Organized in the mid-1970s as a means of communal protection against livestock rustling and general thievery in Peru’s rugged northern mountains, the rondas campesinas (peasants who make the rounds) grew into an entire system of peasant justice and one of the most significant Andean social movements of the late twentieth century. Nightwatch is the first full-length ethnography and the only study in English to examine this grassroots agrarian social movement, which became a ...
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Nightwatch: The Politics of Protest in the Andes

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Organized in the mid-1970s as a means of communal protection against livestock rustling and general thievery in Peru’s rugged northern mountains, the rondas campesinas (peasants who make the rounds) grew into an entire system of peasant justice and one of the most significant Andean social movements of the late twentieth century. Nightwatch is the first full-length ethnography and the only study in English to examine this grassroots agrarian social movement, which became a rallying point for rural pride.
Drawing on fieldwork conducted over the course of a decade, Orin Starn chronicles the historical conditions that led to the formation of the rondas, the social and geographical expansion of the movement, and its gradual decline in the 1990s. Throughout this anecdotal yet deeply analytical account, the author relies on interviews with ronda participants, villagers, and Peru’s regional and national leaders to explore the role of women, the involvement of nongovernmental organizations, and struggles for leadership within the rondas. Starn moves easily from global to local contexts and from the fifteenth to the twentieth century, presenting this movement in a straightforward manner that makes it accessible to both specialists and nonspecialists.
An engagingly written story of village mobilization, Nightwatch is also a meditation on the nature of fieldwork, the representation of subaltern people, the relationship between resistance and power, and what it means to be politically active at the end of the century. It will appeal widely to scholars and students of anthropology, Latin American studies, cultural studies, history, subaltern studies, and those interested in the politics of social movements.

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From the Publisher

“A wonderful tool. This volume offers a wealth of resources from a range of critical perspectives.”—Steven Mailloux, University of California, Irvine

Nightwatch is an engaging, elegant, and enlightening account of one of the most important rural movements to emerge from Latin America since the 1960s. Orin Starn writes in direct and artfully crafted prose informed at the same time by the most up to date theoretical debates. This book will be of great interest not just to those who care about Peru and Latin America but also to scholars across anthropology, cultural studies, political science, and history.”—Arturo Escobar, author of Encountering Development: The Making and Unmaking of the Third World

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780822382782
  • Publisher: Duke University Press
  • Publication date: 5/3/1999
  • Series: Latin America Otherwise
  • Sold by: Barnes & Noble
  • Format: eBook
  • File size: 5 MB

Meet the Author

Orin Starn is Associate Professor of Cultural Anthropology at Duke University. He is a coeditor of The Peru Reader: History, Culture, Politics, also published by Duke University Press.

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The Politics of Protest in the Andes

By Orin Starn

Duke University Press

Copyright © 1999 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-8278-2


Origin Stories

I lived in the gray city of Lima in 1991. My wife, Robin, was the correspondent for magazines and newspapers in the United States. There were all too many stories to cover in that year, Peru on the brink of collapse amidst guerrilla bombings, army massacres, corruption scandals, drug trafficking, and recession. I scratched every morning on yellow legal pads in the little rooftop office I was assigned as a visiting researcher at the Institute of Peruvian Studies. Through the mist down in the park below, I could sometimes make out a street sweeper in orange overalls or an urchin trying to slingshot a bony dove. I loved the city's hard edge, the street soccer, seafood, tabloids, and the faded colonial splendor of the downtown. But Lima, I had to admit, deserved its reputation as the ugliest and most depressing Latin American capital, with a misery belt of shantytowns, quick-fingered thieves, septic tap water, and the feeling of hunger and sometimes desperation on the rainless streets. I wondered whether simultaneous attraction and repulsion inspired a famous line of poet Carmen Olle. "In Lima," she wrote, "beauty is a steel corset."

I was not far removed from my anthropologist's "field" in that year in Lima. The mountains of northern Peru where I had researched the rondas were just an overnight bus ride away. I went back for meetings of ronderos in 1991 in the towns of Cutervo and Bambamarca. Since I had given friends and "informants" from the Andes our address in the capital, they appeared now and then to spend the night, report on news, or sometimes to ask for the bus fare back to the countryside after failing to find a job as a watchman or gardener in the big city.

