The Tupamaros, Terrorists of Uruguay – Part 3: Armed propaganda


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.Myself . By T.V. Antony Raj

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Tupamaros flag - 2

Armed propaganda

The Tupamaros differed fundamentally from other revolutionary movements by introducing a methodology for social agitation through direct actions and minimizing on political rhetoric and discourse.

In early 1969, the MLN-T endeavored to reveal to the public the intrinsic nature of the capitalist system wherein human rights and even the laws of their nation were subordinate to the real economics of the country, the ruling system, and the military. To educate the public about social justice, socialism, and national liberation through direct actions they launched an operation called ‘armed propaganda‘.

The Tupamaros took over cinema houses and forced the audience to watch slide shows decrying the injustice of liberal democracy.

After identifying significant symbolic targets, they staged guerrilla raids with a minimal amount of violence. The ‘armed propaganda‘ operations would most often end without firing a single shot. To blazon their accomplishment, the group would then leave a poster that said: “The people passed through here.

The Tupamaro guerrillas became notorious in the Uruguayan press for their high-profile female members such as Yessie Macchi, a beautiful Jane Fonda blonde dated by José Mujica. The group’s propaganda minister once told the press:

“… at no point is a woman more equal to a man than when she is holding a .45 in her hand.

Planning a Tupamaro operation demanded a great deal of patience and time. In each instance a set of people would collect data without even knowing for what purpose it would be used later. More often than not, even the participants will not know until the end of the operation. Once the data were gathered, the group command spruced them into a coherent form. They placed high importance to security measures, and enacted their operations without a snag.  The Tupamaros were not allowed to rely on their firearms since their meticulous planning allowed them to act on the spur of the moment and overcome their victims by personal conviction and with an element of surprise.

In 1970, the New York Times stated:

“Unlike other Latin-American guerrilla groups, the Tupamaros normally avoid bloodshed when possible. They try instead to create embarrassment for the Government and general disorder.”

The raid on Financiera Monty

One of the main goals of the Tupamaros was to root out corruption in the government by exposing the illegal activities of its officials.

Lucia Topolansky, currently, wife of José Mujica, orchestrated one of the most captivating actions of the Tupamaro Urban guerrillas – the raid on Financiera Monty, a private banking institution that deals in currency exchange and real estate.

To fund her way through architecture school, Lucia Topolansky, worked at the Financiera Monty. She was outraged when she discovered a clandestine black market financial operation being conducted behind the scenes. She reported the covert illegal activities first to the banking regulators. But they did not bother. Then, she approached the press. But here too, no one was eager to act on her report. In desperation, she contacted some friends in the sprouting rebel group  the Tupamaros.

To conduct a raid on an institution such as the Financiera Monty required a meticulously intelligent network. It was said the intelligence network of the Tupamaros was far more superior to that of the Uruguayan police.

The primary aim of the raid was to gather evidence to report and substantiate the illegalities committed by the establishment.

On February 14, 1969, three young men and a young woman, belonging to the “Liber Arce” commando squad of the Tupamaros strolled casually through the central door of the building of the Banco de Credito where Financiera Monty had their offices. They took the elevator to reach the fourth floor. There they threatened the employees, bound and gagged them. The guerrillas took six account books, various other documents, plus foreign currency (US dollars, Brazilian Cruzeiros, and British pound sterling) worth seven million Uruguayan pesos, to prove the unlawful activities of the company.

After the raid, the Tupamaros tacitly left the building with the same cool composure they had when they came in.

The news of the raid came to light only on February 23, 1960. Why? Because Financiera Monty had not complained to the authorities.

The Tupamaros sent a statement to the press, the police, and to a judge denouncing Financiera Monty and their illegal activities and shady operations.

The scandal prompted the judge to initiate immediate action to clarify the matter since the company already had in its immediate past a very dark history. A fire broke out on the eighth floor of the building of the Banco de Credito, where Financiera Monty had more offices, presumably the fire was started by them to destroy other implicating documents.

The subsequent investigation into the Monty incident resulted in a major scandal and the resignation of several government officials with ties to the Company.

The officials of Financiera Monty tried to explain their silence, claiming that they wanted to carry out their own internal investigation first to ascertain whether any of its employees was involved, and to avoid panic among their customers. The explanation did not satisfy anyone.

The raid on Casino at Hotel San Rafael 

Punta del Este is a city located in the peninsular southern tip of Uruguay in the department of Maldonado. It is one of the finest beach resorts in Latin America.

Hotel Casino San Rafael Punta Del Este Uruguay (Source:  articulo.mercadolibre.com.ar)
Hotel Casino San Rafael Punta Del Este Uruguay (Source: articulo.mercadolibre.com.ar)

Opened in 1948, the plush Tudor style Hotel San Rafael was the main hotel from 1950 to 1980 in Punta del Este. It was the symbol of the rise of Punta Del East as one of the most prestigious beach resorts in South America.

The facilities offered by the hotel and its casino attracted the patrician families of the Río de la Plata as well as political figures, celebrities in arts and entertainment, and the royalty around the world. The large meeting rooms of Hotel San Rafael, including the Gothic Hall that could accommodate up to 1500 attendees, served as the meeting place of many American presidents and dignitaries of other nations.

