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News > Latin America

Uruguay's Tupamaro Prison Break Was Largest, Coolest in History

  • Former guerrilla Jose Mujica (L), with fellow political prisoners Adolfo Wassen Jr. and Mauricio Rossenco the day they were freed, March 14, 1985.

    Former guerrilla Jose Mujica (L), with fellow political prisoners Adolfo Wassen Jr. and Mauricio Rossenco the day they were freed, March 14, 1985. | Photo: AFP

Published 6 September 2016

Former President Jose Mujica and more than 100 of his Tupamaro guerrilla comrades escaped Punta Carretas 45 years ago through a tunnel.

Tuesday marks the 45th anniversary of one of the largest prison breaks in history which took place in Uruguay on Sept. 6, 1971 when more than 100 members of Uruguay’s Tupamaros guerrillas escaped from the Punta Carretas Prison, including beloved former President Jose Mujica.

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The left-wing fighters escaped through a tunnel they dug up under the prison that led to the living room of a nearby house.

The Tupamaros National Liberation Movement was one of Latin America’s most active left-wing guerrilla groups that formed an insurgency inspired by the Cuban Revolution against the Uruguayan right-wing government in the 1960s and 1970s.

The movement’s major push began following the 1968 labor unrest which saw the government cracking down on demonstrations, imprisoning political critics and torturing them. The government also responded to the labor protests by eliminating constitutional rights.

The operation is well-known in the small South American country and referred to as just “The Escape” or “The Abuse” as it was called by the guerrillas.

In order to divert attention from the escape operation, the Tupamaros organized a riot in a nearby neighborhood in the capital Montevideo, where the maximum security prison was located. As several buses and cars were set on fire, police cars kept their radios locked on the scene of the riot paying less attention to other incidents.

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The major escape operation created shockwaves across the political structure as the interior and defense ministers offered their resignations.

Three days after the guerrillas broke out of prison the government passed a decree putting the military in charge of the crackdown on the left-wing movement.

Within a year of the prison break, the Tupamaros had been largely wiped out or jailed. In 1973, the army carried out a coup and a military dictatorship was put in power until 1985. Mujica spent at least 13 years of his life in prison mostly during the dictatorship rule.

Most of the guerrilla leaders who survived the brutal dictatorship were released as part of an amnesty deal in 1985. Tupamaros joined other leftist factions in the country and formed the Broad Front coalition. The Punta Carretas prison is now a shopping mall, but some of the prison walls have been preserved.

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