- Under Civilian Colonels:Indigenous Political Mobilization in 1920s Ayacucho, Peru
With his television blaring in the corner, Don Isidro Durán spoke of the men whom his neighbors had once chosen as leaders, men those neighbors labeled "colonels." As Don Isidro described the indigenous political mobilization that rocked his rural Ayacucho community back in 1923, he explained that these colonels led their supporters in military exercises and proclaimed that President Augusto B. Leguía was "bad for the Pueblo."1 Although the elderly Durán spoke with the authority of an eyewitness and the eloquence of a local intellectual, the indigenous leaders he described are essentially absent from the extensive literature on indigenous politics during Peru's 1920s.2 That absence is surprising, for reports of various popularly appointed colonels fill Ayacucho's archival records during Leguía's oncenio (his 1919-1930 presidency). These Ayacuchano civilian colonels were typically literate, indigenous men without formal standing in the Peruvian armed forces. During the first years of the 1920s, Ayacucho peasants embraced these indigenous men as leaders because of their profound anger at official government authorities and their agents. Ayacucho's civilian colonels channeled this popular anger into specific acts of protest, and that protest often—although not always—was militaristic in form and function. Strikingly, these indigenous political leaders had significant connections to one [End Page 501] another. They communicated and collaborated across a broad geographical territory, forming a political web that stretched across community, district and even provincial boundaries.
To organize this discussion, I structure my arguments around the case of just one of these colonels: an indigenous campesino named Juan Nieto. Under Colonel Nieto's command, around 300 indigenous campesinos from the Cangallo, Ayacucho community of Llaccolla entered the nearby community of Concepción on September 7, 1923. Numerous Concepción residents immediately joined the ranks of the Llaccolla peasants, and together, these campesinos headed to the home of Juan Pablo Vila, the local representative of the Tax Collection Company (Compañía Recaudadora de Impuestos). The group—dubbed montoneras (irregular troops) by observers—took Vila from his home, and marched him out of the community. Over the next eight days, the Llaccolla and Concepción campesinos led Vila to the community of Pampas in the neighboring province of La Mar, where they imprisoned and then executed him. As an indigenous woman named Jesusa Martínez testified at the ensuing murder trial, the montoneras made Vila suffer his "horrible death" because "he was a thief of the pueblo [ladrón del pueblo], he levied taxes on them, even though the fiscal taxes did not exist."3
On first glance, the protest under Colonel Nieto looks like little more than a small antitax revolt by peasants. But a close examination of the testimonies given at Nieto's trial reveals that there was much, much more to the events of September 1923 than opposition to taxes alone. Looking at the explanations offered by witnesses, and placing those explanations in the context of other indigenous campesinos' words and actions from oncenio-era Ayacucho, it becomes clear that the protest under Colonel Nieto was part of a broad range of rural mobilizations against abusive authorities in rural Ayacucho. More interesting still, the Llaccolla and Concepción montoneras had deep linkages to many of those other mobilizations. And like the Llaccolla and Concepción campesinos, these other mobilized peasants often militarized their political activism.
The story of Ayacucho's civilian colonels offers a new perspective on the recent historical debate about indigenous rebellions in 1920s Peru. In her brilliant book Indigenous Mestizos, anthropologist Marisol de la Cadena critiques "the historiographic production of indigenous messianic rebellions."4 She asserts that numerous historians inaccurately cast indigenous activism in the 1920s as violent uprisings, reproducing the heated claims of local elites and ignoring indigenous [End Page 502] actors' denials of violence. To de la Cadena, indigenous political actions in the 1920s amounted to peaceful efforts for citizenship rather than violent acts of rebellion. Events in Ayacucho, however, reveal that many indigenous men and women tread a course between the poles of violent and nonviolent political activity during the oncenio. The very same individuals...