform were largely absent during this phase of the struggle. In fact, once the elite leadership settled on a power-sharing agreement in 1958, the conflict appeared to subside.

This book focuses on the second phase (1958-1965) of the struggle, in which the social dimensions of the conflict emerged in a uniquely Colombian form: the campesinos, shaped by the earlier violence, became social and political bandits, no longer acting exclusively for powerful men above them but more in defense of the peasantry. In comparing them with other regional expressions of bandolerismo, the authors weigh the limited prospects for the evolution of Colombian banditry into full-scale social revolution.

Published originally in 1983 as Bandoleros, gamonales y campesinos and now updated with a new epilogue, this book makes a timely contribution to the discourse on social banditry and the Colombian violencia. Its importance rests in the insights it provides not only on the period in question but also on Colombia's present situation.

  • Foreword by Eric J. Hobsbawm
  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
  • 1. Bandits and Society
  • 2. La Violencia: Context for Political Banditry in Colombia
  • 3. Regional and Sociopolitical Diversity of Banditry 1: Transitions
  • 4. Regional and Sociopolitical Diversity of Banditry 2: Extremes
  • 5. The National Dimension: Political Debates
  • 6. The Fall of the Bandolero Empire
  • Epilogue
  • Notes
  • Glossary of Terms and Abbreviations
  • References
  • Index

Gonzalo Sánchez, recipient of the LASA/OXFAM Martin Diskin Memorial Lectureship Award for 2000, is Professor of History and Political Science at the Institute of Political Science and International Relations at the Universidad Nacional de Colombia. Donny Meertens is a Research Fellow at the University of Amsterdam, currently on leave from the Universidad Nacional de Colombia, where she is Professor of Gender and Development Studies. Alan Hynds is a professional translator in Mérida, Yucatán.


This book is intended, first, for an entire generation, the "Generation of La Violencia"—those Colombians who lived during the twenty-some years from 1945 through at least 1965 and who experienced this complex process in which government terror, anarchy, and peasant insurgency mixed with a rearrangement of social and political relations. However, this book is also written for subsequent generations, who have learned about the period solely from hearsay and are increasingly interested in studying the meaning of its decisive episodes, the impact of which continues to be felt in the nation's historical evolution.

The approach of this book responds to a long-standing need that has only been partially met. For many years, researchers of the period known as La Violencia, despite their distinct interpretations, gave too much weight to a single dimension of the process: its barbarity, bloodthirstiness, or repression, in a nihilistic or self-destructive re-creation of the colossal orgy of power the country experienced from at least as far back as the 1948 Bogotazo until the mid-1960s. The reduction of La Violencia to a simple bipartisan struggle for hegemony, or to a confrontation within the dominant classes that enmeshed the masses in a struggle that was not theirs, limited the inquiries into the multiple facets of the process. Had the masses, the oppressed, not put up their own struggle? Had they not, on many occasions, made a mockery of attempts to quell protest and rebellion?

The contradictory relationship between repression and resistance had to be re-created and, with it, the dynamics between "the bandits in power" and "the bandits of the people." The merely passive vision of that past—which, despite all its ambivalence, was also within the sphere of popular struggle—had to be forsaken in order to ask new questions that the prevailing ideology might not want asked. In this sense, this text is a challenge to what we have learned and been taught and to what has been carefully concealed.

Defining the subject matter—in this case, bandolerismo—was less a departure than an arrival. None of the available sources provided opportunities for reflection that broadened the debate on La Violencia beyond local and national episodes. Hence, we sought a connecting element that, without ignoring the concrete historical phenomenon, would allow us to make inroads into an issue that had points in common with other historically defined experiences. In this sense, the book contributes to comparative studies on banditry by examining the particular elements of the Colombian case—perhaps the Western world's most recent example of widespread banditry—and comparing them to those it has in common with its classical manifestations in Europe (Italy, Spain) or Latin America (Brazil, Peru). The book situates La Violencia in a specific, though not an exclusionary, theoretical field, since the analysis of this very complex and multifaceted topic required a definition of other specific theoretical fields.