Tuesday, February 18, 1969, was carnival day in Punta del Este, just four days after the Tupamaros raided Financiera Monty.

The casino of Hotel San Rafael operated in two shifts: from 11 am to 4 pm, and from 9 pm to 5 am of the following day.

It was 5 pm and Manuel Sunhary, head teller of the casino had just had his lunch.

Two Tupamaros under the command of Robaina Mario Mendez, one dressed as a policeman and another displaying a civilian police ID card, confronted Sunhary.

“It is a routine procedure,” said the man in uniform.

They pushed Sunhary into a blue Volkswagen van and handcuffed him. The van then headed towards the Casino.

It was the recess after the first game session of the day. There was not much movement at the Casino except for a few janitors cleaning the place. The cashiers were busy counting the heavy collection from the morning game session.

At the Casino more Tupamaros joined them swelling the group to eight men, all armed with pistols and machine guns. The assailants entered the offices without causing an alarm.

In a few minutes they locked all the staff in the management office.

They forced Sunhary, who held the key, to open the main safe which contained the money, amounting to approximately 55 million Uruguayan pesos (US $220,000) in canvas bags.

All the Tupamaros enacted the raid without covering their face, but there was no consensus among those who saw the assailants to identify them. However, the witnesses said that the assailants appeared to be educated, cultured and young. They were not rude or vulgar. All their actions were in order and perfectly synced. Each of them had a specific role to fulfill and knew his role perfectly.

The knowledge the Tupamaros had gathered about the turf was amazing. The players knew where everything: each door, who had the key to that door, and even the names of the employees who held the keys.

Several days later, the Tupamaros came to know that a part of the haul was tips that belonged to a pool for casino employees. In a press release the Tupamaros graciously offered to return that amount belonging to the casino employees.

The Raid on Pando City

The central square of Pando with the Church of the Immaculate Conception in the background (Source: Hoverfish/Gallery)
The central square of Pando with the Church of the Immaculate Conception in the background (Source: Hoverfish/Gallery)

The raid on the modest city of Pando in October 1969 was timed to honor the second anniversary of Che Guevara’s death and to publicize the presence of the Tupamaros whose eventual goal was to take over Uruguay.

Pando is a small city about 14 miles (23 km) northeast of Montevideo in Canelones Department of Uruguay. It is an important commercial and industrial center, which has today become part of the wider metropolitan area of Montevideo. In 1969 it had a population around 14,000 people.

On the forenoon of October 8, 1969, José Mujica, then aged 35, along with nine other men dressed for a funeral, piled into a Volkswagen van and waited on the side of a two-lane road that led from Montevideo, to the city of Pando.

Half a dozen cars and a hearse, rented from the fanciest funeral home in the country, drove past, and the Volkswagen joined the funeral procession. Veritably, there was no funeral to attend, no corpse, and no mourners. They were Tupamaros.

About three miles from Pando city, the men-in-black after subduing the drivers of the hired cars and the hearse, stuffed them into the back of the Volkswagen.

José Mujica, clutching his Spanish-made Z-45 submachine gun, got into the backseat of one of the cars. The funeral cavalcade of the hearse, black cars and the Volkswagen van entered the city where many other Tupamaros, who had already arrived in the city, disguised as vaudevillian characters commenced acting in front of the city’s main police station.

José Mujica and his team disabled the telephone exchange without firing a single shot. They cut all telephone lines and other communication channels.

Along with the intricate planning, careful disguises, and hiding-in-plain-sight, it was the practice with the Tupamaros as an important feature, to pontificate with the intent of converting other citizens to their cause. So, on that day too, as the stunned telephone operators lay on the ground, Mujica went into a tirade about the Che Guevara–inspired Tupamaros revolution that would soon ignite in Uruguay.

The Tupamaros confronted the officers at the front desk with their petty, meaningless complaints. Then in a coordinated manner drew their guns and raided the precinct. They locked the policemen in the jail cells and traded fire and grenades with one policeman who had held out.

The small battalion Tupamaros took over the town, robbed Pando’s three banks. While robbing the city’s main bank branch a policeman opened fire, causing a delay which helped the police to surround the town. In the ensuing brazen, and chaotic shootout that spilled out into the streets a police officer, one civilian and three Tupamaros were killed and many more injured while retreating back to Montevideo. Around 25 Tupamaros were arrested by the police on that day.

The entire operation took about half an hour.

In the interim, José Mujica, who had already fled Pando and returned to Montevideo, like the rest of the country, sat at a bar listening to the action unfold on the radio.

The Raid on the Uruguayan Naval Academy

On Friday, May 29, 1970, a group of 50 Tupamaros raided the headquarters of the Uruguayan naval academy. Several of them were in navy uniforms. They overpowered the guards, assembled all the naval cadets in the courtyard, and forced them to watch while they ransacked the entire place of its firearms, equipment, and other paraphernalia. They got away with a truckload of arms, including 300 rifles, ammunition and tear gas.

On the morning of Sunday, May 31, 1970, one terrorist was killed in Chacras, 13 miles from Montevideo during a search of a house by security forces. Two other guerrillas were reported killed and several captured during a gunfight with security forces in a suburb of Montevideo as authorities pressed a hunt for the guerrillas who raided the naval academy two days before.

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 Previous – Part 2: The Formative Years

Next → Part 4: The Kidnappings

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