A profile of Txema Bofill (1953-2015), aka ‘Sabata’. From Grupos Autónomos: una crónica armada de la transición democrática by Joni D. (El Lokal, Barcelona, 2014) pp. 60-69 — Translated by Paul Sharkey

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Txema Bofill (1953-2015), aka ‘Sabata’

Sabata (from sabata, the Catalan word for shoe) decided as a child he was intended for the priesthood and was entered into a seminary, which he later left, unable to live up to the vow of celibacy. Born in 1953, this restless child of a bourgeois Catalan Catholic family from La Bisbal was captivated by the charismatic personality of a local priest and decided to follow in his footsteps, despite his father’s misgivings, who believed that at the age of nine he did not know enough to make such a monumental decision. The village priest, a dynamic character, impressed Sabata, as did Catalanism and the sense of brotherhood. He also discovered repression at first hand at this time: camping near the border they were surrounded one night by Civil Guard troops; on another occasion, during a night-time crossing, a cheeky retort to a challenge from two police officers earned him a slap in the face. His ‘radicalisation began in the seminary, as he graduated from child to adolescent in the company of worker priests, followers of Liberation Theology and reading banned books from France. Most people in the border area had relatives in France and the proximity of the frontier made contact that much easier.

Aged 15, he followed developments in France’s May ’68 avidly through radio broadcasts, easily picked up in rural Gerona. He wanted to compare and contrast reports reaching his home through French friends of his father’s who owned a supermarket; according to whom, those largely responsible for the unrest were Spanish workers. When they suffered from the course taken by events, his parents offered to play host to their friends should that unrest turn into a revolution. Sabata finally quit the seminary, telling his parents he wanted to study medicine before volunteering for the African missions. Months later, Sabata took up a pre-university course in Barcelona prior to embarking on a career in medicine.

In Barcelona he attended the Ramon Llull University run by the Diputacion, access to which was gained thanks to his family’s influence. The director, an acknowledged fan of the Regime, had been a member of parliament and was friendly with Narcis de Carreras, a family acquaintance and La Bisbal native, one-time chairman of FC Barcelona and, by that time, a member of the Spanish Cortes. Once settled in, Sabata’s concerns prompted him to work with student drama groups; at the same time he embarked on his first criminal actions, stealing books from bookshops. Methodical in his approach, he jotted down the best times to visit each of the bookshops on his particular “round”, and recorded the modus operandi used in each one. The Ramon Llull University was experiencing the same unrest as in the high-schools and universities, with students pressing for greater freedom. Those were the years of the counter-culture and the sexual revolution. Among the more restless students Wilhelm Reich was going down a bomb; he an iconoclast, politicised who had his own problems with bureaucratic, orthodox communism.

Having been accepted for university under a quota system — being from a family of doctors — from which he graduated to begin his career in medicine, he felt strongly that hundreds of other young people had been arbitrarily denied their chance to pursue their studies; it stimulated a sense of injustice that led to his involvement in the earliest student protests. Students who had been turned away started showing up for classes and it wasn’t long before strikes erupted and the Faculty closed, with classes relocated to the Sant Pau Hospital. The Residency director was replaced by a pro-communist director, which coincided with Sabata stealing a book that left its mark on his political evolution — From Proudhon to Cohn-Bendit, a history of anarchism written by Heleno Sana and approved by the dictatorship’s censors. In 1972 his parents learned of his penchant for literature and his private visits to bookshops, which led to a family row and to his striking out on his own, quitting medicine and embarking on the study of philosophy, albeit that communal living and his incipient political activities left him little time for classes.

The Communist Party – in Catalonia, the PSUC – the cornerstone of opposition to the dictatorship was surrounded by a swarm of Marxist groups critical of its centralizing policies competing for control of the university student platforms. During those months Sabata flirted with the Trotskyists and took part in the earliest demonstration in a stewarding capacity, learning to make Molotov cocktails. Heleno Saña’s book, however, prompted him to do a bit of research in the bowels of the Biblioteca de Cataluña where he stumbled upon his first book on the Civil War, a detailed study of the role of the CNT. That book was followed by others on similar themes, until one day he decided to stop reading books of that sort for fear that they were being monitored and that somebody might uncover his special interest; he had, however, come to a decision.

The autumn of 1972 saw the unexpected eruption of a dispute in the faculty. Food prices in the university canteen were increased and students decided to boycott the canteen. It was then he came into contact with his first organized anarchist groups. Initially these youngsters called daily meetings at the entrance to the canteen just as its doors were opening and when the meeting was over they would step inside but refuse to pay. This spelled ruin for the canteen and led to the first direct talks with those in charge; for a few days they chose to let youngsters in in an attempt to prevent further interruption to the service. However, when they realized the number of youngsters was increasing daily, they decided to call a halt to their benevolence and barred the protesters’. The youngsters responded by occupying the canteen facilities and holding a sit-in for some days, serving the rest of the student body free of charge. Taking over the kitchens they served the food to their comrades, and when the canteen was shut down as a result of the protest, the youngsters mounted a protest march to bring their demands to the canteen at the Escuela Industrial. That dispute was an initiation into activism for many of the youngsters.

