Camilo Torres
Camilo Torres; drawing by David Levine

The historic view of Latin America is that it is a thrill. Huge mountains, lush jungles, exotic wealth and poverty, bloody politics—this is the exciting continent. The image has obsessed not only tourists and artists but businessmen, churchmen and statesmen, and revolutionaries. Its strongest enthusiasts now are the New Leftists, here, in Europe, and in Latin America. They see the death of Camilo Torres, the Colombian priest and sociologist killed in revolutionary action in 1966, like the death of Che in 1967 as a brilliant case of martyrdom in the long march to freedom. Camilo Torres is a special hero, a real intellectual who went off with the guerrillas.

There is a darker view of Latin America, that it is a bore. Incredibly various, dense and complicated, resentful of change, in constant pain, it is the depressing continent. In this view Torres died in vain, not a martyr because he was not a cynic.

Colombia—What is the meaning of a man’s death in its politics? It is a grim country, “developing” but disjointed and constricted. Three Andean ranges lifting it from the Pacific pull it into knots. Up the cold hollows the rural folk rot in grudges and feuds. In the valleys along the rivers, the Cauca and the Magdalena, the coffee planters and cattle ranchers stew in their rancor. In the big cities, Bogotá, Medellín, and Cali in the interior, Barranquilla on the Caribbean, all deals are suspect. Rain is forever falling, or threatening to fall, shutting people in, making the streets empty and shining, deepening the mud in the fields, turning the country as gray as a newsreel. Everywhere the feeling is of loneliness, exclusion.

Colombia has a superficial coherence. For 150 years, since independence from Spain in 1819, one class has ruled there. Maintaining Liberal and Conservative parties, letting parvenus marry into their ranks, easing diehards out, several Great Families have traditionally provided the hierarchs of the political, religious, and economic establishments. Masters of manipulation and co-optation, they are modern Latin America’s shrewdest oligarchy.

But their enduring control of the country aggravates its conflicts. The worst burden is the very agency of rule, the two old parties. Among the Great Families the parties have been yokes of union, holding Liberal and Conservative gentlemen in erudite debate in Bogotá. But out among the plain people with mud on them, where the Liberal Families have organized their clients, employees, debtors, and tenants as the “reds,” and where the Conservatives have organized theirs as “blues,” the parties have turned local feuds into local crusades. Because of the Great Families, politics pervades but does not relieve the loneliness.

On the rare occasion when the oligarchy loses control, the country goes into agony. The latest debacle lasted from 1948 to 1958, when the parties disintegrated and Colombians murdered each other to the sum of probably 180,000 deaths. The killing started under a Conservative president, with the assassination of Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, a remarkable Liberal leader of popular origins and convictions. In Bogotá and other cities, his people exploded in tremendous riots. To suppress them, Conservatives mounted crusades against all “reds.” In retaliation Liberals still in office mounted crusades against all “blues.” The killing increased after 1950, when a vicious Conservative became president.

Colombians recognized that, in spite of its political tone, this was not a Civil War nor a War of National Liberation. This was simply, as they called it, The Violence. Often the killing was partisan. But always it was berserk, the action of small gangs, petty massacres with no strategy and with none of the dignity of a struggle for a cause or for defense. It was idiotic in the classical sense, a private affair, tens of thousands of private affairs, neighbors burning each other’s houses and slaughtering each other’s families, homicidal maniacs arising as local chiefs, and the government sending out the army and police to shoot the refugees as renegades.

In 1953, to rescue the country, General Gustavo Rojas Pinilla seized power and established a military dictatorship. For several months the killing abated. Then Rojas Pinilla lost himself in corruption, and the killing resumed in a second swelling wave. Not until the oligarchy recovered, deposed Rojas, and reinstalled the parties in 1958, did the killing subside. Mere terror and revenge, The Violence had never grown into revolution. The memory it left was of shame, not pride or rage.

