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Latin American Studies Program

A blog managed by the current LASP Graduate Student Fellows

El Frente Unido as a Movement of Collective Action in Colombia: Or What Can Camilo Torres Possibly Say to the Peace Negotiations?

By Gustavo Quintero


On February 15, 1966, the Colombian army shot a Catholic priest named Camilo Torres while he was trying to take a rifle away from a soldier he had just killed. The priest’s dead body is still missing. Conflicting versions about his burial site continue to emerge fifty years after the episode. Some say his body was confiscated by officials to prevent the formation of a cult around his grave and was buried in a municipal cemetery in Bucaramanga, Capital of Santander state. But, in January 25, 2016, his remains were exhumed and, shortly after, official reports denied that they belonged to Camilo Torres. Now, for different reasons, Torres life and death have not been forgotten. He is widely known among Colombian left-wing political groups and student circles, and he is a necessary reference in edited volumes about Marxism in Latin America. Camilo Torres has become a symbol of armed resistance against the State. His name is a synonym of the revolutionary soldier that fights until the last consequences.

Image 1: A graffiti of Camilo Torres as a guerrilla fighter in the library also named “Biblioteca Camilo Torres” at the National University of Colombia in Bogotá.

Born in 1929, son of an upper middle class family from Bogotá, Colombia, Torres was ordained as a priest when he was 25, and shortly after, he flew to Leuven, Belgium, to study sociology. By 1960, he had come back to Colombia and co-founded the first department of sociology in the country, at the National University. In 1964, the Colombian Episcopate accused Torres of being a communist because of his constant clashes with the Church’s conservative political positions and because he was seen as the man responsible for a series of student protests in Bogotá, and so was forced to renounce to his ministerial orders. Around the same time, Torres initiated a political coalition intended to boycott the 1965 presidential elections. By November 1965, he joined the ELN left wing guerrilla movement; it was during his first combat in 1966 that the Colombian army killed him.

Torres was trying to mobilize against a government made by a two-party regime known as the National Front (El Frente Nacional). In 1958, the political elite made a pact in Benidorm –a small town in Spain under Franco’s regime– in which they agreed to share the State power between the Liberals and the Conservatives. This was a way for the landowners, businessmen, and traditional elite to legitimize the status quo by alternating the presidency and splitting the major political positions. Hence, it was practically impossible for political minorities –such as the left parties– to achieve any governmental representation.

In 2016, fifty years after Camilo Torres’ death, Colombia is on the verge of a historical moment: since 2012, the Colombian government and the FARC, the largest guerrilla group in the country, discussed in Havana, Cuba, a peace treaty that could put an end to one of the oldest conflicts in the hemisphere. They reached an agreement in the past month, and it’s up to the Colombian citizens to support or reject the deal, by voting on a referendum to be held on October the 2nd.

The ELN, which Torres was a part of, will remain the only small left-wing guerrilla group in Colombia. Although the rebels have secretly met with the Government to start peace negotiations, both parties have not yet reached an initial agreement.

Can one consider Camilo Torres more than a character among the long-standing queue of martyrs of revolutions past, and give him the opportunity to say something to our present? Can one offer Camilo Torres the possibility to participate, albeit from the distance of time, in the Colombian political arena by listening to the echoes of his multiple attempts to organize the people into a movement that could have reshaped Colombian democracy from within?

Torres still resonates today because of that gesture: Before joining the ELN frontlines, Camilo Torres organized a political movement known as El Frente Unido. For seven months, from the end of April to October 1965, he coordinated a series of meetings with the unions of the most powerful companies in Colombia (Coltabaco, Bavaria, and Coltejer). He organized popular gatherings in public spaces and pacific demonstrations in several cities of Colombia. He published a newspaper called frente unido (he insisted on not using capitalized letters), which was printed weekly and was widely distributed in the cities as well as in the countryside. He wanted to send a message to the Colombian Population: the people need to collectively organize and assert a more direct form of democracy in which they can have more participatory means to engage in decision-making processes. Facing the stationary two-party system established by the United Front, Camilo Torres popular movement aimed to creatively reshape Colombian politics to have a more substantial democracy, not only a formal democratic regime. For members of the movement, the question was how to delegitimize the presidential elections of 1965. They didn’t want to form an armed group to seize power but instead to reach an unprecedented level of voter abstention.

