Bandits, Peasants, Politics

Sánchez, Gonzálo and Donny Meertens. 2006. Bandoleros, gamonales y campesinos: El caso de la Violencia en Colombia. Bogotá: Alfaguara.

Latin America has been the epicenter of banditry studies. After Hobsbawm’s pioneering survey, Gonzálo Sánchez and Donny Meertens’ study of banditry in the waning years of Colombia’s mid-century civil war known as “La Violencia” (ca. 1945-1965) is one of the most celebrated histories of banditry. Hobsbawm himself praises this book, even though in many respects it provides some pretty strong counter-argument to many of his central claims. More than “social banditry,” the authors argue that the Colombian context produced what they call “political banditry.” If the former places the emphasis of bandits dependence on the sociality of peasant life—the social—then the latter signals Colombian bandits necessary relationship to more formal structures of power (particularly political parties, the state, and landowners). In the Colombian case, the bandits’ “political subordination” is not a mere accident of their careers; it is what motivates and defines their actions (53). Banditry in Colombia is not the product of a deep social crisis; it presupposes such a crisis.

In a sense, it seems to me, this is the authors attempt to situate themselves between Hobsbawm optimistic view (on balance) of social banditry as a form of peasant rebellion and Anton Blok’s studies in Sicily that paint a much bleaker picture of banditry’s integration into networks of elite and state power. Again, what comes across is the utter variance of banditry’s operation and political implications. Indeed, echoing Hobsbawm, the authors position “banditry,” as banditry “in general,” within which “social” and “political” banditry are sub-species, though ones not necessarily at odd with each other or mutually exclusive (55).

The difficulty then is teasing these apart and that’s what this book set out to do. It seeks to parse, as Hobsbawm describes it as such in his prologue, “banditry as a popular phenomenon and its relations with economy, politics, and social protest; that is, the relations between bandits, campesinos, and landowners as well as their relations with the state” (29).

In a way that’s very reminiscent of Anton Blok’s book is that the story of political banditry in Colombia is at least partly a response to the centralization of state power nationally. The allegiances between bandits and Colombia’s two-party duopoly could not be more complex: The national directorate of the two parties largely denounces the bandits, while local party politics continued to engage in a symbiotic relationship with the bandits. When elites in the cities tried to put an end to the Violence, they discovered that the metabolism of the war had taken on a momentum of its own in the countryside.

They could no longer rein in the putative supporters. The bandits were ferociously stamped out as soon as elites of both parties perceived that they had become social bandits, primitive rebels, or outright oppositional guerrillas. And this stands apart from Blok’s work. “Politically subordinated bandits described by Blok or [Roderick] Aya can become a social bandits, even a revolutionaries, when—due to a variety of circumstances that need to be clarified—they break or are obligated to break those ties of dependency” (56).

Guerrillas of the Liberal party were increasingly delegitimized as “bandits” once they ceased to be useful to national-level elites (81). Indeed, throughout the book the authors emphasize: “As particular historical products, bandits emerged from the shifting relations between armed actors and the state, political parties and local and regional power” (80).

In Blok’s Sicily, the mafia (bandits of a sort) supported estate owners who considered the politics of Italy’s national unification as a threat to their locally based relations of power and property. But, in Colombia, the authors note, bandits on the whole maintained campesino support and only lost it very late in the game (if ever); “they were rebels with a cause” (83). However, I actually think their empirical material paints a much more uneven picture.

But beyond all the explanations just cited that emphasize the economic interest of various strata of campesino society in tolerating or stimulating banditry, there was nevertheless an obvious reason that impeded Colombian bandits from gaining too much hostility against cities or highly urbanized zones: their specifically political nature, which was precisely what gave them protection and legitimacy, and by extension their guarantee of impunity. (96)

Banditry, at least during this period in Colombia, was inherently a political relation in the formal sense (143).

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