We sent money to Tunnel Six so Victor could come visit us with his two boys, Jorge and Edwin. Our landlady was not happy about the arrival of the Cordovas, or any of our other short, work-worn, brown-skinned houseguests from the Andes. To her they were dirty and uneducated, and fit to enter only through the servant's entrance as garbagemen, housecleaners, or peddlers. Perhaps it was predictable that we as would-be progressive North Americans felt an enjoyable edge of transgression and moral superiority in having villagers in the apartment. Mainly, however, we just had fun when Victor and the boys came to Lima, touring such sights as the down-at-the-heels national capital had to offer. At the zoo, they tarried longest not in front of the lions, tigers, or elephants, but a pair of foxes. Foxes were common in the Andean foothills. However, few villagers ever glimpsed anything more than the flash of tail in the brush. In the grimy cage, there was no place to hide, so Victor and the boys enjoyed the novelty of a full view of these animals, familiar yet magical for their ability to escape detection in the wild.

I started to think about how to write a history of the rondas during those gray mornings. It was not the most imaginative way to plan the task, but I began with the matter of origin, and how it was that the movement had come into existence. I had gone to Chota in 1990 to learn more about how the committees started in this high valley that in 1976 was the birthplace of the movement. Why had the rondas grown so fast into a rallying point for peasant pride throughout the northern Andes? Did a single person dream up the plan of patrolling against thieves? If so, who? Did the plan originate in the countryside? Or somewhere else? Why did the rondas start when they did? What was it anyway that led villagers to take to the trails from dusk to dawn? What did the "origin stories" I heard in Chota and elsewhere reveal about the convictions of the tellers, and about what was remembered and forgotten in the Andes? These were the questions I puzzled over in the long months of 1991.

This opening chapter of Nightwatch seeks to address them. As I have come to understand it, the genealogy of the rondas is complex, in places uncertain, and recorded in sometimes unexpected lines of necessity, ambition, and alliance. Village suffering in the face of want and crime was the most basic reason for the decision to patrol against thieves. But poverty alone cannot explain the rondas, and there was much more to the story. When the Cuyumalca schoolhouse was looted in a series of break-ins in 1976, the values of villagers came under attack, and patrolling meant protecting the dream of progress that had gripped the Peruvian Andes in the twentieth century. Even then, Cuyumalcans had to be urged and even bullied to sign the agreement to start a "Night Ronda," and in this sense it was the result of pressure "from above" as well as initiative "from below." As I review the welter of forces, figures, and coincidences, it should not perhaps be so surprising that I have pulped a forest of legal pads since 1991 in writing my account of the start of the rondas.

It used to be that anthropologists were only accountable to a handful of other specialists in the confines of the university. Nowadays it is just as common for "the natives" to talk back, and for "participant-observers" to feel uncomfortable in the mantle of vicarious understanding and detached analyses. After I wrote an article in 1991 on the rondas for a Peruvian magazine, I returned to Chota. One villager, Segundo Edguén, confronted me with a copy in the bus station. Sunday was the day for drinking in Chota, and the caneliquor-emboldened Edguén to complain and even shout to the confused passengers in the waiting room that I failed to credit his father as the ronda founder. A year later I got a letter from a Peruvian graduate student reporting that Edguén was saying that I had been a spy for the United States and the Peruvian government, on a mission to sabotage the rondas. On returning to Chota in the summer of 1993, I climbed the mountainside to his farmhouse to see if reconciliation was possible. Edguén was not home, so I left a note. Later, I ran into him in Chota. He thanked me for searching him out, yet claimed with a smile that "Orin" was now rural slang for traitor.

Perhaps. But most villagers seem weary about jockeying for credit for the rondas. "It took everyone to get on the trails every night, not any single person," as one Cuyumalcan explained to me in 1992. Many Cuyumalcans told me that Segundo Edguéns father was a good man and an early ronda supporter, but I found no evidence that he was the prime mover. What is certain is that the debate over the title of ronda originator will not end anytime soon. A force to be reckoned with in village society, Edguén is the current president of the Cuyumalcan ronda committee, and not shy about advancing his views, whether drunk or sober. As we shall see, however, there are others, all still living, one in Cuyumalca, two in the town of Chota, and one in Lima, each of whom believes that he is the true ronda founder. The fight for credit is tangled, contradictory, and perhaps unresolvable. As the saying goes in the Andean countryside, "success has many fathers." The rondas grew from small beginnings in Cuyumalca into a massive movement unlike any other in the recent history of the Peruvian Andes. Only about achievements of the initiative against theft and lawlessness did just about everyone agree.

"After God and the Virgin come the rondas," declared one old man in Cuyumalca I met on that trip in 1993.


