1928: The Santa Marta Massacre

Diplomatic reports from various US and Colombian government agencies and the United Fruit Company about a strike by plantation workers in 1928 and the governments bloody actions to break it. The Santa Marta strike is often referred to as the Banana massacre due to its high death toll.

Submitted by Reddebrek on December 14, 2019

I have the honor to report that the "Diario Oficial" of July 27, 1925, contains Decree No. 1142 of 1925, expelling from the territory of Colombia Silvestre Savitsky for agitating the practise of doctrines subversive to the social order, which covers such doctrines as anarchy and communism. Expulsion from Colombia of Russian agitator, Sept. 25, 1925

I have the honor to report that the newspapers of February 9 carried sensational accounts of the discovery of a large quantity of bombs and of a communist plot to blow up various public and private buildings. ... It appears that the leaders of the plot include one Tomás Uribe Márquez who visited Russia about 18 months ago and has long been known for his communistic ideas and activities, María Cano, whose revolutionary leanings and various propaganda tours throughout the country are familiar to the Department, and Torres Giraldo, who was arrested in Manizales in connection with a reported Labor Day conspiracy in 1928.

[T]ranquility on the part of the public is in marked contrast to the excitement bordering on panic which reigned not only in Bogotá but throughout the country in connection with the statements given out by the Government of a pending revolution to be initiated on May 1, 1928. This calm may be due to the fact that the Government has "cried wolf" so often that the definite revelations of an actual plot have failed to excite the public imagination. It may also be due to a feeling of confidence, as a result of the efficient quelling of the Santa Marta strike, in the Government's ability to put down any disturbances. Despatch #126 from Bogotá Embassy to Secretary of State, Feb. 13, 1929

With reference to despatch No. 126 of February 13, reporting the sensational discovery of a quantity of bombs and a communistic plot, I have the honor to report that the press has continued to carry sensational news items emanating from all over the country reporting further discoveries, arrests, the release of some of those arrested, confessions of guilt and declarations of innocence. The whole question remains, however, one of great confusion in the public mind nor have the definite plans of the plotters been made public by the police authorities. Despatch #168 from Bogotá Embassy to Secretary of State, March 8, 1929

El complot comunista era en todo el pais, March 8, 1929

The Government Informs the Country of the Serious Uprisings Which Recently Occurred, August 1, 1929

Labor Strikes in Santa Marta District, August 8, 1929

I have been following Santa Marta fruit strike through United Fruit Company representative here; also through Minister of Foreign Affairs who on Saturday told me government would send additional troops and would arrest all strike leaders and transport them to prison at Cartagena; that government would give adequate protection to American interests involved. Telegram from Bogotá Embassy to Secretary of State, December 5, 1928

Feeling against the Government by the proletariat which is shared by some of the soldiers is high and it is doubtful if we can depend upon the Colombian Government for protection. May I respectfully suggest that my request for the presence within calling distance of an American war ship be granted and that it stand off subject to my call ... It is admitted that the character of the strike has changed and that the disturbance is a manifestation with a subversive tendency. Telegram from Santa Marta Consulate to Secretary of State, December 6, 1928

Situation outside Santa Marta City unquestionably very serious: outside zone is in revolt; military who have orders "not to spare ammunition" have already killed and wounded about fifty strikers.

Government now talks of general offensive against strikers as soon as all troopships now on the way arrive early next week. I am concerned about some 20 Americans still in outside zone and hope to learn they are in safety before any such offensive begins in view of danger otherwise of possible repercussions on them. Telegram from Bogotá Embassy to Secretary of State, December 7, 1928

The Legation at Bogota reports that categorical orders have been given the authorities at Santa Marta to protect all American interests. The Department does not (repeat not) desire to send a war ship to Santa Marta. Keep the Department informed of all developments by telegraph. Telegram from Department of State to Santa Marta Consulate, December 8, 1928

Troop train from banana zone just arrived in Santa Marta with all American citizens. No Americans killed or wounded. Guerrilla warfare now continuing in the zone but military forces are actively engaged in clearing the district of the Communists. Telegram from Santa Marta Consulate to Secretary of State, December 9, 1928

Looting and killing was carried on from the moment the announcement of a state of Martial Law was made and the fact that the American residents in the Zone came out of it alive is due to the defense they put up for six hours when they held off the mob that was bent upon killing them.

I was justified in calling for help and I shall welcome the opportunity to defend the position that I took on the morning of the sixth and until the afternoon of the eighth. Despatch from Santa Marta Consulate to Secretary of State, December 11, 1928

The opposition press, that is, the press of the Liberal Party, is conducting a violent campaign against the Government for the methods used in breaking up the strike, and is bandying ugly words about, especially referring to the Minister of War and the military forces, words such as murderer and assassin being used.

Although the thinking people of the country realize that it was only the Government's prompt action that diverted a disaster, this insidious campaign of the Liberal press will undoubtedly work up a great deal of feeling against the Government and will tend to inculcate in the popular mind a belief that the Government was unduly hasty in protecting the interests of the United Fruit Company.