Since 1958 the oligarchy has firmly managed the “development” of the country. Conservative and Liberal Party bosses have cooperated in a National Front, a deal to trade the presidency every four years and to maintain parity in other offices until 1974. The economy, replete with an Institute of Agrarian Reform and a graduated income tax, was once “the showcase of the Alliance for Progress”; it still performs creditably for AID and IMF (with a 6 percent rise in GNP last year). Difficulties persist. The distribution of income leaves three quarters of the population poor. In a few remote areas The Violence goes on, and in some places it has grown into a revolutionary struggle under Communist leadership. But the oligarchy remains intact and solidly in authority. President Carlos Lleras Restrepo visited Washington in June, the only president in Latin America now who could leave his country for a trip to the United States—and smoothly return to office.


This is the country which produced Camilo Torres, and which killed him for trying to change it.

At his best, Torres was an intellectual. But the privileges his country gave him so cramped and confused him that he could hardly follow his calling. Born into a comfortable Liberal household in Bogotá in 1929 a sickly child, the youngest son of a swank Bogotá pediatrician and a beauty from one of the Great Families, Torres got an early spoiling, but no taste for learning. His schools were the favorites of the city’s elite—the German School, the Jesuits’ Rosario School, the Ricaurte Lyceum, the Cervantes Lyceum. But much more than studying the boy liked sports and scouting and reporting for the student newspaper. During his last year in school his parents wrung a promise from him to improve his marks, and he finished the year carrying off prizes. In the National University’s Law School, a handsome character, newspapering again and happier chasing girls than grinding over books, he lasted only a semester.

The next year, 1948, was a terrible year in the country, with the assassination of Gaitàn, the riots, the repression. Torres grew reflective. But more than The Violence what seemed to trouble him was his grumpy family and a girlfriend who had joined a convent. On vacation in Colombia’s immense eastern plains, far from home, he decided that his life was absurd. In the idealism and egotism typical at nineteen, he pondered “the great problem: where and how would I be most useful?” But the only uses he considered for himself were lucrative professions, “doctor, lawyer, engineer, chemist….” His final answer, “A total solution, the most logical,” was to become religious. But this he imagined as a retreat into a monastery. Home again, he almost ran off to join the Dominicans. But Mama Torres caught up with her son at the railroad station and arranged his enrollment instead in the archdiocesan seminary in Bogotá, to keep him close to home and in the proper circles.

For six years, during the worst of The Violence, the collapse of the parties, and the military coup, young Torres trained for holy orders. But he relished horseplay more than dogmatics or the canon. “They put up with me,” he later said of the seminary. Ordained in 1954, he began his sacramental career not as a country priest, like Bernanos’s, in anguish over the cure of souls, but as another dandy cleric around Bogotá, handsomer than ever in his black skirt. Without a parish or a mission he whiled away his days at elegant ceremonies. Among Bogotá’s gossips he acquired a minor reputation for wowing the nuns. At twenty-five he was interesting only to his family and friends, and to the girls in the city where he was born. It took a trip to Europe to bring out his true talents.

In 1955, probably to get rid of him, the archbishop of Bogotá sent him to Belgium to study at the Catholic University of Louvain. There the young priest found himself in another grim and divided country, but a country that liberated him, a normal European country where social conflicts were not embarrassments, as in Latin America, but deliberate public operations, organized and legitimate; a country where classes carried on a regular struggle over specific issues, where many Catholics, because they were Catholics, considered themselves socialists; a country where citizens admitted the humanity of strife. In a university again, but free now from the stifling pretensions and relentless guilt of home, discovering the mind and the world open to the mind, Camilo Torres resolved to think.

He concentrated on sociology, a specialty at Louvain. His texts were the standard ones, Tönnies, Durkheim, Weber, T. H. Marshall, Parsons, MacIver. But he learned more from his professors than Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft and Structure and Function. From those who styled themselves “pro-Marxists,” in particular François Houtart, he learned that Catholics should know about their societies and try to reform them—that priests should be sociologists and community organizers. Implicit in all his lessons was the doctrine prevailing at Louvain since the war, the modern Catholic Socialism of the Jesuit Roger Vekemans. What Torres was learning was the new theology that would flower in Ecumenicism. Its urgent message was of human responsibility, a warning against the excuse of human limits, an affirmation of man’s competence and accountability. The esoterica of the new theology did not matter to the eager student from Colombia. What mattered was simply that God now revealed Himself not for men to depend on, but for them to answer to. This Torres took as a commandment of charity.


