José Mujica and Uruguay's "Robin Hood Guerrillas"

José Mujica and Uruguay's "Robin Hood Guerrillas"

The Volkswagen-driving former bank robber president and the Tupamaros, the Marxist insurgents for which he fought.


The president of Uruguay used to rob banks. He became quite good at it because he did it often—and he was not alone. José Mujica was a Tupamaro, a member of a unique group of Marxist insurgents who staged a revolutionary uprising in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The story of the Tupamaros and the organization they created, the Movimiento de Liberación Nacional, or MLN, has been largely forgotten. However, it merits revisiting due to the important lessons it has for contemporary politics and international relations, especially in highly revolutionary times in the Middle East.

One of these lessons centers on the unique aspects of the Tupamaros’ insurgency, particularly the usage of a Robin Hood-like tactic they invented called armed propaganda. With its emphasis on ingenuity and symbolism, it brought to the fore the issue of how much violence it makes sense to practice when fighting a “people’s” war. An additional lesson concerns Mujica’s uniquely austere lifestyle, which has become intriguing to foreign audiences lately, and the effect it has on his leadership.


The Tupamaros

Mujica was never the leader of the Tupamaros. In fact, the group did not have a single leader. Rather, it operated in highly compartmentalized columns designed to survive the collapse of the others. Above the columns stood a leadership body in the shape of a tetrarchy. Mujica was never a part of that body, but his style as a politician and president follows that of the Tupamaros’ primus inter pares: Raúl Sendic. Sendic’s conceptions of leadership and revolution were counter-intuitive. He was a man of few words, who dressed and lived modestly to the point of looking bedraggled, and who had a severe disliking of explosives and other cruel or inhumane tactics. These traits have been highly influential among his followers ever since.

The MLN was an insurgent organization: this means it pursued revolution through a strategy that combined political activities and guerrilla tactics. 1960s Uruguay was a social democracy under siege. Its politics were increasingly corrupt and disappointing to its vast middle class. Its economy was sputtering badly. Internationally, the situation was even more serious. Cuba beckoned like a shining path towards utopian revolution. Brazil and Argentina, Uruguay’s towering neighbors, had military dictatorships in place ready to strike at any hint of “subversive” politics nearby. By 1968 the entire Western world was being shaken by riots, anti-war protests, assassinations, youth rallies and other high-profile political acts.

The Tupamaros were one of the first organizations in the free world dedicated to violent Marxist revolution against fellow countrymen rather than foreigners. They also faced the conundrum of fighting in a purely urban environment, the capital city of Montevideo. There was little choice: Uruguay’s rural areas, invariably flat, failed to offer the kind of refuge Mao Zedong’s Ya’nan mountain redoubt, or the Cuban revolutionaries’ Sierra Maestra, had provided them.

Unique Tactics

The MLN, with Mujica on board, launched its main insurgent effort in the first days of 1969. The term the group used for its campaign was armed propaganda. It consisted of staging guerrilla raids on key symbolic targets with minimal violence and high public relations impact. Although at the time they were less than a hundred in number, the Tupamaros managed to pull off some spectacular feats. They robbed food-delivery trucks and distributed the goods among the poor in the slums of Montevideo. They raided investment banks and publicized their shady bookkeeping, even resulting in judicial proceedings against the owners. They hijacked radio stations during major football games and broadcast their propaganda. They assaulted the headquarters of the naval academy and, with every cadet forced to stand and watch in the courtyard, looted the entire place of its firearms and equipment. MLN armed propaganda operations would often conclude without a single shot being fired. Typically, the group would leave a banner saying “The people passed through here” to sign their accomplishments. Within weeks the international press was calling them the “Robin Hood guerrillas”.

Government counter-guerrilla operations slowly managed to degrade the group. Mujica himself is one such case: in March of 1970, someone recognized him at a bar while meeting one of his contacts. The police arrived and a shootout ensued: Mujica wound up with six bullets in his body. It took him less than a year to recover, by which time he had joined other captured Tupamaros in prison.

