Small Wars Journal

Book Review: The Robin Hood Guerrillas

Wed, 07/01/2015 - 6:58am

Book Review: The Robin Hood Guerrillas

Michael L. Burgoyne


The Epic Journey of Uruguay’s Tupamaros

By Pablo Brum

402 pp. $15.00

Until men learn that of all human symbols, Robin Hood is the most immoral and the most contemptible, there will be no justice on earth and no way for mankind to survive.

  • Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged

In The Robin Hood Guerrillas; The Epic Journey of Uruguay’s Tupamaros, author Pablo Brum provides us with a fascinating look into the history of a little known and little understood 20th century insurgency. The Robin Hood Guerrillas is the first complete English language history of the Tupamaros, a group that launched an innovative insurgent campaign against the Uruguayan government in the 1960s and 1970s. Through his comprehensive study, Brum illustrates the tragedy of a violent quest to achieve utopia which destroyed the very democratic system that would, in the end, lead to the elected victory of former insurgent Jose Mujica. Brum delivers an extremely valuable case study that belongs on the shelf of every latin-americanist and student of unconventional warfare. The case of the Tupamaros is especially relevant today as increasing worldwide urbanization continues to make urban insurgency a more important strategy in internal struggles for power.

Perhaps one of the most striking themes of Brum’s history is the avoidable nature of the conflict. In the 1960s, Uruguay’s government was already left leaning. It was difficult to promote radical revolution when much of the socialist platform was already being pursued within the democratic system. Fidel Castro said that Uruguay’s broad plains did not provide the proper conditions for an insurgency and none less than Che Guevara cautioned that Uruguay’s revolutionaries should pursue democratic channels rather than armed struggle. Brum captures the sentiment of the Uruguayan revolutionaries brilliantly. “Why should they be condemned not to have a revolution only because they happened to have been born in cities?”

Despite the unfortunate lack of proper conditions, the Uruguayan revolutionaries moved forward with a unique insurgency strategy. They decided on an offensive, Cuban foco styled, uprising that would be necessarily based out of the cities due to the lack of complex terrain. The National Liberation Movement (MLN) or Tupamaros were born, taking their name from the Incan leader Tupac Amaru II who fought the colonial Spanish.

A key early aspect of the MLN strategy was armed propaganda. Every act was designed to send a message more than it was designed to inflict military harm on the government. Brum provides the reader with several riveting accounts of Tupamaro bank robberies, prison breaks, and radio station seizures. Despite the criminal nature of the acts, the reader cannot help but root for the Tupamaros as Brum narrates their daring feats. These largely non-violent antics helped build the group’s reputation with the population and attacked government legitimacy. It could be argued that the Sandinistas in Nicaragua would become the next stage of evolution in the armed propaganda techniques used by the MLN. Insurgency expert TX Hammes believes that the Sandinistas were able to eliminate the need for a final military offensive by successful political messaging which eventually led to government collapse.[1]

The early success of the MLN’s creative and almost playful escapades gradually descends into a darker more violent insurgency. Brum narrates the MLN’s spiral into more aggressive methods. MLN kidnappings began in 1968, targeted at first and then later cast with a wider net. In 1969, the seizure of the town of Pando resulted in the death of an innocent civilian. Later the kidnapping and murder of US diplomat Dan Mitrone seemed to be an end of innocence for the group. Finally the MLN “Plan Cacao” unleashed bombings and attacks that impacted the general public.

The government response was initially as limited as the MLN insurgency. Largely police led, the interrogations were light and torture was limited if at all. Like the insurgents, the government seemed interested in conducting a war, but not to the extreme. However, as Brum explains, the government response would ramp up with the more violent MLN tactics. In the end, the military is placed in charge of the counterinsurgency mission. Drawing largely from the lessons of French counterinsurgents like Roger Trinquier, the Uruguayan military attacked the MLN with a vengeance. Torture became more common, more effective, and more brutal. The military systematically dismantled the MLN, arresting members and seizing safe-houses. However, in the end, the military realized that military action alone could not solve instability. The democracy that even Che Guevara praised fell into military dictatorship for 12 years.

