JC Scull often writes about historical events and historical figures.
Five Countries Which Have Had Large Numbers of Women Guerrilla Fighters
- El Salvador
A Brief Overview of Guerrilla Movements in Latin America
In Spanish, the word “guerrilla” is the diminutive form of the word “guerra.” It means “small war.”
In military terms, guerrilla warfare is an irregular, asymmetrical form of warfare in which a smaller group of combatants, paramilitary, or civilians use ambushes, sabotage, hit-and-run raids, and other extremely mobile tactics to attack a larger force. It is said, that a guerrilla strategy is the poor man’s way of fighting a war.
While these tactics date back thousands of years, the word “guerrilla” was first used during the 19th century Peninsular Wars between the combined forces of Spain and Portugal against the Napoleonic troops.
Latin America’s Guerrillas
From the mid-1940s forward, considered the height of the Cold War, the Soviet Union identified guerrilla insurgencies as a viable strategy to overthrow governments that were either supported or propped up by the United States. This was the case in Latin America where the Kremlin made extensive use of urban and jungle guerrilla insurgencies in most countries.
They accomplished this through the funneling of funds to Communist insurgent groups through Fidel Castro’s Cuba and by exploiting anti-U.S. sentiments that had been brewing in Latin America for decades.
In the decades following the mid-1940s, the Soviet Union infiltrated Latin American Universities and left-leaning political parties. They recruited and financed willing players, who when the time was right, would be dispatched to organize jungle or urban insurgencies.
It is widely believed, this is how Soviet agents came across Fidel Castro in 1945, during the period of his political activism at the University of Havana. Able to recruit him, the Russian agents received more than they could have imagined, as Castro became an able strategist and avowed enemy of the United States.
However, not all countries facing anti-government forces encountered large numbers of women guerrilla fighters as in the case of Mexico, Cuba, Nicaragua, Colombia and El Salvador.
This article will explore how the women who fought alongside men in these insurgent groups benefited socially and politically, as well as accomplished some degree of gender equality. Because of this effort women received the type of validation and training needed for advancement into senior officer positions within the guerrilla forces but also later in the political front.
The Mexican Revolution and the Zapatista Movement
The first time a guerrilla style warfare was put into effect in Latin America, was by Emiliano Zapata Salasar and Pancho Villa during the Mexican Revolution (1910 to 1920).
Zapata, organized the Liberation Army of the South (Ejército Libertador del Sur), or Zapatistas. Pancho Villa, born José Doroteo Arango Arámbula, commanded the Northern Division (Division del Norte) and was among one of the most prominent figures of the Mexican Revolution.
Both Pancho Villa and Zapata’s armies were mostly comprised of small mobile units that conducted a typical guerrilla warfare approach. They avoided open battle, robbed from the rich, attacked national institutions and ambushed federal army units.
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Although many women fought alongside men during the Mexican Revolution, for the most part they were used as domestic help doing the cooking, cleaning, and mending of clothing. It wasn’t until the emergence of the second iteration Zapatista movement (Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional) in 1994 that this attitude began to change.
While the latter-day Zapatista women still had somewhat of a diminished fighting role, they comprised a third of the total EZLN army, with a large portion serving in commanding roles. Even the women not directly involved in fighting expressed a sense of liberation and fulfillment never felt before. This feeling was possibly due to the Women’s Revolutionary Law established by the EZLN which called for gender equality in marriage, work, health, education and political process.
The Zapatista movement provided women with an opportunity for an education and training in something other than the traditional household roles they had been forced into for many generations.
The Cuban Revolution
While Latin American women guerrilla fighters found their origins with the Mexican Revolution, Cuba resurrected the practice of female combatants some forty years later. One important difference was the additional benefit women received of being empowered with stronger political and decision making roles.
One notable example was Celia Sanchez, considered to be one of the fiercest guerrilla fighters as well as one of the most intelligent and level headed decision makers within the Cuban revolutionary forces. Celia eventually rose to being a de-facto second in command next to Fidel Castro.