Many Americans and Europeans will remember the Tupamaros due to the hostage crisis they caused in August of 1970, when they kidnapped several foreign individuals and sought to ransom them for their own prisoners. When the government refused to negotiate, the Tupamaros murdered one of their hostages—an American—in cold blood. It was proof that the organization had mutated: up until then, the MLN had limited itself mostly to tactics like armed propaganda and guerrilla attacks against the police. Now it was involved in a terrorist campaign of kidnappings and even targeted bombings. Behind this was a leadership different from the founding one: younger, more radicalized, and more violent. Its conception of revolution was more about destroying a “class enemy” than about gaining the support of Uruguayan society and leading it towards socialism. The government, in exasperation after the MLN added to this the greatest prison escape in the history of guerrilla warfare, summoned the final tool it had available to counter the onslaught: the military.

After only a few months of counter-insurgency operations, the military crushed an MLN that was unready for such a fight. The army did not flinch from using torture in obtaining critical intelligence. This, combined with other tactics, broke the group’s back. By late 1972 operations were wrapping up, and by June 1973 the armed forces had staged a coup d’état and taken over the government.

A special fate awaited Mujica. He and eight other Tupamaros were specially chosen to spend the entirety of the military dictatorship in solitary cells with terrible sanitary conditions. In those dark spaces, some lost their minds, others brooded, and others slowly changed their mindsets. When the restored democratic government of Uruguay freed them in March of 1985, they had spent over thirteen years behind bars.

Mujica’s Rise

Since then, many Tupamaros have slowly moderated their revolutionary Marxist ideology and evolved towards democratic republicanism. As the prototypical politician with knowledge of the ways of the street, of having had trouble all his life to make ends meet, and with a manner of speaking uniquely attuned to popular sentiment, Mujica became a star politician. Now known simply as “El Pepe,” after a career as a senator and a minister he has reached the presidency of Uruguay with over half the votes in a free election.

Mujica has become surprisingly interesting to foreign audiences lately, after his singular lifestyle has come to light. As many television reports have shown, it is true that he lives in a precarious and unkempt suburban farmhouse, with little to no security protection. He does donate close to 90% of his salary to various causes, and his sworn statements show almost no property in his name. Mujica studiously avoids luxury; he drives his own vehicles, flies coach, and can be found having lunch in Montevideo eateries nearly every week. While this is not entirely surprising for Uruguayans, it is clearly unprecedented for almost any political culture in the world.

Contrasts with Modern Terror

Mid-way through his presidential term, the experiences of Mujica and the history he carries with him convey many interesting lessons. An important one is the usage of armed propaganda. This unique tactic of the Tupamaros has never been deployed again, and it is easy to understand why. Tactical sophistication requires intellectual sophistication, and most armed rebellions since the days of the MLN have been the work of crude, murderous terrorist organizations. The televised beheadings and other outrages committed by Salafist fanatics in places like Syria pursue the precise opposite of what the MLN had in mind when robbing a casino and later offering to return employees’ salaries. One act intimidates, while the other surprises and inspires.

This contrast is the product of multiple factors. The early Tupamaros were interested in gaining adherents in order to seize power with a political project in mind. The later Tupamaros identified more closely with the idea of eliminating their enemies, be they armed or not. Different objectives engendered different methods. Oftentimes there are also psychological aspects that explain this divergence. Some individuals, in all societies, will always feel the allure of violence and terror directed at their enemies over anything else. Furthermore, the ideology of the Tupamaros, even when mistaken, was designed to remedy social injustice, rather than to impose a hierarchical order.

It is in this context that one lesson of the Tupamaros’ campaigns may well be that wars and insurgencies need not always be a race to the bottom. 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. This is the fate that befell groups openly inspired by the Tupamaros’ urban guerrilla approach, like the Weather Underground and the Baader-Meinhof gang, but who only followed the terrorist rather than the insurgent model. In the present day, with countries like Egypt and Syria burning (and India witnessing an oft-forgotten insurgency), these concepts appear to be buried. The carnage that floods news reports every day reflects this lack of political and revolutionary acumen on all sides.