THIS IS THE
for evidence relating to
Sandinista General Pedro Altamirano, or Pedrón.
One of the wiliest guerrilla chieftains in all the
history of Latin America, and universally considered by
the Marines-Guardia as the most dangerous "bandit jefe"
after Sandino himself, Pedrón occupies a unique position
in the history of the Sandino rebellion
—a puzzle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.
(Right: photograph of painting of EDSN Gen. Pedro
Altamirano, kind courtesy of Walter C. Sandino)
The material is divided into five webpages: (1)
on Pedrón's personal and family history and relations;
(2) information extracted from Marine-Guardia documents;
(3) EDSN letters and correspondence; (4) the IES
testimonies; and (5) published materials and other
sources. The sixth icon above takes you back to
Around 55 or 60 years old
and functionally illiterate, Pedrón showed an
unparalleled ability to elude his pursuers. From
the beginning to the end of the war, and despite
relentless efforts, the Marines-GN never so much as
glimpsed him, except in photographs. Occasionally
nipping at his rear guard or flanks, they never engaged
his entire band in combat, despite repeatedly combing
his area of operations with dozens of patrols led by the
most experienced field officers. Remarkably, he was the only Sandinista to remain active
in the field after Sandino's assassination in February
For nearly four years
after the Guardia had utterly crushed every other
remnant of the EDSN, Pedrón and the remnants of his
band eluded all detection, until he was finally betrayed
and killed in late 1937. Indeed, some former
rebels, interviewed in the 1980s, attributed his
extraordinary abilities to telepathy, clairvoyance, or
some other special magical powers. And indeed there are
times when his ability to avoid all detection does seem
to border on the magical.
Exactly how Pedrón managed this feat is not known, and
likely will never be. But some points are clear.
He knew the terrain with extraordinary intimacy.
He instilled a fierce personal loyalty among his many
followers and supporters. And he was ruthless,
brooking absolutely no opposition or dissention within
or outside his ranks. With a well-deserved
reputation as a cutthroat and murderer, he is known to
have killed hundreds of Nicaraguans, most suspected of treason or
spying. His methods were gruesome, his usual
custom to kill and mutilate by machete. The most
infamous case was the
San Marcos murders of October 1928.
His his use of spectacular violence was
highly patterned and seems to have followed a strict
moral code. He also pardoned many people, or let them go with a
warning. He was also a deeply religious man who
frequently invoked God in his dictated missives and
letters. His loyalty to Sandino was unalloyed --
he adored his Supreme Chief and believed fervently in
the rebel cause.
In camp and on the trail
tolerated absolutely no consumption of alcohol. In
several instances he sentenced to death lieutenants with
long service for violating this anti-drinking code.
One rebel woman he ordered shot for allegedly expressing
her view that carelessness among certain members of his
army had resulted in the deaths of her two rebel sons
(see EDSN-Doc 30.04.25 - Pedrón - Proceedings against
Tiburcia García). All the evidence
indicates that Pedrón was a ruthless killer with a
fierce love for Sandino's cause and for his homeland who
led an extraordinarily disciplined and loyal army.
(Left: another well-known photo of Pedrón, ca.
His army was big by rebel standards, usually from 200
to 300 men. He divided this army into smaller
units of 5-20 each and designated precisely where each
should be located at all times. He posted sentries
and spies on every possible trail or access point.
He almost always walked, rarely rode a horse, never kept
dogs, and his band usually cut their own trails.
"PEDRON ALTAMIRANO wields more power than any bandit
jefe now present in the field," wrote a US Marine
intelligence analyst in February 1930. "The
methods employed by him is probably based on a fair
division of the spoils" -- an assertion supported by
much other evidence.
Periodically his band
go on raiding expeditions through the rich coffee and
mining districts, looting and burning farms and mines,
though he never entered any building or populated
area. As his men looted he stood far away with his
personal guard, his silhouette glimpsed from a distance
by witnesses on only a handful of occasions. In
these and other ways about which we can only conjecture,
Pedrón made it impossible for the Marines-GN to gather
any actionable intelligence whatever against him.
For years they spared few efforts to acquire such
intelligence. Nothing worked. Chesty Puller
once proposed copying Sandino's seal and signature to
lure Pedrón into a trap. The idea went nowhere.
Pedrón, his wife María, three of his sons, and two of
his daughters, ca.
