In Las Rondas Campesinas of Peru, Community Defense Against Imperialist Extraction

To those among the Left who dream of a community defense organization in their area, Las Rondas Campesinas may seem like magic. When it comes to finding alternatives to policing, prefiguring the sharing of labor and resources, defending one’s neighborhood against a paramilitary aggression, and commanding autonomy from the state, Las Rondas Campesinas stand as proof that the seemingly impossible can be done. Yet as exceptional as Las Rondas Campesinas are as a community defense formation we know it is no magic which explains their victories. But through a careful study and analysis of the conditions and actions which have defined the movement, we can hope to try to learn lessons from Las Rondas Campesinas to apply in our own anti-imperialist organizing.

A community defense formation can begin just as a simple solution to a problem shared amongst neighbors. The story of Las Rondas Campesinas begins in the 1970s with indigenous cattle ranchers in the Peru highlands. The cattle ranchers were particularly vulnerable to the issue of cattle thievery; these ranchers have been so dependent on the cattles for subsistence that a loss of cattle for any reason is grave, yet they had no recourse to ensure it wouldn’t happen to them. The response was for the ranchers to get together and create and maintain a rotation of nightly patrols to look over everyone’s cattle, which are governed by assemblies, known as rondas. 

And before there was community defense in Cajamarca, there was community. Located in the rural Andes Mountains since before the Incas, these Quechua peoples share a common history, language, and culture. Yet as indigenous, it is not only social traditions which they share but a common political struggle against colonialism. And economically, they had a mode of production not so atomized by capitalism that it would impede a collective solution: with no bosses pitting worker successes against each other or local real estate portfolios for which to edge out your neighbors, it would have made clear and immediate sense to share.

Not only have Las Rondas Campesinas been able to protect their communities from cattle theft but they are able to resolve disputes and crimes matters of all kinds, adjudicating them through their assemblies and enforcing them by the sentencing of community work or occasionally a lashing of the whip. Filling the role left vacant in their region by an often underserving or antagonistic state, subverting a state illegitimized both in the eyes of a colonized people in its commitment towards its supposed citizens, Las Rondas Campesinas engage in self-governance, moving beyond to the judiciary democratically and collectively decision making, to include public works programs to build their own roads and schools.

The defense aspect of Las Rondas Campesinas would be put to a critical test with the internal conflicts of Peru in the 1980s and 1990s. Following an economic collapse, the militant group Shining Path began its guerilla war against the Peruvian state, seizing control of farms and villages as a means to that end. Although often equipped with little more than sticks and whips (they would later acquire some number of small arms from the state), they had their familiarity with the land, the support of their people, and a fully operational patrol-based surveillance network with which to defend themselves. Although the Shining Path would take many lives in their region, Las Rondas Campesinas would successfully attack back, in one case kidnapping and publicly executing a commander. In the end, no guerrilla force could manage to occupy Cajamarca. 

Hostility against the Las Rondas Campesinas took a turn for the worse in 1990 when fascist president Alberto Fujimori was elected, bringing with him consolidated power, crushing austerity, and indiscriminate state terror. In order to try to get rid of the ronderos, Fujimori tried to create a parallel structure paramilitary self-defense committees, but Las Rondas Campesinas had too strong of a foothold, and ultimately Fujimori had to deal with them directly in his conflict against the Shining Path, and in 2000 a law was passing giving legal recognition to the Rondas Campesinas. 

But in addition to the physical violence, the economic violence of Fujimori’s neoliberalism and privatization was exceptional. Through a series of laws, Peruvian indigenous land was declared open season for mining interests. The General Mining Law legalized prospecting throughout the country, while another law mandated that in sales of land that mining companies be allowed the first offer. In the new Fujimori constitution, land protections granted by the 1979 constitution were abolished and the state could take possession of any land it deemed to be abandoned. Stories emerged of farmers given the ultimatum of selling away their land or having it confiscated by the State from them.

It was from this context that when the Yanacocha and Conga gold mining projects came to Cajamarca, Las Rondas Campesinas were already organized to oppose it. It was an environmental struggle because it was a fight for the preservation of the land and the condition of their water supply threatened by the mining operations, a struggle against capitalism because capital was being invested to extract resources which did not rightfully belong to it, a struggle against fascism and neoliberalism because of Fujimori’s laws which enabled the seizure of lands for mining, a struggle against imperialism because there were mining companies owned by the World Bank and the United States, and a struggle against colonialism because this was an indigenous community fighting for the rights to their own land. And as we saw in the case of the cattle thefts that Las Rondas Campesinas started with, the people were agitated to act because this was an existential threat to their way of life, only this time, not as threat to individual ranchers, but to the people as a whole.

As the people of Cajamarca protested the mining underway in their communities, already feeling the impacts from farmers forced off their land by the state and a mercury spill which poisoned the local water supply, the state responded further by tear gassing the public, conducting illegal arrests, and burning houses along the water. The people responded by conducting region-wide strikes, electing a Communist as regional president, and forming Los Guardianes de las Lagunas (The Guardians of the Lagoons). 

The ronderos who patrolled for cattle thieves and guerrilla fighters now patrolled mining sites and rivers, the assemblies that the people looked to pass judgement in the case of crimes in their communities now passed judgement on the theft of the mining companies. 3,000 people gathered in Celendín to march over 600 miles to Lima in what was known as the March for Water. As they stopped from town to town and people learned what they were doing, people gave them food and water and other supplies and others joined them in their march. By the time they reached Lima they were a force of 40,000.

A second regional strike was called which lasted for months against brutal repression from the state. There were massive rallies and protests, and soup kitchens to keep people focused and prepared. The police fired at the protestors from helicopters and then raided the vigil that was organized after. Rondas Campesinas caught soldiers attempting to rape the local women and girls and kidnapped the officers so as to deliver judgement. When the police burned down the house of a family who refused to sell their land, Las Rondas Campesinas rebuilt it. Although there were numerous brutalities imposed during the time of the Conga mining project, the people were eventually able to overcome it: in 2016 the Conga mining project was ordered to be stopped, citing the environmental impacts, but in no small part due to a united people organized to fight for their lives by use of any means they had available to them. And earlier this year, Keiko Fujimori, Alberto Fujimori’s fascist daughter, was defeated in Peru’s Presidential election by Pedro Castillo, a former Rondero patroller, campaigning on rewriting the Fujimori Constitution.

The concepts of community defense and self-governance can seem like a dream, but that is exactly what Las Rondas Campesinas have been able to achieve. While formations like the ronderos clearly still have the revolution ahead of them it is evident that they have a piece, in the form of radical and organized working class power. When it is they who build the roads, they who defend themselves against armed oppressors, they who ultimately decide what happens to the land they live on, we see that promise of community organizing. It can happen with a community, situated along political struggle, solving a simple problem amongst neighbors with collective action, growing into a dedicated organization in service of each other, united in putting their lives on the line when necessary. And it can stop extraction of resources of the most powerful economies in the world.