The Conservative journals are defending the Government's course but I doubt that their counter-fire will suffice to do away with the damage the Liberal journals are causing. Despatch from Bogotá Embassy to Secretary of State, December 11, 1928

I have the honor to report that the legal advisor of the United Fruit Company here in Bogotá stated yesterday that the total number of strikers killed by the Colombian military authorities during the recent disturbance reached between five and six hundred; while the number of soldiers killed was one. Despatch from Bogotá Embassy to Secretary of State, December 29, 1928

I have the honor to report that the Bogotá representative of the United Fruit Company told me yesterday that the total number of strikers killed by the Colombian military exceeded one thousand. Despatch from Bogotá Embassy to Secretary of State, January 16, 1929

I have the honor to report that the manifestations against the Government of yesterday and the day before were conspicuous for the number of inscriptions carried by manifestants relating to the fruit workers' strike, denouncing the Government and especially General Cortés Vargas for the manner in which the strike was put down; also, skeletons and skulls adorned with bunches of bananas were freely displayed.

This is interesting, of course, as another indication of the attacks that will surely be made against the United Fruit Company during the approaching sessions of Congress. Despatch from Bogotá Embassy to Secretary of State, June 8, 1929

I have the honor to refer to my dispatch No. 429 of July 11 [ed. note: I have not been able to find this despatch] reporting that General Cortés Vargas, Military Commander of the Santa Marta district during the period of martial law, had terminated his report on the strike and events in the banana zone to be presented to Congress, and intimating that it was highly probable that the report would contain either open or veiled references to the possibility of American intervention.

The press of July 20 contained articles of the local news agency SIN giving a summary of, and excerpts from, the report in question. ... The pertinent part reads as follows in translation:

'A person worthy of entire confidence informed us that he knew from a sure source that there were two ships lying to in the waters of Santa Marta; it was supposed that they were warships of the American Navy.' He (Cortés Vargas) called Colonel Diaz, commanding the Córdoba regiment, to his office and said to him: 'Prepare your mind to face the crowds of rebels and to kill before foreign troops tread upon our soil.' ----- 'Now, reviewing matters calmly we still believe in the imminence of that peril when we read in the New York Times of December 7 which reads (in English): 'Secretary Kellogg said he understood the Colombian Government is fully capable of maintaining order and that he does not contemplate asking the Navy Department to LAND Marines to protect American lives and property ....' The Secretary of State did not speak of sending but of disembarking, that is to say that the marines were near, ready for such a maneuver upon receiving the proper order.

Fortunately from our point of view both EL TIEMPO and EL ESPECTADOR, the only two papers so far commenting on the Cortés Vargas report, have, for political reasons, been so bent on attacking the General and the Government's handling of the strike that they have ridiculed his assertions as to the presence of American warships or the possibility of landing marines.

The President made his report on the subject to Congress when it convened on July 20. ... "on one side," he says, "were seriously threatened foreign interests which requested action from the Government before applying to their Government (tutela) to protect their rights, from which the State would have suffered a kind of humiliation of its sovereignty with all its lamentable consequences." A little farther on he speaks of the Nation as being "exposed to a foreign intervention with impairment of sovereignty, if the Government should not duly apply the remedy which the circumstances required." Despatch from Bogotá Embassy to Secretary of State, July 22, 1929

Referring to my former reports concerning the recent communist uprisings, I have the honor to state the Colombian authorities have been demonstrating unusual zeal for the protection of our interests: additional troops were despatched at once to Santa Marta for the protection of the properties of the United Fruit Company as well as to Barrancabermeja for the protection of the properties of the Tropical Oil Company. Despatch from Bogotá Embassy to Secretary of State, August 5, 1929

Gaitán began a three day denouncement of the Government's handling of the strike on Wednesday, September 4 ... While the burden of his speech was directed primarily against the Government and especially against Cortés Vargas (to whom he refused to give the title of General), ex-Minister of War Rengifo and President Abadía, the United Fruit Company and even the United States come in for their share of publicity. In this connection there is enclosed a translation of the part of Gaitán's speech which referred to Cortés Vargas' reference, in defense of his actions, to the presence of American warships.

Mr Cortes Vargas needed to seek an excuse for the unspeakable tragedy of which he is one of the authors; he needed to touch on patriotism and he invented for us the American warships. This affirmation, which he thought vindicated him, however, of itself and even though it were so, condemns him. Because what can be thought of an army officer who from fear of a few warships which appear insolently to threaten the coast of the Republic, instead of turning his guns and machine guns in a solemn gesture of sacrifice against the foreign invader of Colombian waters, finds no other recourse open to him than that of turning his firearms to assassinate the sons of his own country. ... In other words, the foreign invader is defeated and the Republic is saved by murdering his own countrymen in order to satisfy the threatening warships. ... But this was not true.

If there had been in this country that sense of dignity which exists in others, this army officer would have been demoted immediately because his words clearly indicate that his sword would have been readily surrendered against the attack of American warships in defense of foreign interests. "The Farce about American Boats," translation of speech by Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, September 4, 1929

Telegrams and speeches collected and translated by Paul Wolf and obtained from webarchive https://web.archive.org/web/20120717004708/http://www.icdc.com/~paulwolf/colombia/santamarta.htm