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Urban Guerrilas in Brazil
by Brian Train

During the 1960s Brazil underwent a period of economic restructuring and urbanization, with its attendant social unrest. Brazil was very dependent on foreign capital and investment, and there was a wide disparity in standards of living between the different regions of the country. As Brazil began to industrialize, people came to the city from the surrounding countryside in search of jobs. By 1965 over 70% of the population lived in large urban areas. Most of the people who had come to the city from the countryside lived in sordid favelas or shanty-towns on the perimeter of the city. Meanwhile, a weak government, rampant inflation, and a poor climate for foreign investment created a situation of incipient economic collapse.

On 1 April 1964 the Brazilian military (then numbering 200,000 in all three services, and another 120,000 in assorted paramilitary organizations and whose officer corps was solidly on the side of conservative business and the vested interests of large land-owners) staged a coup d'état and established a totalitarian state. There was significant popular resistance to the overthrow of civilian government. A major split in the Brazilian Communist Party occurred, between the Maoist faction (which believed in armed struggle as the main instrument for seizing power) and the Moscow faction (which placed its faith in subversion and a united political front), and a number of small urban and rural guerrilla groups formed. Most of these groups drew their membership from the "professional lumpenproletariat" sector of Brazilian society — disaffected students, artists, intellectuals, radical priests, and dissident Communist party organizers. The average age of a Brazilian urban guerrilla was less than 23. No political parties or organizations supported their activities, and they never succeeded in creating any kind of mass base or popular support except a sneaking admiration for their notoriety and audacity. Their only hope was to provoke the government and create a domestic atmosphere of such severe repression that the people would have no choice but to rebel.

One of the first of these groups to be formed was the MNR (Nationalist Revolutionary Movement), composed of disaffected soldiers and marines. They tried to form a rural foco in the southern countryside in 1967 but were easily located and captured by the military. Other dissidents from the Communist Party tried to use the "Groups of Eleven." This network of eleven-man squads had been set up as a private army by two extreme left-wing state governors in the south of Brazil before 1964, but any attempts to make use of them to start a rural insurgency were quickly neutralized by the government. By the end of 1967 the main focus of revolutionary activity was in the cities, centred on the two major metropolitan areas of Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo.

The two most important urban guerrilla movements were the ALN (Action for National Liberation) and the VPR (People's Revolutionary Vanguard). The ALN, which was to reach a maximum strength of 200 members, was formed by the articulate and charismatic Communist organizer Carlos Marighella in February 1968 after he was thrown out of the Party in August 1967. The first members of the ALN were radical students, intellectuals, and a few professional Communists who had followed Marighella. The VPR was formed by a group of radical students and ex-soldiers in March 1968. Throughout 1968 and 1969 these groups carried off a series of "expropriations," bombing attacks on army barracks and the offices of US companies, and selective assassination of members of the security forces.

They also made maximum use of the tactic of kidnapping and ransoming diplomatic figures to embarrass the government. In March 1969 the VPR kidnapped the Japanese consul in Sao Paulo and traded him for five political prisoners. In April 1969 the VPR wounded the American consul in Sao Paulo while trying to snatch him, and in June 1969 the West German ambassador Holleben was successfully taken in a joint ALN-VPR operation. Holleben was traded for forty political prisoners. The most spectacular operation was undertaken by the ALN and members of the MR-8 (Revolutionary Movement of October 8) in September 1969, when the American ambassador to Brazil Charles Elbrick was snatched in broad daylight in Rio de Janeiro. Elbrick was traded for fifteen prisoners. The last such kidnapping was in December 1970, when the VPR kidnapped the Swiss ambassador Bucher and ransomed him for seventy prisoners.

The Brazilian government's response to these escalating provocations was to give in to the guerrillas' demands, but also to strike back on a larger scale each time. A special organization called the Department of Social and Political Order was formed in the War Department to deal with the terrorist problem. Institutional Act Number Five, enacted in December 1968, gave extraordinary powers to the President. After Ambassador Elbrick was kidnapped, the death penalty was restored in Brazil and the penalties for a large range of terrorist activities were increased. Arbitrary arrests were common, and the media were kept under strict control. Each time a diplomat was kidnapped or an important figure was assassinated, more and more people would be arrested in mass dragnets to try and find those responsible (for example, over 8,000 people were arrested when the Swiss ambassador was kidnapped). The police and military intelligence interrogators also made a greater use of torture, and "death squads" of right-wing vigilantes (often off-duty soldiers and policemen) were responsible for the death of at least 1,000 people between 1968 and 1970. The USA doubled the size of its military aid team in Brazil and trained Brazilian police and army officers in counterinsurgency methods at Fort Gulick in Panama. The CIA also infiltrated many radical organizations, and it is alleged that they had a spy in the top ranks of the ALN itself.

All these measures had the inevitable effect of destroying what democratic institutions and personal liberties were left after the military takeover, but they also worked against the urban guerrillas. Carlos Marighella was killed in a police ambush in November 1969 and the ALN was defunct within a year. During 1970 the VPR dropped to a strength of 50 fighters from a maximum of 150. The economy had recovered, which eroded popular support for the guerrillas, and while the government's harsh measures alienated many sectors of the Brazilian middle class these people were driven onto the sidelines of the conflict and not (as the guerrillas had hoped and predicted) onto the side of the rebels. By the end of 1971 all the leaders of the urban guerrilla movements were dead or in jail. No new groups were formed to take their place. The expected popular uprising against the government never took place, for the Brazilian urban guerrillas had engaged the government in a contest to see who could use terror most effectively — and lost.

» Brian Train is a freelance writer, game designer, and veteran of the Canadian Armed Forces. His articles have been published in Command, Strategy & Tactics, MOVES, and Cry Havoc! He has also designed and published numerous politico-military simulation games on guerrilla wars and revolutionary conflicts. This article is an excerpt from "The Terror War," published in issue #166 of Strategy & Tactics (May, 1994). It is formatted and re-posted here with the kind permission of the author.