Sabata began taking part in student demonstrations. No longer were these the earlier demonstrations organized by political groups in which they were used as a spearhead, but activities that they organised themselves. They would loiter somewhere, hand out leaflets, daub slogans and when they heard the sirens approaching they would bring traffic to a halt by barricading the road with vehicles or throwing a few molotov cocktails before meeting up again elsewhere in town 45-60 minutes later to repeat the operation. 1973 was the year when such actions mushroomed. They walked into factories to establish direct connections with workers and call general strikes that went largely unheeded. The death of a worker in Sant Adriá del Besós triggered a link-up with the Assemblea de Catalunya which, for the first time ever, backed them in their next strike call. One day Sabata left the University of Gerona campus to hand out propaganda with a couple of comrades. After chatting with several students, he was daubing graffiti when the police turned up and he was arrested with a female comrade. Their other comrade escaped. Sabata was jailed in Gerona, a prison that inmates who had sampled other detention centres used to describe as “homely”, due to its size. The cook said it was more like a hotel than a prison. Three or four months later, Sabata was released on licence. With a trial looming and in the expectation that he would be drafted for military service, he decided to go on the run. The outcome of the trial was uncertain, but he was convinced that now that he had done jail time for political reasons he had to tread carefully. Then again, he felt that there was no way that he could live under Franco’s mailed fist without getting involved in struggles and nothing good would come of any time spent in army barracks. He was no doubt bound for a punishment battalion.

That spring he crossed the border, legally, with a friend, Roger, with Toulouse as their destination. Although he was awaiting trial the Regime did not, then, put many obstacles in the way of such youngsters, irksome on account of their political aspirations, dropping out of sight. In Toulouse they were welcomed by CNT militants and spent a few weeks working on the union’s presses. They discovered a new world which until then was non-existent as far as they were concerned: a world that started when they crossed the Pyrenees and which appeared boundless. By the end of June they had moved on to Paris, making straight for the anarcho-syndicalist local at 33, Rue de Vignoles where they made the acquaintances of several other young people in a situation similar to their own, and to others who had gone on the run because of their political activities; Michel was one of them. They also became acquainted with the veteran libertarian militant Abel Paz who found them jobs in the factory where he worked. It was July by then and stand-ins were needed for holiday cover for the permanent work-force. It was at this point that the first confrontation with authoritarian communists occurred.

Sabata whose education began on the campuses in Barcelona had always seen the militants from that dogmatic faction as comrades on the barricades, but in Paris he realized they were capitalism’s emergency fire-blanket; the LIP strike erupted that month and the work-force occupied the factory. Youngsters recently arrived from Spain had no hesitation in showing solidarity with them and they daubed a number of plants with graffiti, Sabata’s factory being one. Bureaucrats from the French Marxist trade union central, the CGT, irked by ‘’wildcat’ activity, summoned them to a meeting to charge them with acting in a manner contrary to the national spirit and with having refused to sing the French national anthem on the national holiday, 14 July. They even accused them of being ‘plants’ sent in by the Spanish regime. After that the pressure in the workplace escalated with the union leaders threatening to make them pay the costs of repainting the entire plant. In the end, they were sacked by the trade unionists themselves who had enough power to decide who should work and who should not. However, these youngsters would not leave the factory and stood their ground: one day, in the factory canteen, a CGT activist dismissed one of the young girls from the group as a hippy whore and Sabata naturally leapt to her defence, igniting a brawl in the course of which chairs flew in all directions.

A couple of months after that, together with Michel and another coupe of comrades, they learned of the arrest in Barcelona of the young militants from the MIL and they decided to organize a support committee in Paris. First they met on premises belonging to Frente Libertario — a structure paralleling the Spanish Libertarian Movement in France — in the rue Saint Denis and later at the ORA (Organisation Révolutionnaire Anarchiste), and the CNT premises in the Rue des Vignoles. At one of the meetings, Eva an activist close to the MIL, and whom Sabata knew from the Barcelona campuses, turned up. The meeting was attended by Sebas and “Cri-Cri”, with whom they decided they should start collaborating. Some of his Parisian friends from the ORA had made contact with them in Toulouse and the possibility of joining the MIL had been raised prior to the September arrests. This collaboration drew them to Toulouse where they began planning their actions. It was while they were hatching their first action in Paris on 16 January 1974 that Michel was arrested, along with three French comrades, two of whom were freed shortly afterwards. Michel and “Cri-Cri” were jailed.

