The myth of the rural outlaw is deeply ingrained in human imagination worldwide. Robin Hood, Jesse James and Billy the Kid, for example, are easily recognizable and have enduring appeal. But disparate groups motivated by individual agendas find outlaws appealing (or despicable) for vastly different reasons.
What does each outlaw story come to embody at any given time, and what is the relationship between the real-life bandit and the narratives that feature him or her? Juan Pablo Dabove, a faculty member at the University of Colorado Boulder, investigates this question in his ongoing research on Latin American bandits.
“Bandits and outlaws are more than just colorful characters—the stuff of romantic myth,” says Dabove, associate professor of Spanish and Portuguese.
“They can embody, while alive or after their deaths, powerful social desires or anxieties: dreams of justice, anxieties about the breakdown of a given social order. The outlaw, as a cultural trope, as a narrative character, has political and cultural relevance because he is like a character in a dream or in a nightmare: It is created and animated by our aspirations or by our fears.”
The romantic version of the outlaw’s story shows that even the outlaw can be king or leader of men. He’s a criminal, but he might as well be a president.”
Dabove’s book, Bandit Narratives in Latin America: From Villa to Chavez (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2017), maps a number of case studies, from Mexico to Argentina, to illustrate how the bandit was “used” by intellectuals of all types, from the nationalist right to the far left. The bandit trope appeared in both fictional and nonfictional narratives to legitimize certain political agendas and delegitimize others, he contends.
The label “banditry,” far from a clearly defined penal figure, is a wildly accommodating catch-all word, he says. A “bandit” could be a destitute highwayman or, like Pancho Villa, a leader of multitudes.
Dabove examines cases of both, showing how the “bandit” trope connects or blends two extremes: the abject outcast and the just sovereign. The bandit has been alternatively considered an enemy of humankind or the forerunner of a utopian society, he says.
“In fact, this ‘blending’ of or contamination between the figures of the outlaw and the sovereign is what interests me.”
“When the Revolution came, Pancho Villa became the most able, charismatic and capable leader of the Mexican Revolution,” explains Dabove. “The romantic version of the outlaw’s story shows that even the outlaw can be king or leader of men. He’s a criminal, but he might as well be a president.”
For example, argues Dabove, “In places where the postcolonial state in Latin America was unable to control the territory or the population, these figures appeared—we would call them today warlords or strong men, people who had informal command of men and resources. They are, by our definition, outlaws, but in a very real sense, they were the law, and they created violent albeit functional systems of social regulation, collective defense, and conflict resolution, in situations where a more ‘formal state’ was absent.”
“They were local figures interested in local issues. They have different ideas of politics, what they want or what they don’t want,” says Dabove.
“It is similar to what’s happening today in places like Afghanistan or Syria or Yemen, in which the breakdown of state authority gives rise to local, brutal figures,” says Dabove. “In the 19th century, that happened in many places in Latin America.”
These larger-than-life figures “emerged in specific situations, but if they become a part of the collective memory, this image, different from the reality of the bandit, acquires a life of its own. That ‘life’ has been for some years now the object of my inquiries.”
Bandit Narratives in Latin America: From Villa to Chavez is available for purchase now.