The Tupamaros

Uruguay's Marxist Revolutionaries

Tupamaro Flag
The Tupamaro Flag. By Walden69 (Molt comuna a Uruguai, vista al FOTW i altres) [Public domain or CC BY-SA 2.5], via Wikimedia Commons

The Tupamaros were a group of urban guerrillas who operated in Uruguay (primarily Montevideo) from the early 1960's to the 1980's. At one time, there may have been as many as 5,000 Tupamaros operating in Uruguay. Although initially, they saw bloodshed as a last resort to achieving their aim of improved social justice in Uruguay, their methods became increasingly violent as the military government cracked down on citizens.

In the mid-1980's, democracy returned to Uruguay and the Tupamaro movement went legit, laying down their weapons in favor of joining the political process. They are also known as the MLN (Movimiento de Liberación Nacional, National Liberation Movement) and their current political party is known as the MPP (Movimiento de Participación Popular, or Popular Participation Movement).

Creation of the Tupamaros

The Tupamaros were created in the early 1960's by Raúl Sendic, a Marxist lawyer and activist who had sought to bring about social change peacefully by unionizing sugarcane workers. When the workers were continually repressed, Sendic knew that he would never meet his goals peacefully. On May 5, 1962, Sendic, along with a handful of sugarcane workers, attacked and burned the Uruguayan Union Confederation building in Montevideo. The lone casualty was Dora Isabel López de Oricchio, a nursing student who was in the wrong place at the wrong time.

According to many, this was the first action of the Tupamaros. The Tupamaros themselves, however, point to the 1963 attack on the Swiss Gun Club, which netted them several weapons, as their first act.

In the early 1960's, the Tupamaros committed a series of low-level crimes such as robberies, often distributing part of the money to Uruguay's poor.

The name Tupamaro is derived from Túpac Amaru, last of the ruling members of the royal Inca line, who was executed by the Spanish in 1572. It was first associated with the group in 1964.

Going Underground

Sendic, a known subversive, went underground in 1963, counting on his fellow Tupamaros to keep him safe in hiding. On December 22, 1966, there was a confrontation between Tupamaros and the police. Carlos Flores, 23, was killed in a shootout when police investigated a stolen truck driven by Tupamaros. This was a huge break for the police, who immediately began rounding up known associates of Flores. Most of the Tupamaro leaders, fearful of being captured, were forced to go underground. Hidden from the police, the Tupamaros were able to regroup and prepare new actions. At this time, some Tupamaros went to Cuba, where they were trained in military techniques.

The Late 1960's in Uruguay

In 1967 President and former General Oscar Gestido died, and his vice-president, Jorge Pacheco Areco, took over. Pacheco soon took strong actions to stop what he saw as a deteriorating situation in the country. The economy had been struggling for some time, and inflation was rampant, which had resulted in a rise in crime and sympathy for rebel groups such as the Tupamaros, who promised change.

Pacheco decreed a wage and price freeze in 1968 while cracking down on unions and student groups. A state of emergency and martial law were declared in June of 1968. A student, Líber Arce, was killed by police breaking up a student protest, further straining the relations between the government and the populace.

Dan Mitrione

On July 31, 1970, the Tupamaros kidnapped Dan Mitrione, an American FBI agent on loan to the Uruguayan police. He had previously been stationed in Brazil. Mitrione's specialty was interrogation, and he was in Montevideo to teach the police how to torture information out of suspects. Ironically, according to a later interview with Sendic, the Tupamaros did not know that Mitrione was a torturer. They thought he was there as a riot control specialist and targeted him in retaliation for student deaths.

When the Uruguayan government refused the Tupamaros' offer of a prisoner exchange, Mitrione was executed. His death was a big deal in the US, and several high-ranking officials from the Nixon administration attended his funeral.