Another well known woman combatant was Vilma Espín who fought alongside Fidel and Raúl Castro (later becoming Raúl’s wife). Vilma became a prominent advocate of women’s rights and a powerful member of the Cuban Communist Party. Vilma who passed away June 2007 is highly revered by those who worked close to her in government.
Although born to an affluent family in Santiago de Cuba and having obtained a university degree in chemical engineering Ms. Espin became involved in the opposition to Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista eventually joining the rebel army in the Sierra Maestra.
In Nicaragua the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) fought against the government of Somoza from sometime in the early 1960’s until their victory in 1979. The war to victory was bloody and hard fought. Women played a crucial role as combatants as they fought side by side with their male counterparts.
Today, Nicaragua ranks number 6 in the Global Gender Gap Index ahead of the United States ranking of number 20. Nicaragua also outperforms the U.S. in terms of the percentage of women in Parliament or Congress with 42% vs. 24% for the U.S.
The Sandinista’s attitude towards women during the war against the Somaza government is best described in an interview of Magda Enriquez, member of the Luisa Amanda Espinoza Nicaraguan Women’s Association (AMNLAE) which took place in 1989.
“In the liberation process we had one of our greatest learnings and our greatest teachings, which is that we didn’t come out and talk about equality, we demonstrated it in the battlefield. When we were at the barricades there was no difference as to whether you were a woman and he was a man, we were two fighters.”
The role played by Sandinista women combatants was unparalleled in any revolution up till that period of time. Women made up 40% of fighters in the FSLN and 6% were female officers with six women attaining the rank of guerrilla commander. By 1987 67% of active members of the country’s militia and 80% of all guards were women. An estimated total of 50,000 women nationwide.
Today many of the women who fought as guerrilla fighters hold positions of prominence with the Sandinista government. Elizabeth Rodríguez Obando, the head of the police academy. Martha Picado Aguilar, head of the Commission for Women and Children, was a Sandinista guerrilla fighter. She tracked military jeeps, helped at barricades and made molotov cocktails. Aminta Granera, Nicaragua’s current police chief.
The Colombian conflict began sometime in 1964 between various insurgent groups and the government. Over the last half century, Colombian government forces and paramilitary groups have confronted crime syndicates and left-wing guerrillas such as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), and the National Liberation Army (ELN).
Although a tentative peace agreement which included a proposed disarmament of the guerrilla groups was signed in 2016, many of the leftist combatants have returned to arms.
While the level of violence in Colombia has decreased substantially, it is unknown what the future will hold.
The FARC and the ELN are the most notorious and prominent of all the combating groups. According to leaders of the FARC and ELN, their goals have always been to represent Colombia’s rural poor by seizing power through armed revolution, and establishing their form of Marxist government.
In the meantime more than 220,000 people are estimated to have been killed in the more than 50 years of conflict. Sadly 80% of these casualties are non-combatants. Additionally, more than seven million people have registered with the government’s Victim’s Unit. For the most part these are people that have been internally displaced by the violence, kidnapped, threatened, injured by landmines or family members of those forcibly disappeared.
However, not all the violence is perpetrated by FARC or ELN insurgents as it is estimated that half of all massacres of the past 30 years have been carried out by right-wing paramilitaries created to combat the Marxist insurgents.
In recent years FARC’s and ELN’s ideological goals have given way to the pursuit and establishment of criminal organizations mainly involved in the trafficking of cocaine, kidnapping and extortion.
This trend puts in doubt the overall purpose and goals these guerrilla groups espouse. More importantly it questions what their behavior would be should they enter the political process through the signing of a peace treaty. The scorch earth tactics and total disregard for non-combatant populations they have exhibited in the past, might be a telling sign of how they would behave.
It is estimated that 45% of FARC’s and ELN’s rank comprised of women and girls. The FARC in particular has long incorporated women into its ranks since having a mixed-gender army helps keep rebel soldiers on the battlefield longer. Both FARC and ELN as Marxist organizations, preach gender equality and practice it on the battlefield.