For El Frente Unido the stakes were high: its force rested upon the assumption that Colombian democracy could be reformed from within, that masses of citizens could assert their will by engaging in popular demonstrations and by rendering visible their unfulfilled demands.

Image 2: The second issue of the newspaper frente unido.

As a way of revealing the large-scale discontent of the Colombian population, El Frente Unido’s aim was to antagonize and resist such a limited democracy. Torres insisted that his political group was a bottom-up organization that refused to become a traditional party. Through his speeches and the texts he wrote for the newspaper frente unido, he asserted the need for the people to unite, leaving aside any possible cause for division and exclusion.[1] His interventions were a call to join a collective force of interruption of the status-quo: it did not matter whether an individual was rich or poor or whether she had religious beliefs. What counted was the willingness to establish a more participatory democratic system. In other words, El Frente Unido was an instance of convergence where a multiplicity of groups congregated because of the frustrations towards the established political order, and because of their readiness to participate in a collective action intended to make a radical change in the Colombian sociopolitical structure. El Frente Unido articulated a myriad of hopes in future change into a force to resist and reshape the Colombian political system from the inside and without having to call for an armed struggle. The movement was anti-nothing, but the objective was to change everything.[2]

The impact of the group became manifest through collective acts of resistance in everyday practices. For example, to make themselves be heard, they coordinated efforts to boycott one of the main newspapers in Colombia, El Tiempo: from October the 6th to the 12th 1965, anyone associated with El Frente Unido, refused to buy the newspaper. This act, Torres declared, was much more useful than throwing rocks at any important building.[3] Such gestures became so widespread that they succeeded in drawing national attention: Gustavo Rojas Pinilla, one of the presidential candidates for the 1965 elections (and former head of the State in a military government) offered Torres the position of Cardinal, and even ambassador in Paris, if only he would declare that the elections were free and fair. Such was the magnitude of the movement: it became a worthy opponent of the elites by engaging in collective everyday action.

Image 3: A picture of Camilo Torres in one of the popular mobilizations with El Frente Unido in Medellín. To contain the gathering, the Governor ordered the exits blocked in the building where Torres gave his speech.

The momentum arrived at a sudden halt when, after receiving several death threats and having to deal with constant acts of sabotage from within El Frente Unido, Camilo Torres made the decision to enter the armed struggle by enlisting in the ELN lines. In doing that, not only did he discredit El Frente Unido as a non-violent political group, but he also allowed for the ELN to use his name and image as an emblem to pursue the ongoing war against the State.

The perspective of approaching Camilo Torres’ revolutionary endeavor via a non-armed struggle seems contentious, since he is remembered as “el cura guerrillero” (the guerrilla priest). But, as a fifty-two-year war that has left countless of victims is arriving to a major turning point, former armed revolutionaries will now have to find new ways to antagonize and disagree with the traditional political elite in Colombia without violence. Indeed, as history has shown us: overt violence against the State has long-term traumatizing effects on the civil population.

The experience of Torres also makes visible the need to have guarantees for engaging in the political arena (without receiving death threats, or having to deal with the extinction of an entire new political party). Therefore, as we approach an uncertain future, looking back to trace creative modes to expand the democratic means of participation seems more pressing than ever. Hope remains, and in this case is a mode of resisting the assumption that history in Colombia irredeemably repeats itself, spiraling towards oblivion. If Torres were here today, perhaps he would give one last speech to say: “We need to unite in those points that we all have in common, to look for the wellbeing of the majority of the Colombian people, without any prejudice, with arms wide open, in favor of all Colombians.”[4]

For further reference:

Broderick, Joe. Camilo: el cura guerrillero. Bogotá, Colombia: Editorial El Labrador, 1987.

Fundación colectivo Frente Unido. Frente Unido: Unidad en la diversidad. Bogotá, Colombia: Ediciones Desde Abajo, 2014.

Guzmán Germán. El padre Camilo Torres. México: Siglo Veintiuno Editores, 1968.

Löwy Michael, Marxism in Latin America From 1909 to the Present: an Anthology. Atlantic Highlands, N.J: Humanities Press, 1992.

Löwy, Michael. The War of Gods: Religion and Politics in Latin America. New York: Verso, 1996.