The Early 1970's

1970 and 1971 saw the most activity on the part of the Tupamaros. Besides the Mitrione kidnapping, the Tupamaros committed several other kidnappings for ransom, including British Ambassador Sir Geoffrey Jackson in January of 1971. Jackson's release and ransom were negotiated by Chilean President Salvador Allende. The Tupamaros also murdered magistrates and policemen. In September of 1971, the Tupamaros got a huge boost when 111 political prisoners, most of them Tupamaros, escaped from Punta Carretas prison. One of the prisoners who escaped was Sendic himself, who had been in prison since August of 1970. One of the Tupamaro's leaders, Eleuterio Fernández Huidobro, wrote about the escape in his book La Fuga de Punta Carretas.

Tupamaros Weakened

After the increased Tupamaro activity in 1970-1971, the Uruguayan government decided to crack down even further. Hundreds were arrested, and due to widespread torture and interrogation, most of the Tupamaros' top leaders were captured by late 1972, including Sendic and Fernández Huidobro. In November 1971, the Tupamaros called a cease-fire to promote safe elections. They joined the Frente Amplio, or "Wide Front," political union of leftist groups determined to defeat Pacheco's handpicked candidate, Juan María Bordaberry Arocena.

Although Bordaberry won (in an extremely questionable election), the Frente Amplio did win enough votes to give its supporters hope. Between the loss of their top leadership and the defections of those who thought that political pressure was the path to change, by the end of 1972 the Tupamaro movement was severely weakened.

In 1972, the Tupamaros joined the JCR (Junta Coordinadora Revolucionaria), a union of leftist rebels including groups working in Argentina, Bolivia and Chile. The idea is that the rebels would share information and resources. By that time, however, the Tupamaros were in decline and had little to offer their fellow rebels, and in any event Operation Condor would smash the JCR within the next few years.

The Years of Military Rule

Although the Tupamaros had been relatively quiet for a time, Bordaberry dissolved the government in June of 1973, serving as a dictator supported by the military. This allowed further crackdowns and arrests. The military forced Bordaberry to step down in 1976 and Uruguay remained a military-run state until 1985. During this time, the government of Uruguay joined with Argentina, Chile, Brazil, Paraguay and Bolivia as members of Operation Condor, a union of right-wing military governments who shared intelligence and operatives to hunt down, capture and/or kill suspected subversives in each others' countries. In 1976, two prominent Uruguayan exiles living in Buenos Aires were assassinated as part of Condor: Senator Zelmar Michelini and House Leader Héctor Gutiérrez Ruiz.

In 2006, Bordaberry would be brought up on charges related to their deaths.

Former Tupamaro Efraín Martínez Platero, also living in Buenos Aires, narrowly missed being killed around the same time. He had been inactive in Tupamaro activities for some time. During this time, the imprisoned Tupamaro leaders were moved from prison to prison and subjected to horrendous tortures and conditions.

Freedom for the Tupamaros

By 1984, the Uruguayan people had seen enough of the military government. They took to the streets, demanding democracy. Dictator/General/President Gregorio Alvarez organized a transition to democracy, and in 1985 free elections were held. Julio María Sanguinetti of the Colorado Party won and immediately set about rebuilding the nation. As far as the political unrest of the previous years, Sanguinetti settled on a peaceful solution: an amnesty that would cover both the military leaders that had inflicted atrocities on the people in the name of counterinsurgency and the Tupamaros who had fought them. The military leaders were allowed to live out their lives with no fear of prosecution and the Tupamaros were set free. This solution worked at the time, but in recent years there have been calls to remove the immunity for military leaders during the years of dictatorship.

Into Politics

The freed Tupamaros decided to lay down their weapons once and for all and join the political process. They formed the Movimiento de Participación Popular (MPP: in English, Popular Participation Movement), currently one of the most important parties in Uruguay. Several former Tupamaros have been elected to public office in Uruguay, most notably José Mujica, elected to the presidency of Uruguay in November of 2009.

Source: Dinges, John. The Condor Years: How Pinochet and his allies brought terrorism to three continents. New York: The New Press, 2004.

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Minster, Christopher. "The Tupamaros." ThoughtCo, May. 30, 2017, thoughtco.com/the-tupamaros-2136128. Minster, Christopher. (2017, May 30). The Tupamaros. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/the-tupamaros-2136128 Minster, Christopher. "The Tupamaros." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/the-tupamaros-2136128 (accessed December 13, 2017).