Gadianton Robbers and Latin America
by Geoffrey Biddulph
Copyright Scot Facer Proctor, 2002.
One of the purposes of the Book of Mormon is to warn us in the latter days about mistakes made in the past. And one of the biggest mistakes of the early inhabitants of the Americas was to bring about the conditions that allowed the Gadianton robbers to prosper.
Given that the Book of Mormon is a warning about our times, we must consider the existence of modern-day Gadiantons. Are we once again allowing conditions for Gandiaton robbers to flourish?
The evidence is overwhelming: the world is filled with groups similar to the Gadianton robbers. They are especially active in Latin America. They are destabilizing societies in Latin America today again just as they did in the fourth and fifth centuries AD. The warnings in the Book of Mormon are prophetic – and reason for concern.
Clearly, one of the reasons Mormon and his son Moroni assembled the Book of Mormon in the fourth and fifth centuries AD was to warn us not to repeat the mistakes made during their time. Speaking to the latter-day readers of the Book of Mormon, Moroni says: “Behold, I speak unto you as if ye were present, and yet ye are not. But behold, Jesus Christ has shown you unto me, and I know your doing.” (Moroni 8:35)
Moroni goes on to list the sins of the latter days. Pride. Envying and strife. All manner of iniquities. Churches polluted by pride. Love of money. Ignoring the poor and needy, sick and afflicted. And then he mentions an important one for our times: “secret combinations to get gain.” (Mormon 8:40).
This, of course, is the prime goal of the Gadianton robbers. They are first mentioned in Helaman 2:4, about 50 BC. Their first leader was “one Gadianton, who was exceedingly expert in many words, and also in his craft, to carry on the secret work of murder and of robbery.”
Characteristics of the Gadiantons
What are the main characteristics of the Gadianton robbers?
*Their main goal was getting rich, but they had no desire to work and get money the old-fashioned way. They wanted to get rich through murder and secret combinations.
*They often, but not always, felt it necessary to take over the government to achieve their goals.
*They had secret signs to indicate membership in their gangs. (Helaman 6:22).
*They set up their own rule of law among themselves, and people were “tried, not according to the laws of their country, but according to the laws of their wickedness.” (Helaman 6:24).
*Their evil designs were inspired by Satan, in the long tradition of malevolent leaders starting with Cain and continuing through the builders of the Tower of Babel, the Jaredites, and numerous other groups. Satan’s goal is to drag “the people down to an entire destruction, and to an everlasting hell.” (Helaman 6:28).
*Righteous parents were afraid their children would join the Gadiantons as their abominations spread across the land. See 3 Nephi 1:29.
*The Gadiantons had their own bizarre sense of honor among thieves and claimed that their works were “good.” (3 Nephi 3:9).
Clearly, Mormon and Moroni are worried about the Gadiantons: “And behold, in the end of this book ye shall see that this Gadianton did prove the overthrow, yea, almost the entire destruction of the people of Nephi.” (Helaman 2:14).
Overcoming the Gadiantons
The seductiveness of the bandit lifestyle of the Gadiantons caused them to gather literally thousands of adherents by about 16 AD. By this time, the Gadiantons were living in the hills much like the guerrilla groups in China, Vietnam and much of Latin America in the 20th century. We can imagine them making the occasional raid on the populace to plunder and then return to their mountain hideaways.
Battling a group like this, even with superior numbers, is extremely difficult, as the U.S. army learned in Vietnam. Guerrilla groups can swoop down and attack and then disappear quickly, thereby avoiding casualties. It is sometimes difficult to discern between combatants and civilians.
In the end, Lachoneus, the just governor of the Nephites, tried an ingenious and fascinating war strategy. We can read about it in 3 Nephi 3:12. After the Gadiantons sent a bizarre epistle to Lachoneus insisting that their band was “good” and that the Nephites should hand over their land and belongings to the bandits to avoid bloodshed, Lachoneus sent out a proclamation to the people asking them to prepare for war. First, he asked them to pray for strength. Then, he asked them to gather all of their flocks and food into a central place. Then, he built a fortification around that place. He armed the people and asked them again to repent and pray.
The Gadiantons, used to living off the production of others, began to run out of food and were forced into attacking fortified positions in an attempt to win the battle. From a war strategy perspective, the tactics of Lachoneus and his commander Gidgiddoni were perfect. After several years of fighting, the Gadiantons were destroyed in about 21 AD.