The most common explanation for the birth of the rondas in Cajamarca and Piura is theft. Thievery was common in the Andes in the early and middle part of the twentieth century. The problem worsened in the late 1970s and early 1980s in many northern provinces. Skirts, shirts, shovels, shoes, crowbars, buckets, chickens, ducks, pigs, goats, sheep, cattle, horses, burros, and mules "did not see the dawn," as Angélica Jara in Tunnel Six put it: "It was pure sadness in the time before the rondas. You couldn't even leave a shirt out to dry on the bushes overnight. We lost five ducks one night, then a cow the next month, and there was just nothing to do about it." Some families locked horses and cattle into iron hobbles at night. Others slept outside with stones and machetes or brought stock into their houses. Jara and others remember nights filled with the sounds of barking dogs, panicked shouts, and the echo of shotguns. In 1987,1 went house to house in Tunnel Six to ask what families lost. My survey showed that some 762 animals disappeared in Tunnel Six between 1980 and 1983, more than six animals per family. Everything I was told suggested the same scale of loss in Cuyumalca. The imagery of fear and impoverishment in later memories of the "days before the rondas" may have been exaggerated, but I had little doubt that theft had been rampant.

But this was not some immemorial fact of peasant existence. The rise in theft followed upon land reform in the Peruvian countryside. Until the government of General Juan Velasco Alvarado (1968-75) abolished the haciendas in 1969, the greater part of Andean land belonged to estates, many of them enormous, that were run as quasi fiefdoms by the landowner or his mayordomo. The imperatives of "development" and "modernization" in the years after World War II made the haciendas seem an obstacle to forward-looking politicians in Lima, and a number of development planners from the United States promoted their abolition to make way for progress. What the writer and anthropologist José María Arguedas had called "the serf's dream" propelled a wave of protest in the central highlands in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Velasco went on national television to "end forever the unjust social order that impoverished and oppressed millions of landless peasants who have always been forced to work the lands of others." His motto was "Land to the tiller." The 1969 reform handed over almost 600,000 hectares to ex-serfs and the landless. Two million more hectares were converted into cooperatives to be administered by the government. Velasco, the son of a humble Piuran family, is remembered even today by many villagers in northern Peru as an emancipator. "Juan Velasco Alvarado, Teacher President, your name will be remembered by peasants of every region," one ballad gushed after the break-up of the estates.

The reform did not meet expectations. Cooperatives fell into mismanagement and corruption. There was not enough land in the Andes for everyone, and the loans and technology promised to villagers did not materialize. The inhabitants of the countryside got by with sparse flocks of animals and steep plots of just a few hectares cultivated with shovels and horse- or oxen-drawn plows. Most villagers did not have electricity, running water, or health care of any kind. They were free of the landlords, but not of poverty. By the middle of the 1970s, Velasco's "new Peru" seemed as distant as ever.

A tailspin in the Peruvian economy compounded hardship. The 1980s was a period of crisis and recession throughout Latin America and nowhere did the trouble strike earlier or harder than in Peru. As debt and inflation mounted, conservative generals ousted Velasco in 1975. At the urging of the World Bank and other foreign lenders, the new president-General Francisco Morales Bermudez-implemented austerity measures that included a tripling of the price of basic goods such as flour, sugar, rice, and gas. These steps did not ease inflation, which reached almost 70 percent in 1979. They did trigger a recession and a 15 percent decline in the gross national product between 1976 and 1978.12 There were spurts of recovery in the next decade during the cycle of growth and collapse that economists Efrain Gonzales and Lilian Samamé called the "Peruvian pendulum." But the overall balance of the period between 1975 and 1990 was disastrous. While the gross national product declined by one-third and real wages by one-quarter, the percentage of Peruvians below the line of extreme poverty grew from one-half to two-thirds of the population.

The crisis in Lima would not have affected villagers had they lived by farming alone. But they did not. Almost every rural family was involved in weaving, trading, brick making, carpentry, masonry, liquor making, or mule driving. Money earned by cutting cane or picking cotton on coastal plantations was already a crucial part of the income of many inhabitants of the northern mountains by the second half of the nineteenth century. This mobility belies what anthropologist Liisa Malkki labels the "sedentarist metaphysics" of villagers ever "tied" and "rooted" to the land. Rhythms of seasonal and permanent migration speeded up in subsequent decades. By the 1970s, villagers from Cuyumalca and Tunnel Six worked on plantations of coca and palm in the Amazon jungle as well as the coastal plain. They were maids, ditchdiggers, cooks, street sweepers, gardeners, and watchmen in the big cities of Chiclayo, Piura, Trujillo, and Lima. The cash from these off-farm activities paid for kerosene, rubber boots, salt, matches, polyester shirts, tennis shoes, school notebooks, and even noodles and rice to supplement what they grew for themselves. Inflation pushed the prices of these goods upward, and the recession shrank the already miserable wages paid to migrants from the mountains for long days of labor on plantations or in the cities. It was not easy to survive in the best of times in the countryside. The crisis of the middle 1970s and into the 1980s pushed thousands of families to the edge.