The demands of sociology, responsibility, and charity ran together in his head. “Scientific knowledge cannot be conceived except as the service of man and God…,” he wrote to a seminar at the National University, no doubt astonishing his old teachers there. In Paris on vacation he did a stint with worker-priests collecting garbage. During a brief vacation in Bogotá he declared to a reporter that “we [educated young men] cannot remain impassive before the physical and moral misery of the majority of our population.”

But his best efforts were intellectual. In 1958 he received his M.A. from Louvain’s School of Political and Social Science. His thesis was an “Approche de la réalité socio-économique de la ville de Bogotá.” It was a good piece of scholarship, its discipline testimony that he had his energies in control.

The education took. After a tour through Eastern Europe, Torres returned to Louvain and served as vice-rector of a special college for training Latin American priests. He also planned his doctoral dissertation and organized Colombian students in Europe to study their country’s difficulties.

But Colombia would not let him stay away. His mother came to live with him. He needed to do research on his country. In 1959, at thirty a serious and zealous intellectual, Torres returned home.

For a while Colombia let him do his best. Its military dictator gone, its oligarchy realigned in the National Front, its Violence on the wane and official reforms and progress clearly underway, the country could stand intellectual critics. With John XXIII in Rome and John Kennedy in Washington, it could even reward them. And in the early 1960s Torres was a rising star. At the National University he was a natural chaplain. Under official auspices he and elder scholars set up the University’s Department of Sociology, the National Program for Community Action, and the Colombian Sociological Association, and held the first Sociological Convention in Colombia. Dismissed from the chaplaincy but appointed dean of the Advanced School of Public Administration, he gave seminars on social questions to high civil servants, sponsored courses on agrarian reform for farmers, and promoted rural co-ops. In the meantime he taught sociology and trained community organizers at the University and in Public Administration. On the archbishop’s nomination he won a seat on the executive board of the government’s Institute of Agrarian Reform. On his own he set up co-ops in slums around Bogotá and organized university students and professionals for other projects there.

In interviews, lectures, and round-table discussions he publicized his ideas on social science and social service. Busy, affable, earnest, the dashing Father Torres became a celebrity—“Father Camilo.” But the truth about him was still in the good scholarship that he went on producing. His best essay, “Violence and Socio-cultural Change in Rural Colombia,” was an original and persuasive argument that The Violence had been an inadvertent revolution in that it had forced rural Colombians out of ancient local prejudices and into the possibility of a national spirit. The quality of the analysis proved the quality of the man—strong, clear, graceful. Torres had enemies; the most astute, fearing his influence over students, had made him shift his base from the University to Public Administration. But increasingly he could feel that as an intellectual he could matter in the destiny of his country.

But by 1964 Colombia had reasserted its claim on him, and pulled him out of the work he was best at. New emergencies preoccupied him—an economic slump, with wildly rising prices; a resurgence of The Violence in several rural districts, now shaped into “republiquettes”; a big abstention in Congressional elections. The more the country preoccupied him, the more it taught him about its structure. In C. Wright Mills’s style he analyzed the oligarchy as a single pressure group, a tiny organized class dominating huge disorganized “popular classes.” Its economic bind he saw as dependence on the Americans, who took much more in trade than they gave in aid.

The more the country taught Torres, the more it disappointed him, and the more militant it made him. If “popular leaders” would move “the popular classes” into a “united front,” he announced, then regardless of the oligarchy’s objections “the pressure group of the majority” could establish “a real democracy.” Openly to the press he made his first Fidelista remarks about Yankee Imperialism. In Louvain for the Second International Pro Mundi Vita Conference he presented a paper on “Revolution, A Christian Imperative,” prophesying radical change, possibly peaceful, probably violent, and justifying alliances with Marxists.

