The Javanese word jago means fighting cock, but also designates the leader of a band of men. A jago was a man who depended on a forceful personality, who was not confined by domesticity, and who lived on the fringes of society spying, selling information, and hiring out his men as vigilantes. Jagos were distinguished by their wild manners and appearance. They wore their long hair loose, instead of bound under a head cloth; they were careless of polite norms; and they claimed knowledge of the occult. They used amulets and oaths to bind men to their service.
They were the terror of rural communities, stealing buffaloes and destroying houses, or they were local heroes who assaulted and robbed tax collectors and moneylenders. They sold their services to kings and rebels.
During battles they frequently changed sides. Chinese bosses employed jagos to patrol the opium business; Javanese and Dutch officials hired them as informants and to control workers.
In twentieth-century urban contexts, jagos were small political bosses who delivered workers to factories, kept industrial order, controlled brothels and gambling, put protesters on the street for politicians, or organized arson and looting. They were freelancers of Indonesia’s struggle for national independence. In East Timor jagos launched massacre, plunder, and arson in retaliation against the Timorese movement to withdraw from Indonesia. Using the vocabulary of jihad, jagos today assemble militias to extend Muslim space and to undermine national government.