1930, US National Archives)
sum, in the Marines' sustained six-year effort to secure
actionable intelligence on Sandinista General Pedro
Altamirano, everything failed.
also essentially "trained" more than a dozen guerrilla
chieftains who first served as his "apprentices" in the
Jinotega-Matagalpa district, including Emilio Blandón,
Abraham Centeno, Gregorio Rizo, Santos Vásquez, Tránsito
Sequiera, and several of his sons, among others.
He also reportedly suffered from cancer of the throat
from around mid-1930, which is why the handful of
surviving photographs show his neck wrapped in cloth.
Yet he endured, surviving in the Jinotega wilds for 45 months after Sandino's assassination
(Feb. 1934-Nov. 1937) until he was
betrayed by one of his own men, in keeping with the
classic pattern for "social bandits" identified by
the historian Eric
Hobsbawm in his book Bandits (on Pedrón's
death, see Jesús Miguel "Chuno" Blandón, Entre Sandino y Fonseca, 2nd ed., Managua: Segovia Ediciones
Latinoamericanos, 2008, pp. 94-97. Image at
left: New York Times, 24 July 1935, 17
months after Sandino's assassination; clipping from
His ruthless and
uncompromising hatred of the US intervention,
the US Marines, and Yankees in general was paralleled by
what seems to have been a powerful and visceral hatred
and disdain of wealthy Nicaraguan property owners.
Consider the following letter to one property-holder in
the Jinotega coffee district of November 1930, a few
months after Sandino's return from Mexico:
Orden de contribución.
Campamento los Bolcanes
Nbre. 3 de 1930
Señor don -------
En esta fecha he decretado a Ud. la
suma de C$200.00 doscientos córdobas, como
contribución forzoza, la que entregará a don
Justo Hernández, quein tiene instrucciones para
recibir lo que Ud. entregue. La contribución que
este mando le impone es con el fin de ayudara
las fuerzas del EDSNN, y que estan bajo mi mando
asi; como las que permanesen en el Cuartel
General con el Jefe Supremo.
Si Ud se negará en ayudar a la cauza
que defendemos, y que es una obligación de todo
nicaraguense honrrado y patriota ayudar por el
bien de su patria, se verá obligado en dejar
abandonadas sus propiedades pues quedará
declarado enemigo del Ejército, y en ese cazo,
perderá Ud su familia e intereses toda clase de
garantias y quedará sugeto a recibir de nosotros
el castigo que se merese todo ciudadano traidor
a su Patria.
Si Ud no quiere ser atropeyado por
nuestras fuerzas, pagará la cuota que le
designo; esto si quiere vivir tranquilo en sus
propiedades. Pues toda orden que esta Jefatura
expida y no sea acatada, me veré obligado a
hacrse cumplir a sangre y fuego toda orden o
disposición a fin de no permitir una vurla para
Cuidado pienselo bien, pues si se
aparta y no ayuda, Dios lo salve al caer en mis
manos Ud, familia y propiedades dejaré
Patria y Libertad
/ f / Pedro Altamirano, Jefe
Fuente: GN typed copy (en español) in
Note that Pedrón
uses the word "property" three times in this
threatening letter — the last time in a voice that seems
marked by utter contempt. There are suggestions in
the documents that he was once a property owner himself.
The first known photograph of Pedro Altamirano, below,
shows him, his wife Señora María Pio Altamirano de
Altamirano, and ten children posing for the camera, all
well dressed, with the girls wearing nice shoes,
stockings, and dresses. The family looks happy, well fed, and relatively prosperous.
The year is not known, but it looks to be at least ten
years before the wartime photos — perhaps as early as
the mid-1910s. My best guess is around 1915.
The close-up below
shows Pedro Altamirano with sleepy, relaxed eyes and a
face that seems content, proud of his family, and happy. I suspect
these were the "golden years" of his life — before he
lost his property and became an outlaw. My hunch
is that he was somehow swindled or cheated out of his
property by a more powerful and wealthier landowner —
perhaps a native Nicaraguan, more likely a European or
North American — and that as a result he came to harbor
an abiding hatred of propertied elites, and especially
foreign landowning elites.
The small child at
center, wearing a baptismal bonnet, and the
nine other children surrounding their mother and father,
ranging in age from perhaps 17 to 3 years old, suggests
a formal photograph taken on the occasion of the
family's tenth baptism. The entire scene,
including the tile-roof house in the background,
suggests that Pedro Altamirano was, at this point in his
life, a relatively well-to-do property owner — a member
of Las Segovias' small but growing rising middle class.
