27 Mar, 2014 | Neil Suchak

Culture, Reviews and History & Politics

If you walk around Plaza Murillo in the centre of La Paz, you will probably be struck by two things: the number of pigeons that inhabit the plaza and the presence of army officers clad in scarlet uniforms at the corner of the square, guarding the Presidential Palace. These are Los Colorados de Bolivia and they are one of the most prestigious and iconic units of the Bolivian military. In their distinctive red uniforms, they immediately stand out from any other army officer you might come across in La Paz.

Since they are guarding the Presidential Palace, Los Colorados might strike you as a Bolivian version of the English Beefeater, an image reinforced by the ceremonial nature of their daily lowering of the flags, complete with barked orders, marching and a trumpet sound in the background.

But Los Colorados de Bolivia have a rich history of their own that is hardly expressed in these ritualistic performances. The Museum of Los Colorados appears to receive only a handful of visitors every day, but it colours their story as one rich in historical significance. According to Lieutenant. Luis Fernando Ester Zabala (one of Los Colorados to show us around their museum) the red ceremonial uniforms worn represent: “the blood of the enemy and the blood we’ve spilt”.

Los Colorados de Bolivia take their origins from before the birth of Bolivia itself. They played a role as a guerrilla group in the Wars for Independence under the leadership of Bolivian hero José Miguel García Lanza. But the most important episode in their history occurs following the Wars for Independence, once they had been formally incorporated as a constituent unit of the Bolivian Army.

Following their heroic display of both military achievement and self-sacrifice at La Batalla del Alto de la Alianza (known as the Battle of Tacna in English), a military effort which forced three separate Chilean retreats and saw only 293 Colorados out of 1,000 left alive, their name and image have become synonymous with the Bolivian sense of yearning towards the sea. Despite their effort and sacrifice, La Batalla del Alto de la Alianza was a decisive defeat for Bolivia, forcing them to militarily withdraw from the conflict. Henceforth Bolivia became a landlocked nation, with this defeat causing the loss of the Litoral Province and culminating in the Chilean occupation of Lima.

The story that has solidified their place in Bolivian history is set against the backdrop of the War of the Pacific and the Bolivian claim to the Litoral Province and the sea. Their notoriety is borne out of this historical context which has elevated them to the status of heroes in Bolivian history, granting them the prestigious honour becoming the acting Presidential Guard.

Given that Bolivia lost this battle and ultimately the War of the Pacific, this may not seem like an episode worthy of commemoration, yet this is precisely the reason the figure of the Colorados is so romantic to this day—they evoke patriotism but also the specter of loss.

till, Los Colorados continue to exemplify bravery and military prowess: outnumbered by the Chileans forces in number and artillery, they fearlessly fought and defeated three battalions despite suffering heavy losses. As well as marking the military highpoint of the war, the Colorados became immortalised by their self sacrifice.

In 2004 President Carlos Mesa declared all those who had taken part in the Battle of Tacna as National Heroes of Bolivia. And it was this moment in history which President Mesa chose to commemorate, rather than Los Colorados’ clear and decisive military success at the Battle of Cañada Strongest in the Chaco War—roughly 50 years later.

The regimental motto of Los Colorados stands as “Subordinación y Constancia, ¡Viva Bolivia, hacia el Mar!”—which in English translates to: “Subordination and Steadfastness. Long Live Bolivia, towards the Sea!”. And thus, what underpins the Bolivian pride towards Los Colorados becomes apparent: they serve as a constant reminder of Bolivia’s lost coastline and of the ongoing efforts the country has since undertaken to regain access to the sea.

Los Colorados have not just won their place in history on the battlefield; many of them have also carried out their public duty within the higher echelons of Bolivian politics, with several of their leaders going on to occupy high office, including presidents José Ballivián, Hilarión Daza, and Mariano Melgarejo.

The Bolivian Day of the Sea is commemorated on the 23rd of March. On this day, the Colorados take centre stage, parading and clamouring the Bolivian claim to the sea. During such events their significance is no longer just military, but cultural and symbolic, serving to remind Bolivians of a painful and heroic historical episode. Whether standing in front of the Government Palace or marching to solemn sounds produced by a military band, their displays of courage and sacrifice in the War of the Pacific, and their continued role in safeguarding the Head of State, have guaranteed them a place in Bolivian history. For centuries to come they are sure to remain the pride of the Bolivian military and people. 


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