Five Latin American Countries Where Guerrilla Women Have Fought
In this article, we will take a look at the women guerrilla fighters of five Latin American countries. We will also explore whether their involvement in this effort helped in their social and political empowerment.
Five Countries with Large Numbers of Women Guerrillas
- 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.
From the mid-1940s forward, the Soviet Union identified guerrilla insurgencies as a viable strategy to overthrow governments that while in some cases democratically elected, were either supported or propped up by the US. In the case of Latin America, the Kremlin understood the degree of anger and resentment aimed at the US for its interventionist approach following the Monroe Doctrine of 1823.
Events such as the Banana Wars; the occupation of Nicaragua; the support for dictators like Samoza of Nicaragua; Batista of Cuba; Trujillo of the Dominican Republic; the overthrow of democratically elected President Jacobo Árbenz of Guatemala; plus many more, meant there were large groups of people willing to listen to an alternative ideology and fight against the "Colossus of the North", as the US is referred to by many Latin Americans.
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 ever have imagined, as Castro became an able strategist and avowed enemy of the US.
Castro was instrumental in recruiting, training and of funneling funds to many other communist guerrilla leaders, such as Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua; Pablo Catatumbo Torres Victoria of Colombia; Víctor Julio Suárez Rojas also of Colombia; Schafik Handal of El Salvador; Abimael Guzmán of Peru and many others. Certainly, in the case of Hugo Chavez, Castro was not only an idol but also a mentor and father figure.
The Culture Divide and Women Guerrillas
The American continent, including the Caribbean is quite diverse. It comprises of Canada and the United States of America in the north and an array of other countries scattered throughout the Caribbean and the main continent to the south.
Depending upon whether islands such as Puerto Rico, Curacao, Aruba, or Martinique are considered countries or not, there are currently a minimum of 44 countries and as many as 57 distinct states or nations. Within these 57 states, there are close to one billion inhabitants and many different cultures as well as dozens of European, indigenous, and hybrid languages such as Papiamento, Patois, and Creole.
From a gender perspective, the cultural divide between the two northernmost countries; Canada and the US, versus the rest of the countries in the hemisphere are deep. At first glance, both North American countries seem to be less accepting of strong and successful women, than their counterparts in the rest of the continent.
Consider that in the combined history of Canada and the U.S.A., there has only been one woman Canadian Prime Minister and no woman U.S. President. Canada’s Kim Campbell served as 19th Prime Minister from June 25, 1993, to November 4, 1993, and was the first and to date, only woman to serve in this post. Here in the United States for the first time in our history in 2016 we had a female presidential candidate representing one of our major parties.
Women's representation in Canada's Parliament is also weak, with 88 women elected within a chamber of 338 seats. This represents a mere 26% of all of Parliament being represented by women. Both US houses of Congress are not far behind with 105 women occupying the 435 seats available, representing an anemic 24%. Contrast that with Nicaragua, where 42% of all lawmakers are women. Or Cuba, where 48.9% of the Parliament and National Assembly are women.
Additionally, in the Latin America and Caribbean region, there have been eleven women that have risen to the position of president of their respective countries. The first to accomplish this was Isabel Peron of Argentina, who became president when her husband Juan Peron died in office in 1974. Compare that with the prevailing attitudes in North America, where women’s combat roles in the military have just recently been approved in the US.
Among the countries of Latin America that have made the largest stride in creating a more equitable environment for women have been the ones that have espoused Socialism in the last 50 years. Although it can be argued Socialism and Communism have failed as political and economic models on a global scale, Latin American socialist countries have proven to be well ahead of North America in the empowerment of women not only in the military but also in politics.
Communist revolutionaries have traditionally depicted the ideal woman to be strong, able to undertake hard manual labor, bear arms, and become deeply involved in the advancement of the revolution. This ideal has allowed some Latin American women to rise within the ranks of guerrilla forces during the many civil wars and insurgencies in the region’s last 60 years, eventually transcending their guerrilla roles by entering politics and holding high ranking government roles.
Perhaps the best known is Dilma Rousseff, ex-president of Brazil who following the 1964 coup d’état joined various left-wing and Marxist urban guerrilla groups that fought against the military dictatorship.
The mechanism allowing women to fight alongside of men or in women-exclusive fighting units became the type of validation and training process needed for advancement into senior officer positions within guerrilla forces and later in the political front. This form of proof of courage and performance under fire coupled with organizational as well as management exposure gave women the type of authentication needed for their male counterparts and eventually the electorate to take them seriously.
While it is difficult to pinpoint the exact reasons for this disparity in attitudes between both cultures, this post will explore the rise in political power by Latin American women through the guerrilla insurgencies they joined. The mere fact that women in Latin America have been allowed to join guerrilla armies and fight side by side with their male counterparts says something about how women are perceived in society.
The Mexican Revolution and the Zapatista Movement
It seems the first time a guerrilla style warfare was put into effect In Latin America, was during the Mexican Revolution from 1910 to 1920 by Emiliano Zapata Salasar and Pancho Villa.
Zapata as the organizer of the Liberation Army of the South (Ejército Libertador del Sur), known as the Zapatistas, was also the inspiration for the late 20th century Zapatista movement born in Chiapas.
Pancho Villa, born José Doroteo Arango Arámbula, commanded the Division del Norte (Northern Division) 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.
Although many women fought alongside of 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 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. Possibly due to the EZLn's call for gender equality and the establishment of the Women's Revolutionary Law which guaranteed women rights in marriage, children, work, health, education and the participation in political as well as military endeavors.
This somewhat reduced fighting role is in contrast to the women fighters of the FARC or Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia who fought alongside their male counterparts. However, 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 women combatants. One important difference was the additional benefit women received of being empowered with stronger political and decision making roles.
Once notable example is Celia Sanchez who was 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. She eventually rose to being a de-facto second in command next to Fidel Castro.
Vilma Espín, fought alongside Fidel and Raúl Castro, later becoming Raúl Castro’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 from 1964 to 1966 between the Colombian government, paramilitary groups, 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 these guerrilla groups has been signed, 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 as congress members, governors, mayors, judges perhaps even presidents.
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 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 that 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.