The more militant the country made him, the more it flustered him into the pursuit of power, for which he had no talent. By February, 1965, in the wake of new political and economic emergencies, he drafted a national program for radical reform. By March he was touring the cities hustling support. Finally the country had him in national politics, where it evidently wanted him, where he was lost.

Torres’s career in politics lasted five months. It began in confusion which he created. On May 22, 1965, having already asked his archbishop both for demotion to lay status (to serve Church and country more effectively) and for permission to return to Louvain (to proceed with his Ph.D.), he announced a Platform of the United Front of the Colombian People. This repeated the familiar appeals of the Latin American Left, for all citizens in all factions (except the “traditional parties”) to unite in campaigns for stiff agrarian and urban reform, progressive income tax, nationalization of basic services and subsoil research, etc.

At once Torres was in trouble with political and religious hierarchs, who condemned him for mixing politics with religion. His archbishop had him dismissed from the University and Public Administration. During June the official denunciations made him notorious, and committed him to organizing his United Front. Again he asked for lay status, and the archbishop granted it. Skirtless now, dressed as plain “Camilo” in slacks and sportshirt, sick of intellectual analysis and talking in a new tone about “seizing power,” he could politick like a man. But he could not decide on a strategy. Assuming both that the oligarchy was decrepit and that it was omnipotent, both that a popular movement could take shape within the established order and that it could not, he plunged inanely into legal and illegal action.

During July he won support from a few extreme leftists in the Liberal party, a few maverick priests, and sects like the Christian Democrats, the Fidelistas, and the Maoists, all within the law, all publicly aimed at a grand “people’s convention” five months later. But he also arranged contacts with guerrilleros outside the law, telling them his “legal work” would end in “two or three months.”

During August and early September he mustered, popular support in the big cities. In speeches and in his new radical weekly, Frente Unido, he urged his people to form local committees for “the Revolution,…to get a government that feeds the hungry [and] clothes the naked….” Torres was suddenly the most inspiring popular champion since Gaitán. As his United Front became an important movement, a hot mess of students, workingmen, fantasts, and revolutionaries, he tried organizing it into a regular national party. But this, he publicly explained, was for an irregular purpose—not to compete in the oligarchy’s elections but to take control when the oligarchy failed.

He also began publishing a series of sharp manifestoes, Messages, he called them, to workingmen, farmers, women, students, soldiers. There was the intellectual Torres, imagining the popular hopes and fears he knew from research, restating them to the people who felt them in their flesh, insisting that the United Front would relieve them. The Messages were impressive propaganda, often as good as Perón’s or Fidel’s, certainly far better than the run of radical rant. They showed a Torres who could become a major theoretician of the Latin American Left. But to friends he confided proudly, “I’m a guerrillero in the city on a mission.”

In late September the Christian Democrats withdrew their support, fearing dissolution in a larger party, and the Communists lapsed into bickering. Now alone, Torres could not keep his popular support firm. Perhaps his people feared violence more than he did, having suffered The Violence as he had not.

By mid-October the United Front was failing, in confusion that he compounded. Its main office stayed open, the radical weekly continued, and the Messages kept appearing. But Torres himself disappeared, harassed and in despair, convinced now that the harder it was to make the Revolution the sooner it would come.. Soon the news leaked out that he had joined the guerrilleros.

Torres’s revolutionary career lasted four months. The band of guerrilleros that he joined, the Army of National Liberation (ELN), was one of two Communist legions in Colombia. Its bases were some 150 miles north of Bogotá, those of the other legion some 150 miles southwest. The ELN had a fresher and more definite organization than the other legion. Its tactics were also more flashy. Mobile ELN squads maneuvered aggressively to attack the army and police, while the other legion, ranked into militia, lamely defended the territory of its “republiquettes.” More important to Torres was the ELN leadership, as much nationalist as communist, young, educated, and Fidelista; the other leadership was old, crude, and Muscovite. In the ELN the human impulse overrode ideology, so that a Catholic could fit in without having to deny his creed.