Bandolerismo proved to be an exceptional strategic field from which to cast a retrospective and prospective examination of La Violencia— an examination that resisted facile, all-encompassing accounts. This was more than a mere method for approaching the topic. In concrete social practice, bandolerismo was also a result, the redefinition of the forces that competed in the first phase of La Violencia. For this reason, and to delimit the subject matter and avoid misunderstandings, we want to make clear from the outset that the issue of Liberal and Communist guerrillas during La Violencia, although it constantly intersects the topic of our study, is in no way included in the analytical category of "bandolerismo," whose contents and makeup are examined in this book. Bandolerismo, an ambivalent and tortuous topic, is, then, at the crossroads of resistance. At the same time, its internal dynamics augured or engendered—however embryonically—new forms of violence: the revolutionary violence of contemporary Colombia.

Chapter 1 of the book reconstructs the general context in which bandolerismo arose as a specific topic for thought in the social sciences and outlines the current debate on its characterization, its meaning, and its insertion in Colombian society. It also refers to the possibilities for research afforded by an analysis of a case as unique as the Colombian one.

Chapter 2 sets forth the historical-political context of La Violencia and the overall interpretative framework used to analyze it. Chapters 3 and 4 use this framework to study the regional expressions and histories of the phenomenon in Colombia and to inquire into its origin within the evolution and complexity that characterize La Violencia. This multiplicity recovers its unity in Chapter 5, which examines the national impact of the interplay of the different regional processes and the various political and military strategies to eliminate bandolerismo. Last, the conclusion evaluates how evolving relations between bandoleros and the central government and other actors on the national stage—gamonales (local or regional bosses), hacendados, and peasants—led to the growing isolation of the numerous bandas and cuadrillas and to their inevitable defeat.

In our research we used extensive sources, including some that might be called traditional, such as national, regional, and local newspapers. However, oral testimony was also crucial, given the relative recentness of the processes and the prejudice with which city dwellers normally view people from the countryside, particularly dissident voices such as those heard here. Witness and participant interviews were, then, a part of this study also. Moreover, the prism through which the dominant classes viewed events as well as the concrete actions they took in response to them were at times an integral part of a social phenomenon or, in any event, allowed us to better understand it. In this regard, a careful analysis of the congressional debates was very revealing. Still, the most reliable and informative sources were the court records of the trials of the most important bandas and cuadrillas of the period. Judicial archives include transcriptions of oral testimonies, gathered during the period and where the events occurred. They contain, for example, accounts of the daily lives of prominent bandas and famous bandoleros and contemporary appraisals of how the bandas and bandoleros were viewed by the different sectors of society (some denouncing, some giving declarations, some informing, etc.). At times, they are the protagonists' accounts of the events. A file with fifty or one hundred oral testimonies can shed light on many hidden aspects of a given social or political phenomenon. The court files also proved to be an unexpected boon in that they contain documents difficult or impossible to obtain by other means, such as confidential reports from the state's and the army's security agencies; letters and boletas (extortion notes) to the relatives of kidnap victims or the targets of extortion attempts; statements by hacendados; accounts by deserters; and so on. Additionally, these files contain another important resource in a peasant society: the voices of the illiterate, of those who can barely sign their name—a category that then included most of Colombia's rural people. A final, very valuable resource was the research by those who had previously studied La Violencia.

The Fundación para la Promoción de la Investigación y la Tecnologia, part of the Banco de la República, and subsequently the Consejo de Investigación y Desarrollo Científico, which belongs to the Universidad Nacional, provided financial assistance for the completion of this long-planned project. The Facultad de Ciencias Humanas and the Departamento de Historia, also of the Universidad Nacional, released us from some teaching duties, allowing us to finish the work. Our assistants Octavio Ramírez and Inés Sánchez worked efficaciously and deserve heartfelt thanks. Professor Angela de López helped generously with the final revision of the text. Nevertheless, none of these entities or persons are responsible for the views expressed herein regarding this controversial subject.