The fighting capability and fierceness exhibited by the women of these groups is well known and documented. They represent an interesting argument against the notion that female U.S. soldiers serving in combat cannot perform properly due to their perceived physical inferiority. Any Colombian government soldier who has encountered these women in combat will attest to their combat capabilities and fearlessness.
Marxist guerrilla organizations have indeed empowered the women they recruit into their ranks. However the trade off is that the women of the FARC and to some extend those in the ELN have become entangled and aligned with organizations that at best can be considered criminal and at worst genocidal sociopaths.
The true nature of these organizations was exposed when the Soviet Union collapsed and stopped the funding that kept them fighting. At that time both the FARC and the ELN aligned themselves with the “narco-producers and traffickers”, increased their kidnapping, extortion, and attacks on civilian populations; all for the purpose of raising funds in their efforts to overthrow the government. The same people they murdered, kidnapped, extorted and forced to relocate to safer areas, are the same people they purport to have fought for.
This has been the tragedy of guerrilla women who got involved with fighting forces of dubious motives. Hopefully after the signing of the latest peace agreement these women can work their way back into society and use their skills to positively contribute to their country.
The Salvadoran civil war was a brutal and bloody confrontation between the military-led government of El Salvador and the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN), a coalition of five Marxist guerrilla groups. The civil war is thought to have officially started on October 15, 1979 when an attempted coup was brutally crushed by the government.
The conflagration that followed, estimated to have killed more than 75,000 people, formally ended on January 16, 1992 when the Chapultepec Peace Agreement was signed by the combatants in Mexico City.
At this time the guerrillas surrendered their weapons and became a legal political party, which eventually led to the 2009 election to the presidency of Mauricio Funes of the FMLN. In the 2014 follow up election fellow FMLN member Salvador Sánchez Cerén and ex-commandant of the guerrilla revolutionary forces was also elected president.
The significance of this sequence of events is important to the many women who placed their lives on the line by joining the FMLN in the fight against the government. The importance comes in that the last two elections that brought FMLN members to the presidency should have created a means for the advancement of ideologically similar women within the political process. Unfortunately, this has not been the case as the FMLN has so far neglected not only women’s needs but ex-guerrilla women as well.
Gender Discrimination in El Salvador
Gender inequality is pervasive in El Salvador. Employment, health, education, political participation, and family life are areas where El Salvador lags behind globally. Although women in El Salvador have equal protection under the law, they are often at a disadvantage when compared to men in society. Gender inequality in El Salvador is reflected in the fact that a small percentage of women hold political office and are able to participate in the voting process.
Adding to gender inequality are El Salvador’s abortion laws which are among the most restrictive in the world. Even when a woman’s life is in danger, abortions are illegal. The penalty for getting an abortion can range from two to eight years in prison if convicted and abortion practitioners can receive prison terms of six to 12 years.
Women in El Salvador are not only employed at a much lower rate than man, but also earn close to 12% less than their male counterparts earn for equal work. As women attain more education the disparity in earnings actually increases. Women with 10 to 12 years of education earn 15% less than their male counterparts.
Domestic violence against women is high with no sign of abatement. Out of tens of thousands of reported cases of abuse, only 10% are investigated and only a handful of convictions are obtained. Recent studies have concluded that at least 26.3% of women in El Salvador have been the victims of some sort of physical or sexual violence from their partners.
It is difficult to fathom ex-rebel leaders who are now national political figures neglecting the very women that were crucial in their rise to power. Their myopic approach is puzzling. Their amnesia regarding the accomplishments of those women that represented 40% of their fighting and supportive roles goes beyond the pale. Hopefully, change will come soon.
Resources and Further Reading
- Fighting for a New Cause: FARC Women Fight for Gender Equality
- Out of the Shadows: Women of the FMLN Guerrilla Army in El Salvador’s Civil War, 1979–1992
- How Castro’s Rise and Death Bookend 60 Years of Latin American Wars
- She was Colombia’s Most Feared Female Revolutionary
- Colombia: FARC’s female fighters
- Mexican Revolution
- Mexican Revolution — History Detectives
- Cuban Revolution
- Nicaraguan Revolution
This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.