Sabata continued his university studies, having graduated at the start of the term, and when the students heard about the execution of Puig Antich, their fury exploded. They youngsters were up for anything and that same night two Spanish banks and the Spanish Welcome Centre in Paris were attacked with Molotov cocktails. They linked up with a range of libertarian groups and activists for the purpose of ensuring that the council of war pending against the other MIL members did not result in further death sentences. One of their regular rendezvous points was the bar Boule d’Or in the Rue St Michel, where lecturer Agustín García Calvo held his weekly tertulia. There was a mixture of exiles, young students, girls who had travelled up from the Peninsula for abortions and newcomers without documents looking to regularise their situation. In short, it was a place that was teeming, to the point where the bar owner banned the tertulias for a time. At the same time, one of the comrades living in a student hall of residence, moved heaven and earth to take over part of the hall where activists could hide out when they wanted to drop out of sight.

That May, as other comrades were kidnapping Baltasar Suárez in Paris, an action that launched GARI operations, one of the GARI groups — consisting of four or five activists, Sabata being one of them, travelled to Amsterdam where they mounted the first of a series of car bomb attacks on Spanish economic interests in Holland and Belgium, actions that were claimed in the name of the GAI. (The GARI was a network of groups who only claimed responsibility for operations in the name of GARI if they had the backing of all of the member groups; each group was free to operate autonomously claiming its own operations using any name it chose.) Those attacks came on the day Baltasar Suárez was released.

In July the GARI embarked upon a fresh phase marked by operations mounted at a frantic rate. On the 29th, following a bank robbery, one of the young French people — ‘Tonton’ — who had been detained on 16 January then freed after a few days was rearrested. “Tonton” would not get off so lightly this time. In the course of tough questioning over the ensuing days, the name “Zapata” (the French version of Sabata, being the Spanish version of his nickname) cropped up. After two months of unrelenting direct action, GARI disbanded, with each member going their own way, but a fortnight later there was a wave of arrests in Toulouse. Sabata’s turn (he was unaware the gendarmes were looking for him) came on 14 October as he left the trial of his friend, Michel. Those, like Benito, whom they could not link to any operation, were released, but in the course of raids on the apartments of these young people, they stumbled upon a French comrade, Jacques Lescouet, a draft dodger; he was taken to an army prison. Sabata spent five or six days in the care of the gendarmerie. Over the first three days he was tied and bound and brutally beaten by forces brought up from Toulouse for that purpose; on one occasion they beat him unconscious. From the fourth day on he was guarded by Paris police officers who stopped their colleagues from Languedoc from wreaking their private revenge. As we have seen before, in one of the GARI operations a Toulouse inspector had sustained an injury to his arm. Over that period Sabata was also questioned by police officers from Brussels and Amsterdam, but they were unable to charge him in connection with the initial operations claimed in the name of the GAI. He was committed to the Paris prison in Fresnes, charged with the hold-up that had led to the arrest of “Tonton”, a hold-up in which he had played no part.

In Fresnes he mounted a hunger-and-thirst strike to assert his innocence, but being unprepared for it, he gave up after seven days. A month and a half after he was arrested, another three GARI comrades were arrested with all the detained members of the network concentrated in the Paris prison system, all except for “Tonton”, who was in Toulouse, and Sabata. They declared a hunger strike with the intention of securing recognition as political prisoners. During the first few days, Sabata, isolated from his comrades, was none too closely watched. His lawyer was able to slip him the odd egg that he promptly swallowed, but self-discipline kicked in and he maintained the strike for 23 days, at the end of which the judge granted his demand. Eight months later he was moved to the St Michel prison in Toulouse, where he served a number of weeks before being released.

On release he made for Paris where he continued his studies whilst simultaneously severing any ties with armed struggle, although he still had a deep friendship with all the young people who risked their lives over the spring and summer of 1974. From Paris he commuted frequently to Perpignan to meet up with relations and friends who crossed the border to see him. On one such trip he bumped into some comrades from Gerona whom he escorted to the Librería Española where they bought some books that were banned in Spain. Days after that those friends reported to him that they had been stopped at the border where they had been lying in wait for them. They advised him to take care if he was visiting the Librería. In 1977 he finally returned to Catalonia where the only charge outstanding against him was for failing to report for military service; he wriggled out of that by passing himself off as epileptic.

For many years he shuttled between Catalonia and Paris, and at one point, in 1978, he was rearrested in Stockholm. He decided to set up a libertarian school and to raise the necessary funding was involved in the passing of international forged Citibank cheques (co-ordinated by Lucio Urtubia) in Sweden, where he had been arrested a year and a half earlier with his friend Michel on the very same grounds,

Among those involved in the operation were a few former social prisoners, one of whom, a member of the COPEL who was paired with him, was arrested in Stockholm. Sabata, who had changed his cheques without a hitch, returned to the hotel where they were staying to collect his passport for the flight home — where the police were waiting for him. He spent six months in solitary in Stockholm police cells and was later jailed for a further six months in the top security prison at Kumla.