Liss, Sheldon, Marxist Thought in Latin America. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984.

Sánchez Lopera, Alejandro, “Ciencia, Revolución y creencia en Camilo Torres: ¿una Colombia Secular?”. Revista nómadas. 25. Universidad Central de Colombia 2006. 241-258.

Torres, Camilo. Cristianismo y Revolución. México Ediciones Era. 1970.


[1] Torres, Camilo: Cristianismo y Revolución, 451

[2] Torres, Camilo: Cristianismo y Revolución, 486

[3] Torres, Camilo: Cristianismo y Revolución, 511

[4] Torres, Camilo. Cristianismo y Revolución, 468.

Gustavo Quintero is a PhD student in the Department of Romance Studies at Cornell University.


A Brief History of Militarization in the U.S.-Mexico Borderlands

By Nicholas Myers

On August 3rd of 2016, I took a bus with the company Limousines de México north from Ciudad Chihuahua and across the U.S.-Mexico border into El Paso, Texas. For a white guy with a credit card and American Passport, the crossing was fast, comfortable, and benign. It is, of course, no secret that the same journey, for the hundreds of thousands who make clandestine crossings, can literally be a matter of life or death. Despite declining numbers of such crossings in recent years, deaths per hundred thousand migrants, according to a study from the University of Arizona, is on the rise and has been for some time. The study describes several factors driving this humanitarian crisis, among them “border enforcement and securitization practices initially instituted in the mid-1990s that effectively pushed would-be migrants into the most remote, hot, and dry regions of the desert borderlands.”

The increasingly militarized Mexico-U.S. border has gotten some good coverage in U.S. and Latin American media outlets. A quick Google search will generate dozens of articles, but see here and here and here and here and here. Such analyses often connect the phenomenon to changes in U.S. Border Patrol policy in the 1970’s or 1990’s, as border policy became increasingly dictated by counter-narcotics concerns. Additionally, they often point to the increasingly cozy relationship shared by the U.S. domestic security apparatus and the Pentagon in the post-9/11 era. Still others link border militarization with the creation of the U.S. Border Patrol in 1924. Of course all of these phenomena contribute, in various degrees, to the current situation in which border enforcement is characterized by the use of military technology for surveillance and disruption of migrant mobility, often with lethal results.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection Drone. Photo by CBP.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection Drone. Photo by CBP.

The historical antecedents of border militarization are part and parcel with my own work as a budding historian of the Borderlands region. At the same time, one of the goals of my research is to de-emphasize the presence of the Mexico-U.S. border in the region’s history. Seen as a place where two Platonic national/cultural identities meet and co-mingle, borderlands are often denied the possibility of being places in their own right. No matter how dynamic and dialectic the relationship with the states that comprise the two (or more) sides of the border, the relationship of periphery (borderland) to centers (states) takes precedence in the very act of labeling a region as “borderland.” Bringing a different kind of lens to bear – thinking about portions of the borderlands as unique places, as centers rather than peripheries – requires that we think about militarization of the area broadly, independent of national boundaries.

The portion of the region I study – the arid and mountainous area roughly composed by the Mexican States of Sonora and Chihuahua and U.S. States of Arizona, New Mexico, and (far Western) Texas – has long existed outside of any meaningful state-level control. For the majority of the region’s history, it was no meeting place of states. It was, in fact, no state place at all. In the sixteenth century, Spanish colonial officials included the area in what they referred to as La Gran Chichimeca, a name derived from the Nahua term Chichimec used to describe the nomadic and semi-nomadic peoples of the North beyond the control of the pre-contact Aztec (Mexica) Empire. Spanish conquerors quickly adopted the term and put it to their own use, discursively aggregating a vast array of ethnic groups into a single category characterized by an inability to become Christians and thus subject to “just war” and enslavement. Subsequent Spanish expansion into the north was thus not a single act of conquest but rather an on-going process of warfare, enslavement, and genocidal depopulation. In this context, war was not an exceptional state but a persistent one, protecting the rich mines of the north and securing the indigenous slave labor needed to operate them.