We know the names of
four of the couple's sons — Melecio,
Candelario, Chano, and Pedro Ramón — and of one of their
daughters — Victorina. In 1930 Victorina was being
courted by Sandinista soldier Fernando Mora Dávila, as
seen in a number of their surviving love-letters.
We also know that on 20 August 1930, three of his
children were killed in an encounter with the Marines
and Guardia (Encarnación, Victorina, and an unnamed
little girl), and two others wounded (Melecio and Pedro
Jr.). A fragment of a letter from Sandino dated 25
August 1930 reads:
On the 20th of August in a place called El Balsamo,
there was an encounter between the family of General
Pedro Altamirano and the enemy. The fight was short but
bloody. Dying in the exchange of shots was the eldest
son of General Pedro Altamirano, whose name was
Encarnacion, of the same surname. Also killed was a
little girl and a daughter-in-law of the same General,
and in addition three of his children were wounded whose
names were Victorina, Melecio, and Pedro Jr. A few days
later Victorina died as a result of the wounds. On the
part of the enemy there were seven casualties, but they
remained in the field.
The event is
confirmed in a patrol report of 26 August 1930
by G.N. Captain G. F. Good ("Contact with bandits on 20
August, 1930"). The report notes that "one Jefe,
between 25 and 30 years of age, light coffee color,
small brown eyes, slightly flattened nose, high cheek
bones, black hair, height 5 ft. 9 in., weight about 145
lbs. dressed in white clothes with black pin stripe,
gray felt sombrero with broad red and black band and
high laced boots was killed instantly and left on the
field by the bandits. This man is thought to be the son
of Pedron Altamirano from a comparison with the picture
found among captured papers."
The photograph below,
from the personal collection of Walter C.
Sandino, apparently shows five of Pedrón's family
members surrounded by members of the Guardia Nacional
(those labeled "1," "2," and "3," the baby held by the
woman labeled "3," and the young man next to the baby
with the barrel of the rifle across his face):
A second photo,
below, which all visual clues indicate was taken on the
same day in the same place, shows the same five family
members. Exactly why, or when, or where these
"familiares del Gral. Pedro Altamirano" were surrounded
by Guardia soldiers is not known. Either they were
being detained as "bandit suspects," or, more likely
given the apparently relaxed atmosphere, they were under
the protection of the Marines and Guardia because they
feared that Pedrón and his men would target
them as "traitors" for colluding with the enemy.
The deaths of his
children in August 1930 hit Pedrón hard. On
10 November 1930, in a letter demanding a contribution
from British coffee plantation owner William Hawkins in
Matagalpa, Pedrón made known his seething anger and
desire for vengeance:
It will not be strange that at any day we arrive at
your hacienda. Make ready for me two thousand córdobas.
Do not propose to turn over the money without the
penalty of your life. I know that you have Marines and
Guardia but to me it is of no importance. I understand
this with indifference because now I go seeking
vengeance for the blood of my children. This much I tell
Nicaraguan memories of Pedrón
remain strong to this day. For instance, the
FSLN's decision to rename the hospital in La Trinidad "El
Hospital Pedro Altamirano" in the early 1980s
sparked considerable controversy. I have also come
to understand that many of the stories &
poems generated by old people during the early 1980s in the
Sandinistas' award-winning National Literacy Campaign (Cruzada
Nacional de Alfabetización), now housed in
El Museo de Alfabetización in Managua, took Pedrón
as their subject.
This would seem a fruitful and mostly untapped resource
for learning more about the social constructions of
memory around his person and legacy.
Remarkably, there exists no
biography or scholarly study of Sandinista General Pedro
Altamirano, in English or Spanish.
So watch this page for the
accumulation of evidence relating to the life &
times of this fascinating & puzzling character.
(Left: Close-up of Pedrón's signature, from a dictated
letter to Capitán Sabas Manzanares, 25 June 1930,
Above: Pedrón at left
(marked "1"), machete strapped to his belt, with EDSN
Gen. Ismael Peralta ("2") at right. No date. From
the collection of Walter C. Sandino.
Above: Photo of
Sandino and Pedrón inspecting EDSN troops. No
date. From the collection of Walter C. Sandino.
A close-up of Sandino and Pedrón appears below:
Above: Revolver reputedly used by one
of Pedrón's relatives during the war against the
Marines, housed in the Museo del Café at La Hacienda
Selva Negra, Matagalpa, Nicaragua. Photo by the author, July
well-known and widely circulated photograph of Pedrón,
in San Rafael del Norte during the rebels'
disarmament following the provisional peace accords of
February 1933, to which he was viscerally opposed.
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