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pedrÓn
 

   THIS IS THE Homepage 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 this homepage.


     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 1934. 

     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 he 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. 1933)

   
  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 would 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.   (Right:  Pedrón, his wife María, three of his sons, and two of his daughters, ca. 1930, US National Archives)

     In sum, in the Marines' sustained six-year effort to secure actionable intelligence on Sandinista General Pedro Altamirano, everything failed.

    Pedrón 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 USNA/RG165/77/2653). 

      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 -------

    Su casa

    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 el Ejército. 

    Cuidado pienselo bien, pues si se aparta y no ayuda, Dios lo salve al caer en mis manos Ud, familia y propiedades dejaré carbonizados.

    Conteste.

    Patria y Libertad

    / f /  Pedro Altamirano, Jefe Expedicionario

Fuente:  GN typed copy (en español) in RG127/E38/Box19

      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 you.

      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, RG127/38/31)

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 2010.

The most 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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