Those desperate to have “their revolution”, damn the conditions, caused the destruction of democratic institutions in Uruguay. Brum notes “their remarkable pursuit of high ideals and principles became a tragic story as they progressively violated all of them.” 37 years later, in a remarkable turn of events, Jose “Pepe” Mujica, the MLN guerrilla, would find himself elected president of Uruguay. The very democratic institutions that Mujica had undermined eventually allowed him to take power. Moderated by the years, Mujica would say “I believe we have to favor capitalism, so that its wheels keep turning and then take our quota of resources to give to the weakest. But we should not paralyze it.”[2]

Brum’s excellent case study of the Tupamaros offers lasting lessons applicable to current security challenges. One key point from the conflict is the often noted need for a “whole of government” approach. In the case of the MLN, the Uruguayan government eventually turned to the military to take on the problem. However, the military, versed in the French experiences in Algeria, identified the social and economic factors that were driving the insurgency. Like the French military’s move to take power in 1961 in the middle of the Algerian War, the Uruguayan Army sought out the necessary powers to address their own problem. Uruguay’s cautionary tale, once again highlights the need for civilian agencies to be a critical part of any government response to an insurgency.

The Tupamaro case study provides historical data points for those studying the increasingly common phenomenon of urban insurgency or urban conflict. The Tupamaros developed a unique and largely effective urban campaign based on the works of Abraham Guillen and Carlos Marighella. Guillen stated that “the Tupamaros have served as the best revolutionary academy in the world on the subject of urban guerrilla warfare; they have taught more through actions than all the revolutionary theories abstracted from concrete situations.”[3] One need only look at the conflict in Iraq, where the insurgency was largely urban based, to see that urban insurgency is a valid course of action for a devoted force. Security scholars like David Kilcullen, John Sullivan, and Robert Bunker among others are sounding alarms about evolving unconventional threats and the growing importance of urban terrain in warfare. Students of warfare and security can mine extensive lessons from Brum’s study including the Tupamaro use of subterranean networks, safe-houses, communication techniques, and the utility of varied government responses. The lessons in The Robin Hood Guerrillas will be ever more valid as warfare continues to move into the cities.

Few experts in security studies have taken the time to review the story of the Tupamaros. There has been significant study of rural guerrilla movements in Central America, Colombia, and Peru; however, future insurgencies may look more like the urban battles fought in the Southern Cone. The urban nature of the Tupamaro’s campaign and the evolution of the government response are highly relevant today. Pablo Brum has written an objective and detailed look at one of the finest case studies in urban conflict. Students and practitioners of warfare and public security should read this book to better understand current and future conflicts that are increasingly urban. The reader comes away from the book feeling Brum’s sense of tragedy and the futility of the entire enterprise. The MLN’s transformation from idealists to murderous insurgents and the destruction along the way of a functioning democratic system is heartrending. One can only ask “why?” This becomes especially ironic given that all of this conflict and pain ends with a more moderate Mujica gaining power, not by assassination or bombings, but through the ballot box. Perhaps if those who still cling to the idea of violent revolution read Brum’s cautionary tale they will seek to achieve their aims democratically in the market of ideas rather than through intimidation and subversion. When they do not, this book provides valuable insights on how to stop them.

The views expressed in this study are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.      

End Notes

[1] TX Hammes, The Sling and the Stone, (Minneapolis, MBI Publishing and Zenith Press, Minneapolis, 2006), 76-88.

[2] Jonathan Gilbert, “Uruguay’s Most Unexpected Champion of Capitalism,” Fortune, January 23, 2015.

[3] Abraham Guillen, Philosophy of the Urban Guerrilla, ed. Ad trans. Donald C. Hodges, (New York, William and Morrow, 1973) 276.


About the Author(s)

Michael L. Burgoyne is a former US Army Foreign Area Officer, he served in various policy and security cooperation positions in the Americas including assignments as the Army Attaché in Mexico, the Andean Ridge Desk Officer at U.S. Army South, and the Senior Defense Official in Guatemala. He deployed twice in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom in command and staff positions and served as the Defense Attaché in Kabul, Afghanistan. He is the co-author of The Defense of Jisr al-Doreaa, a tactical primer on counterinsurgency. He holds an M.A. in Strategic Studies from the US Army War College and an M.A. in Security Studies from Georgetown University. He is currently a PhD student at King’s College London.