On the evening of October 5, 1928, the delegates for Colombia’s banana workers in Magdalena gathered to discuss their grievances. Among their concerns were their long hours and low pay; one worker, Aristides López Rojano, remembered: “We worked from six in the morning until eleven and then from one in the afternoon until six.... The contractor paid the salary and reserved up to thirty percent for himself.” Erasmo Coronel (the one wearing the bowtie in the group portrait) spoke in favor of a strike, and the others agreed. At around five in the morning on October 6, 1928, the workers issued the United Fruit Company a list of nine demands.
On the first day of the strike, the commander of the Colombian armed forces appointed General Carlos Cortés Vargas as the military chief of Santa Marta and the banana zone. By the second day, Cortés Vargas was in Ciénaga with a battalion.
The strike lasted two months, during which time the workers briefly established popular sovereignty, deciding how best to organize themselves. One worker later recalled that when soldiers asked a group of striking workers who was in charge, they defiantly responded that they were all in charge—“todos éramos jefes.” The striking workers tested the United Fruit Company’s ability to continue to exert power through its ad hoc network of corporations, missionaries, and mercenaries backed by the military and diplomatic power of the U.S. government.
On December 5, the workers received news that the governor of Magdalena had summoned them to Ciénaga to settle the strike. They began to gather there by the thousands. Just before midnight, General Cortés Vargas received a telegram containing Decree Number 1, the government's official declaration of a state of siege in the banana zone. That night, the military opened fire on the assembled workers and their families at the train station in Ciénaga.
In his memoir, General Cortés Vargas recounts:
During the course of this last minute, we shouted: ”People, disperse, we will open fire!”
“We'll give you the remaining minute!” a voice shouted from the tumult.
We had complied with the penal code. The last bugle call ripped through the air; the multitude seemed stuck in the ground. It was necessary to comply with the law, and we complied: “Open fire!!” we shouted.
In One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel García Márquez altered the key sentence, adding one word so that the voice from the crowd addressed the soldiers directly: “Bastards, we'll give you the remaining minute!”