The Banana Massacre (Spanish: Matanza de las bananeras or Spanish: Masacre de las bananeras) was a massacre of United Fruit Company workers that occurred between 05 and 06 December 1928 in the town of Ciénaga near Santa Marta, Colombia. The strike began on 12 November 1928, when the workers ceased to work until the company would reach an agreement with them to grant them dignified working conditions. After several weeks with no agreement, in which the United Fruit Company refused to negotiate with the workers, the conservative government of Miguel Abadía Méndez sent the Colombian army in against the strikers, resulting in the massacre of 100 to 2,000 people.
After US officials in Colombia and United Fruit representatives portrayed the workers’ strike as “communist” with a “subversive tendency” in telegrams to Frank B. Kellogg, the United States Secretary of State, the United States government threatened to invade with the US Marine Corps if the Colombian government did not act to protect United Fruit’s interests. The Colombian government was also compelled to work for the interests of the company, considering they could cut off trade of Colombian bananas with significant markets such as the United States and Europe.
Gabriel García Márquez depicted a fictional version of the massacre in his novel One Hundred Years of Solitude, as did Álvaro Cepeda Samudio in his La Casa Grande. Although García Márquez references the number of dead as around three thousand, the actual number of dead workers is unknown.
The workers of the banana plantations in Colombia went on strike on 12 November 1928. The workers made nine demands from the United Fruit Company:
- Stop their practice of hiring through sub-contractors.
- Mandatory collective insurance.
- Compensation for work accidents.
- Hygienic dormitories and 6 day work weeks.
- Increase in daily pay for workers who earned less than 100 pesos per month.
- Weekly wage.
- Abolition of office stores.
- Abolition of payment through coupons rather than money.
- Improvement of hospital services.
The strike turned into the largest labour movement ever witnessed in the country until then. Radical members of the Liberal Party, as well as members of the Socialist and Communist Parties, participated.
The workers wanted to be recognised as employees, and demanded the implementation of the Colombian legal framework of the 1920s.
An army regiment from Bogotá was dispatched by the government to deal with the strikers, which it deemed to be subversive. Whether these troops were sent in at the behest of the United Fruit Company did not at first clearly emerge.
Three hundred soldiers were sent from Antioquia to Magdalena. There were no soldiers from Magdalena involved because General Cortes Vargas, the army-appointed military chief of the banana zone in charge of controlling the situation, did not believe they would be able to take effective actions, as they might be related to the plantation workers.
The troops set up their machine guns on the roofs of the low buildings at the corners of the main square, closed off the access streets, and, after issuing a five-minute warning that people should leave, opened fire into a dense Sunday crowd of workers and their families including children. The people had gathered after Sunday Mass to wait for an anticipated address from the governor.
The Number of People Dead
General Cortés Vargas, who commanded the troops during the massacre, took responsibility for 47 casualties. In reality, the exact number of casualties has never been confirmed. Herrera Soto, co-author of a comprehensive and detailed study of the 1928 strike, has put together various estimates given by contemporaries and historians, ranging from 47 to as high as 2,000. According to Congressman Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, the killed strikers were thrown into the sea. Other sources claim that the bodies were buried in mass graves.
Among the survivors was Luis Vicente Gámez, later a famous local figure, who survived by hiding under a bridge for three days. Every year after the massacre he delivered a memorial service over the radio.
Another version by official Jose Gregorio Guerrero gave the number of dead as nine: eight civilians and one soldier. Guerrero added that Jorge Eliécer Gaitán had exaggerated the number of deaths.
The press has reported different numbers of deaths and different opinions about the events that took place that night. The conclusion is that there is no agreed-on story, but rather diverse variations depending on the source they come from. The American press provided biased information on the strike. The Colombian press was also biased depending on the political alignment of the publication. For example, the Bogotá-based newspaper El Tiempo stated that the workers were within their rights in wanting to improve their conditions. However, since the newspaper was politically conservative, they also noted that they did not agree with the strike.
Official US Telegrams
Telegram from Bogotá Embassy to the US Secretary of State, Frank B. Kellogg, dated 05 December 1928, stated:
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 a prison in Cartagena; that government would give adequate protection to American interests involved.
Telegram from Santa Marta Consulate to the US Secretary of State, dated 06 December 1928, stated:
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 warship 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 Bogotá Embassy to the US Secretary of State, dated 07 December 1928, stated:
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.
Telegram from the US Department of State to Santa Marta Consulate, dated 08 December 1928, stated:
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 warship to Santa Marta. Keep the Department informed of all developments by telegraph.
Telegram from Santa Marta Consulate to the US Secretary of State, dated 09 December 1928, stated:
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.
Dispatch from Santa Marta Consulate to the US Secretary of State, dated 11 December 1928, stated:
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.
Dispatch from Bogotá Embassy to the US Secretary of State, dated 11 December 1928, stated:
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.
Dispatch from US Bogotá Embassy to the US Secretary of State, dated 29 December 1928, stated:
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.
Dispatch from US Bogotá Embassy to the US Secretary of State, dated 16 January 1929, stated:
I have the honour 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 1000.
Aftermath and Legacy
Guerrilla movements in Colombia such as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) argued that the growth of Communism in Colombia was triggered by atrocities like these, and called it state terrorism.
Some sources claim there are connections between this massacre and the atrocities committed in more recent years by Chiquita Brands in Colombian territory. Chiquita admitted paying 1.7 million dollars to the paramilitary group AUC (United Self Defence Forces of Colombia), who have killed hundreds of Colombian citizens. This company has financed war machines by paying this terrorist group. They claimed that they had been victims of extortion and said the payments were made as a way to protect their workers from the paramilitaries, but the people seem to object. In the documentary “Banana Land” Colombian plantain workers speak up about how they feel terrorised by multinational companies like Chiquita and their work with paramilitaries. They even say that people who speak up about the way they feel are at risk of being targeted by the AUC.