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The Americas 58.3 (2002) 500-501

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Bandits, Peasants, and Politics: The Case of "La Violencia" in Colombia. By Gonzalo Sánchez and Donny Meertens. Translated by Alan Hynds. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2001. Pp. xviii, 229. Illustrations. Notes. Glossary. References. Index. $40.00 cloth; $19.95 paper.

In its original 1983 Spanish version, Bandoleros, gamonales y campesinos, this study of banditry during Colombia's Violencia made important contributions to Latin American historiography. Sánchez and Meertens provided a compelling range of bandit images, from praiseful peasant mythology to condemnatory government disinformation. They tapped a wondrous range of sources, from legal investigations to news reports to popular songs. Unlike the prepolitical social bandit, postulated by the late Eric J. Hobsbawm, Sánchez and Meertens uncovered bandits with deeply rooted political connections to the elite-led political parties of Colombia. They also revealed levels of wanton violence, rape, and ritualized murder that no respectable social bandit, concerned with fostering ties to peasant supporters, would have inflicted. Interestingly, Hobsbawm provided a brief foreword to the original Spanish edition, which is also included in this translation.

In this full-length English edition, skillfully translated by Alan Hynds, the horror and conflict of the Violencia becomes available to a much broader audience. Heretofore English-language readers had only a brief summary available in chapter nine of Bandidos: The Varieties of Latin American Banditry, edited by Richard W. Slatta (Greenwood Press, 1987). Their careful analysis of political banditry, a phenomenon very distinct from Hobsbawm's social banditry, helped inspire Slatta to formulate the arguments and to gather the essays presented in Bandidos.

The book is divided into an introduction and six chapters. Its strength lies in the multi-level analysis, which shifts from national to regional to local perspectives and issues. As Hobsbawm admits in his foreword, "the Colombian Violencia can only be explained by taking into account deeply rooted partisan loyalties that crossed class divisions" (p. xi). Unlike the noble social bandit, Colombia's "pájaros [thugs hired by the Conservative Party] were authentic 'criminal wage earners,' perpetrators of violent acts planned from offices, public posts, political directorates" (p. 106).

Sánchez and Meertens provide a compelling portrait of the ugliness and irrationality of deeply partisan banditry. They have added a not-completely-satisfying epilogue to the English edition that unfortunately ignores most of the significant recent debate over the varieties of banditry worldwide. Owing to the modesty and brevity of this update to their earlier research, the book is something of a "period piece," a bit frozen in time. Thus readers interested in comparing broader issues of banditry across time and space will be somewhat disappointed. Meertens adds a few pages better elaborating the roles of women, beyond that of rape victims. However, the authors provide only limited insights into the fascinating contradictions between bandit myth and reality. "No definitive bipolarity exists between myth and reality, not only because reality is multiform but also because, in a strict sense, myth, with its own structures and transformation principles, in an integral and active part of [End Page 500] reality" (p. 190). Nonetheless, readers interested in the history of the Violencia and of political violence in general will find this study required reading.

Richard W. Slatta
North Carolina State University
Raleigh, North Carolina



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