The Return of the Gadiantons
After Jesus Christ came to the Americas in about 34 AD, the peoples of the Book of Mormon had peace for almost two centuries. Groups such as the Gadiantons had completely disappeared. Society was nearly perfect: “There were no envyings, nor strifes, nor tumults, nor whoredoms, nor lyings, nor murders, nor any manner of lasciviousness; and surely there could not be a happier people among all the people who had been created by the hand of God.” (4 Nephi 1:16)
But by 260 AD, the robbers returned. Within a few decades, “the robbers of Gadianton did spread over all the face of the land.gold and silver did they lay up in store in abundance, and did traffic in all manner of traffic.” (4 Nephi 1:46). Mormon and Moroni describe the society descending into complete chaos: “it is impossible for the tongue to describe, or for man to write a perfect description of the horrible scene of the blood and carnage which was among the people, both of the Nephites and of the Lamanites; and every heart was hardened, so that they delighted in the shedding of blood continually.” (Momon 4:11).
Of course, by the time of Moroni, the Lamanites had destroyed almost all of the Nephites, and, “there are none save it be the Lamanites and robbers that do exist upon the face of the land.” (Mormon 8:9).
It is worth pointing out that the warfare tactics the Gadiantons used were completely unknown in the first half of the 19th century, when Joseph Smith was given the power to translate the Book of Mormon. In those days, all warfare involved armies lining up to face each other in battle. It took until the latter half of the Civil War in 1863 for armies to begin to change their tactics away from massed battle lines.
When the young Joseph Smith imagined war, he was certain to think about battle scenes from the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812, both dominated by armies lining up to march at each other. Guerrilla warfare tactics used by the Gadiantons (and the anti-guerrilla tactics used by Lachoneus) did not become common in modern times until Mao adopted them in the1940s, nearly 120 years after Joseph Smith produced the Book of Mormon.
Since Mao’s days, of course, Gadianton tactics have been commonplace. Communist guerrillas operated throughout Southeast Asia and in several African countries. But it is in Latin America – where the original Gadiantons first operated – where the tactics are still being employed. And it is also in Latin America where we can observe first-hand in Cuba the evil fruits of a society dominated by Gadiantons who gained power.
Before we do, it is worth pointing out that there are two general types of modern-day Gadianton groups: the ones who are interested in power and the ones who are primarily interested in money. All leftist guerrilla and terrorist movements – from Maoists to Fidel Castro’s bands in Cuba to leftist groups in Cuba to al Qaeda and Osama in Laden – fall into the first category. Common criminal bands such as the Mafia, inner-city drug gangs, drug traffickers, rural bandits, pirates and other criminal groups fall into the second category.
The second category sometimes feels it needs to take on the power structure, just as the original Gadianton did as described in Helaman 2:4, in order to protect itself or to gain more money. Gadianton groups interested in taking power may start out with supposedly noble goals (ie, helping the poor or working class or “oppressed” peoples) but always end up using dirty tricks, secret combinations and terrorist tactics.
Telling the Difference
How can you tell the difference between a legitimate freedom movement, such as the one employed in the founding of the United States, and a terrorist group? After all, from the British perspective of 1775, the Founding Fathers were nothing more than Gadiantons. From the perspective of the Taliban, groups opposed to its oppressive rule were ruthless rebels.
You must look at the moral foundation of the group that is rebelling against authority. Is the rebelling group truly trying to instill greater liberty for people or is it really just interested in power for power’s sake? What kinds of tactics are employed? Does the group try to avoid unnecessary bloodshed?
And, most importantly, does the rebelling group believe in God and show a knowledge that the Creator has instilled in us certain rights that are “self-evident?” Does the rebelling group know that human freedom is a right granted to us by our Father in Heaven? Does the group try to follow God’s commandments?
Gadiantons in Latin America
With that in mind, it is worth reviewing some of the Gadianton groups in Latin America. Gadianton tactics helped install Fidel Castro in Cuba and the leftist Sandinistas in Nicaragua. Guerrilla groups fought in southern Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Colombia, Peru and, briefly, in Bolivia. Urban Gadiantons interested in power operated in Chile and Argentina and, briefly, in Uruguay, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Paraguay and Brazil.
The 1990s saw the end of large guerrillas movements in most of those countries, but Gadiantons interested in power fight on in Colombia and Mexico and occasionally surface in other countries. Their battles bleed over the borders into Ecuador, Venezuela and Brazil, among other countries.