In secret ELN camps Torres trained briefly as a guerrillero. He grew his hair and beard in the Fidelista style. On January 7, 1966, in leaflets circulated in Bogotá, he formally announced his entry into the ELN. The guerrilleros, he declared, were fighting for the same ideals as the United Front. “Every true revolutionary must recognize the armed way as the only way left…this is the moment… United Front militants, let us put our slogans into practice… Liberation or Death!” The announcement startled the politically minded. But it roused no popular revolt. On February 15, beating back an ambush in the ELN zone, an army patrol killed five guerrilleros. One of them was Torres. The army buried him, but would not say where. In a few cities students protested.

Since his death the “guerrilla priest” has become a minor international figure, not in Che’s league but in his mold. The clearest sign is that in Cuba Fidel has named a school for him. Here, in France, Belgium, Spain, and in Latin America (including Cuba) we still think it makes a difference that he lived and died as he did, and we worry over the questions implicit in his career. How is politics possible after a vision of apocalypse? Does alienation from a regime entail innocence about its power? Is violent radicalism a commitment or an escape, or a leap at both? Can honest Catholics and Communists see the same reality, as Fidel has said in praise of Torres, enough to unite in a continental revolution? Can Catholic Socialism grow where the Church hierarchs do not want it? What does it become without their sanction? Is there a peculiarly Catholic theory of revolution, transcending the defensive doctrine of just war and the offensive doctrine of holy war? Soon someone may write a good book on the Church and Modern Revolutions, with a chapter on Torres, to put our worries in perspective.

The existing literature on him remains diffuse and repetitious, mostly articles in Catholic and Leftist journals. Two new books in English add little to our understanding. Both are translations of Colombian idolizations of Torres. Germán Guzmán’s Camilo Torres is excruciating to read, a manic exercise in hagiography, incredibly garbled and useless except for documents from Torres’s personal files. (The translation is bad too.) John Alvarez García’s Camilo Torres, His Life and His Message is slightly better—a sweet Dorothy Day preface confusing Colombia with Guatemala, a translator’s introduction about Colombia, and sixteen Torres manifestoes. (The translation is fair, with few errors.)

We can now seriously study the man, however, because of two good CIDOC volumes from Ivan Illich’s Centro Intercultural de Documentación in Cuernavaca. Camilo Torres is a selection of Torres’s principal writings and pronouncements. Colombia—Camilo Torres is an extensive bibliography, citing material by and about Torres in newspapers, journals, and books. These volumes are invaluable aids to Torresology. The difficulty is that the CIDOC editions are available only if one writes to Cuernavaca, and the bibliography is available only to subscribers.

But what Torres’s death means is the difference it makes in the country where it happened, not what it gives us to ponder in New York or Paris or Mexico City. And Colombia has digested him. It choked at first. Torres’s intellectual friends could hardly bear his death. When German Guzmán, like Torres a priest and sociologist and a colleague of his for five years, tried to “interpret” him, his jumpy rhetoric bespoke his incapacitating grief. Others lamented that a fellow so handsome and intelligent, and from such a respectable family, should die so young. Even the oligarchy had twinges of sorrow over the son it had lost. But soon the country swallowed him. By now it has absorbed him, as a dead hero or as a dead meddler turned fool, anyway without a change in its condition. The futility of Torres’s effort was obvious during Pope Paul’s visit to Colombia a year ago. When the Pope repeated before a crowd of quaking sharecroppers the motto of agrarian reform, “The land belongs to whoever works it,” an irate landlord in the audience bellowed back, “Does a woman belong to whoever screws her?”

In Colombia, still, the more informed and the more concerned a man is about his country, the more consciously he lives a lie—or the more subversive he becomes. The first tendency remains the rule. The second remains the compulsion Torres described in himself. Because he was a Colombian, a sociologist, a Christian, and a priest, he said, he could not help becoming a revolutionary. In the end, for the few who push so far, the choice is still moral or physical suicide. The educated and the patriotic classes go on straining in an ordeal of the soul that has no cure. The plain people go on straining in their own torments. This is beyond excitement and depression.

All we may rightfully note for ourselves is that now our country too is moving thoughtful men to cheat on it or conspire against it.

This Issue

October 23, 1969