What was the connection between hunger and theft? I think about Pastor Guaygua and Margarita Livia in Tunnel Six.15 The couple and their three children lived in a little farmhouse in a clearing in a brushy canyon behind the canal. There were no furnishings besides a broken table and a straw mattress in the dirt-floored hovel. The skin of a bush viper that Margarita found curled in the eaves was nailed to the broken wall of adobe brick. With just a sliver of land by the road to Piura, Pastor and Margarita ranked among the poorest of the 100 families in Tunnel Six.

Only the few dollars Pastor made from occasional ditchdigging in nearby Paimas kept the family from going hungry. Although Robin and I became the godparents of their fourth child, we never broached the touchy topic of theft, even with the gregarious Margarita, who loved trading gossip about the peccadilloes of wild teenagers and errant husbands. Yet I knew that the couple had the reputation as "fruit birds," pilferers, before the beginning of the rondas in 1984. With a shoe size of ten, Pastor had the biggest feet in the village. The widower Luciano Alvarado once told me that the footprints he had found in his muddy corral in the morning after a night in 1983, when two of his goats had disappeared, could only have been Pastor's. That year, flooding from the El Niño tropical current had combined with economic freefall to leave many families in Tunnel Six facing starvation. Perhaps not everything that Pastor took went to maintain the family. At twenty-eight, Pastor was still something of a wayward spirit. He liked to buy a pack of cigarettes or join the penny-ante card games in Eduardo's back storeroom. The best player on the ragtag soccer squad from Tunnel Six, he even bought a used pair of cleats and a leather ball that had to be restitched before every pickup game on the rocky clearing in back of the schoolhouse. It may have been that Pastor sold a stolen animal now and then to finance these modest pleasures, or perhaps a bright polyester sweater for Margarita or the children's school notebooks. But I suspected the soup pot mattered most in that especially hard year when floodwaters washed away corn seedlings and swarms of rats spread the bubonic plague in the Quiroz Valley. Once during a conversation on the bench in front of my little adobe house, Margarita seemed to acknowledge what had gone on during that time. "It was pure hardship in those times, and just about all of us fell into bad habits out of necessity."

I was not always able to pin down the "facts" of theft. Although everywhere I went in the northern mountains villagers admitted in the abstract that "just about everyone" was involved, I did not find anyone who wanted to talk about his or her own role. Too many people believed such admissions would expose them to damaging gossip and perhaps even sorcery, if not prosecution. I think Pastor and a number of others who became my friends in Tunnel Six would have talked about thieving if I had insisted. Because these were matters of which I knew they preferred not to speak, I never did press them. This was one of those instances where friendship mattered more than research.

Once a helpful Chotan barber said he could get a reformed rustler in the village of Colpa Matara to talk to me about his past. On the prearranged day, I walked up to his house on the country highway out of Chota. He only stared at the floor and mumbled about having to go to pasture a horse. Another time I told villagers in La Iraca about wanting to speak with someone who had robbed in the days before the rondas. They promised to help, their way of repaying me for helping them get money for potable water from a Lima development group. A few days later, a delegation of villagers knocked on the door of my hotel room. They said the person they had in mind had refused to come. One villager obligingly volunteered to pretend that he was a rustler so that I could interview him. Although I had read the fashionable ruminations about the unstable boundary between truth and fiction in ethnography, it seemed a stretch to start recording interviews with pretend thieves. I declined the offer. Perhaps it was in punishment for this literalism that I never got another chance to talk with either a "fake" or "real" rustler.


Excerpted from Nightwatch by Orin Starn. Copyright © 1999 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

CONTENTS Acknowledgments Introduction 1 Origin Stories 2 Nightwatch 3 Nightcourt 4 Women and the Rondas 5 The Rondas in the Age of the NGO 6 Leaders and Followers Epilogue Notes Bibliography Index
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