1810 Map of the Internal Provinces of New Spain by Zebulon Pike. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

By the middle of the eighteenth century, as my own archival research has confirmed, the relentless raiding of equestrian indigenous peoples, most notably the Apache and Comanche but also the Navajo and Ute, had begun to unravel colonization efforts in the Internal Provinces of New Spain, a vast area of what is now much of northern Mexico and the western United States. Carlos III, newly crowned Bourbon monarch in Spain, sought to remedy the situation via a new set of military governors that would report directly to the crown. Drawing on a plan first proposed by the Marquis de Rubí and later carried out by Comandante General Teodoro de Croix, the colonial government worked to expand and rearrange a system of military forts known as Presidios in such a way as to form a line that would restrict the north-south mobility of indigenous raiders and protect the Spanish settlements and mines below. The presidial line, composed of military garrisons placed at a strategic distance from one another on an east-west axis, arguably formed the first border in the region. This border, however, existed entirely within the bounds of territory claimed by the Spanish Empire. The presidial line was a rampart, a military disruption of mobility within the region. Newly constructed and well-funded presidios quickly became centers of population (today’s twin cities of El Paso and Juarez were, for example, the site of a presidio). Not only were civilians enticed to move closer by security and economic opportunity, but the service of presidial soldiers was often rewarded with land grants in the area. Collections of eighteenth-century presidial records are awash with soldier’s and former soldier’s petitions for land as compensation for military service. Within the Provincias Internas, military and civilian government had become one and the same. Colonial military presence actively regulated mobility, and military service was often inscribed into property and thus into the very land itself!

Design of a Presidio from 1853. Courtesy of Mapoteca Orozco Y Berra

The presidial line and a concurrent policy of gift-giving to appease indigenous groups and, in some cases, entice them into sedentary living (again in the immediate vicinity of the presidios) had some of their desired effect. The late eighteenth and early nineteenth-centuries in the Provincias Internas were a time of relative peace and economic prosperity for the region. Shortly after Mexican Independence, however, things changed. Indigenous raiding by the Apache and Comanche increased dramatically in scope, scale, and violence. The various and complex reasons for this increase are the subject of historian Brian Delay’s recent work, War of a Thousand Deserts. It’s economic and military resources drained by persistent internal and external war, the nascent Mexican state was something of a specter in the far north. Archival documents in Chihuahua State show the governors of Chihuahua and Sonora petitioning for and being granted military command of state militias. They also show these same governors and other officials issuing Informes (public notices) soliciting funds from civilians to support punitive military campaigns primarily targeting the Apache. Perhaps most intriguing, two reports of such campaigns that I’ve encountered both describe meeting up with groups of civilians engaged in their own unofficial “punitive” expeditions. As such, the early independence period in the far north shows an almost complete dissolution of the line separating military and civilian. Political office and military leadership had become one and the same, and paramilitary forces were, it seems, quite common at the municipal level.

Early American occupation was similarly characterized by a military presence. An 1853 report by Colonel Joseph K. F. Mansfield on the newly established New Mexico Territory, not surprisingly shows the U.S. military as the primary state-level presence in the region. Mansfield’s concern, however, was less with the Mexican military than the “pacification” of indigenous groups and insurgency among the Mexican citizenry. Only once did he mention the possibility of repelling an unspecified “invasion.” As such, it is no stretch of the imagination to describe the American territorial period, at least in New Mexico, as an occupation. A military apparatus, concerned primarily with domestic control, effectively governed the territory.

In the course of my own air-conditioned and fully documented border crossing, I was struck by the extent, in both Mexico and the United States, of militarized federal power projected beyond the border itself. While military checkpoints are not uncommon on highways throughout Mexico, there is a particularly large and well-staffed checkpoint on Carretera Federal 45 about 60 kilometers from the border. On the day of my crossing, all passengers were made to get off the bus, their documents checked and luggage x-rayed by a combined force of the Mexican military and Policía Federal. Similarly, on the U.S. side of the border, ICE checkpoints are now sprinkled along most major roadways. I was stopped on Interstate 25 in New Mexico, a solid 50 miles from the border. As in Mexico, this checkpoint was staffed by direct representatives of the central state, dressed and equipped like soldiers. The geography of border enforcement demonstrates, as does the region’s history, not just a militarized line but a broad militarization of space.

Nicholas Myers is a PhD student in the Department of History at Cornell University. Email:



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