Colombia is the most worrisome country for Gadianton activity today. There are three large terrorist/criminal groups, each with thousands of members. The two supposedly leftist groups have been around for decades, and they control hundreds of square miles of Colombian territory. A supposedly right-wing paramilitary group was started to fight the leftists during the 1980s, and that group basically uses the same tactics as the leftist revolutionaries today. These groups have no real ideology: they are basically huge armed bands of criminals who kidnap and run drugs for money. The have created societies, mini-countries inside of Colombia, where entire generations know no other life except violence, drugs and power.
There are eerie similarities between the Colombian leftist groups and the Gadiantons of Book of Mormon times. They claim to be “good” and honorable despite killing thousands and robbing and plundering. They are only interested in power and money and are willing to use the most ruthless tactics (murder and kidnapping) to achieve their goals. They have their own secret signs and codes and oaths and establish their own rule of law in the regions they dominate. The “peace” proposals they send to the government are almost exactly like the epistle sent to Lachoneus described in 3 Nephi 3.
The Mexican Gadiantons are less pervasive than the Colombian bands but no less ruthless. The drug kingpins in Mexico have succeeded in corrupting literally thousands of Mexican police officials and politicians with drug money. Mexican President Vicente Fox is bravely trying to reform the country’s security forces, and he has had some tremendous successes, but corruption is widespread and difficult to overcome.
Drug gangs in Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo, Brazil’s largest cities, control entire neighborhoods, instituting their own laws and executing their own bizarre standards of justice. In Rio, a newspaper reporter penetrated one of the slums controlled by the drug lords to report on macabre street parties where people openly consumed drugs and danced and had sex in public. He was killed by one of the drug lords who didn’t like his reporting.
There are touching stories of success against the Gadiantons throughout Latin America. The Sandinistas in Nicaragua were classic Gadiantons – leftist thugs who lived in the hills and fought against the government until they gained power. Because of worldwide pressure, they were forced to hold elections in 1990, which they lost. The incoming President Violeta Chamorro, a principled and extremely honest woman, emphasized Christ-like qualities of forgiveness and tolerance. Largely because of these policies, Nicaragua avoided going back to war and has been mostly at peace for one of the longest periods in its history. It now has one of its best presidents ever, former businessman Enrique Bolanos, who is carrying out one of the most admirable campaigns in the history of Latin America to clean up government corruption and help create a stable society.
Similar efforts to reintegrate Gadiantons into society took place in Guatemala, El Salvador and Peru, and today guerrilla groups are virtually nonexistent in those countries. The battles against the guerrillas could have been taken straight from Gidgiddoni’s campaign against the Gadiantons as described in 3 Nephi 4: in Peru, the security forces were able to capture and/or kill the leaders of two large guerrilla groups there. They arrested hundreds of the leadership and allowed the foot soldiers to rejoin society as long as they gave up violence, just as Gidgiddoni did in 3 Nephi 5:4.
The root cause of Gadiantonism is dishonesty, pride, love of money and lack of a moral structure in society. We are fortunate in the Americas to have societies that allow freedom of worship in nearly every country in Latin America. It is worth pointing out that the first thing Gadiantons do when they get power is destroy these freedoms (in Castro’s Cuba, there is no freedom of religion).
This freedom of religion allows the true church of Jesus Christ to flourish throughout the region. Many other religions also encourage honesty and good government and help create institutions to ensure they take place.
The tactics of every Gadianton group involve some time of “secret combination,” a catchall phrase that is represented in dirty tricks, robbery, murder or another crime. Unfortunately, these types of dirty tricks continue to be a problem throughout the world, but especially in Latin America. These secret combinations extend across all layers of society: government officials are bribed by businessmen, companies form secret cartels and monopolies, drug traffickers flourish. Of course, these problems occur in every country, but it is worth repeating that they are a much bigger part of the culture in Latin America.
When societies do not have the will or the means of controlling the relatively minor secret combinations involving bribe and kickbacks, these activities are much more likely to escalate into the more serious crimes. Gadiantons flourish the most in societies that have stopped respecting laws on all levels.
Gadiantons interested in power are at a low ebb in Latin America today, but there are worrying signs for the future. Gadiantons interested in money, such as drug traffickers and street gangs, are as powerful as ever.
The Book of Mormon record shows that Gadianton groups have a strange ability to disappear for decades and even hundreds of years (from 34 AD until about 260 AD) and then begin to operate again. The geography and history of the Americas indicate a special propensity to Gadianton-like activity.
In these latter days, it is especially necessary for us to be aware of this history and take steps to prevent history from repeating itself.
2002Meridian Magazine. All Rights Reserved.