The Tupamaros of Uruguay

        Uruguay in the 1960¹s was distinct among other South American counties for its affluence and
sociopolitical stability. Economic prosperity had fostered the growth of a large middle class and a stable
welfare-state government that allowed a wider degree of democratic and civil freedoms larger than any
other South American government. Because Uruguayan society was so peaceful, the Army and Police
were very small. In 1968 there were only about 12,000 men in the armed forces and fewer than 22,000
police to keep order in a population of about 3 million.
        A slump in the demand for wool and meat, Uruguay¹s two principal exports, after the Korean
War brought mass unemployment, inflation, and a steep drop in the standard of living. the social
tensions this produced, along with the corruption of the overblown state bureaucracy (one in five
working Uruguayans was employed by the federal government in some fashion), gave the impulse for
an effective urban guerrilla movement to emerge.
        This revolutionary group¹s official name was Movimento de Liberacion National but was
popularly known as the Tupamaros (from Tupac Amaru, last member of the Inca royal family,
murdered by the Spanish in 1571). It was founded in 1963 by Raul Sendic, a law student studying in
Montevideo. Because Uruguay was so urbanized (over 80% of Uruguayans lived in large towns or
cities) they concentrated almost all their activity in and around the capital, Montevideo, where more than
half the entire population of the country lived. As with most other South American guerrilla groups,
they started as a political organization that deliberately chose the tactics of Ćarmed struggle¹ and drew its
membership from young, radical, middle-class people -- mostly students and white-collar workers.
Like most urban terrorist groups, they were organized in a cellular structure of 4-5 men called a Ćfiring
group,¹ with the group leader as the only link to other cells. This was done for security reasons, as was
their practice of never telling any individual more than he or she needed to know for any particular
        From 1963 to early 1968 the Tupamaros concentrated on gathering resources -- mostly by
robbing banks, guns shops, and private businesses. Their goal was to make the government look
powerless to defend its friends and unnecessarily heavy-handed in its reactions.  The main tactics they
used to achieve this were political kidnapping, Ćarmed propaganda,¹ and intimidating the security
        The Tupamaros used political kidnapping as an alternative to assassinations and as a way to
show the government¹s impotence. It was a severe psychological shock and embarrassment to those in
the government to have their friends and diplomatic figures snatched off the street and held in so-called
Ćpeople¹s prisons¹ in Montevideo itself. Meanwhile, the people did not react as they would have against
assassinations because the kidnappings (often of unpopular and corrupt people anyway) did not
inconvenience them, but the inept police reaction (usually a massive cordon-and-search operation) did.
        The worsening state of the economy provoked a wave of student rioting and labour unrest, and
a state of national emergency was declared in June 1968 (which was to last until late 1972). It was
during this crisis that the Tupamaros staged their first political kidnapping -- Ulises Pereyra, the
president of the State Telephone Company, an unpopular figure whose abduction was acclaimed by the
public. When the police began to search the campus of the National University in Montevideo, they
started a student riot that ended in the death of a student. Ulises Pereyra was released unharmed five
days later.
        More kidnappings followed. In September 1969 they kidnapped a leading banker and held him
for ten weeks, in support of a strike by employees at his bank. In July 1970 Dan Mitrione, an American
policeman on loan to the Uruguayan security forces, and Aloisio Gonide, the Brazilian consul in
Uruguay, were kidnapped and held for ransom. When the government refused to parley with the
Tupamaros, they killed Mitrione, a move that was to cost them considerable public support. In the first
half of 1971 the British ambassador to Uruguay, the Uruguayan attorney-general, and a former minister
of agriculture were kidnapped, and Ulises Pereyra was abducted a second time.
        The second tactic the Tupamaros used was Ćarmed propaganda.¹ some of these actions
resembled nothing so much as forceful advertising. When the government shut down left-wing papers
and forbade the regular news media to refer to the Tupamaros by name, the Tupamaros ran their own
mobile radio transmitter in Montevideo, temporarily seized radio stations to broadcast propaganda, and
maintained an underground press. Groups of armed terrorists would also occupy meeting halls,
cafeterias, and cinemas (real guerrilla theatre!) and make speeches to a literally captive audience. Actions
like bank robberies and raids on police stations, besides their logistical benefit, also had a propaganda
goal. The Tupamaros conducted several very professional operations in this area.
        A third tactic was intimidation of the security forces. Because the police were doing almost all
of the fighting against the guerrillas, the Tupamaros began to select individual policemen for
assassination in late 1969. Although only a few policemen were killed this way, the moral of the force
was shaken. In June 1970 there was a general police strike for higher pay and the right to work in
civilian clothes in order to make them less conspicuous.
        The government¹s response to these three tactics was uneven and predictably clumsy.
Although at first the Army and Police were small and untrained in counterinsurgency techniques, a
paramilitary body of 20,000 men called the Metropolitan Guards was set up in 1968. It was trained by
American and Brazilian policemen, and its main duty was to oppose the Tupamaros. The security forces
were handicapped by a lack of reliable informers, a coordinated network for sharing and disseminating
intelligence, and their habit of conducting massive cordon-and-search operations that more often than
not alienated the public¹s support. It appeared to many people that the Tupamaros, who by now had
reached an active strength of almost 3,000, were running rings around the police.
        The economy failed to improve, and a series of corruption scandals in 1970 and 1971 further
undermined public support for the government. It seemed that the Tupamaros were on the verge of
creating the Ćclimate of collapse¹ that would lead to the government¹s fall. In November 1971
presidential elections were held. An alliance of left-wing parties called the Frente Amplio emerged to
challenge the rule of the two traditional political parties. The Tupamaros, gave vocal support to the
Frente Amplio while continuing their campaign of provocation. However, the murder of Dan Mitrione
in August 1970 and the continual civic disruption pushed more and more people away from support of
the Tupamaros. The Frente Amplio suffered from the association and got less than 20% of the votes in
the elections. The new Uruguayan president, Juan Maria Bordaberry, suspended civil liberties and
declared a state of Ćinternal war¹ with the Tupamaros in April 1972. The Army, which until this point
had been playing only a supporting role to the Police and Metropolitan Guards in the
counterinsurgency, was ordered into action. They relied on mass arrests, torture, and large cordon-and-
search operations. These saturation tactics captured most of the guerrillas and forced the remainder to
flee the country. By November 1972 the Tupamaros had ceased to be a threat to Uruguay.
        The government had won, but only at the cost of destroying democracy in Uruguay and
alienating large sections of the population. The Army, which in ten years had gone from consuming 1%
of the national budget to over 26%, was not about to go meekly back to barracks. In their view, they
had just cleared up the Ćpolitician¹s mess,¹ and were not going to let it happen again. The military
leadership pressured President Bordaberry to maintain the declared state of internal war. By mid-1973
all left-wing political activity had been suppressed and the national legislature indefinitely dissolved.
Uruguay, once the most tolerant and democratic country in South America had become another garrison
state. This was the only permanent legacy of the Tupamaros, although they had advanced further and
offered a more serious challenge to established power than any other urban guerrilla movement.