Laureano Cerrada Santos, Germinal Esgleas and Federica Montseny Notes from ¡Pistoleros! The Chronicles of Farquhar McHarg. 4: 1920-1924

Laureano Cerrada Santos (1900-1976) © Sûreté Nationale

“The big man from Govan [Farquhar McHarg] harboured no illusions about the extent to which Cerrada’s activities straddled conflicting and seemingly irreconcilable worlds. On the one hand there was the Cerrada he had known and respected as a comrade and friend for over fifty years; on the other was this distinct ‘Mr Hyde’ personality, one whose nature and behaviour functioned on a completely different macroscopic level.

“Things had started going wrong for Cerrada in the autumn of 1949. Political tensions resulting from the trauma of defeat and the subsequent post-1939 power struggle within the emigré community, particularly among the members of the Executive Council of the Spanish Libertarian Movement (MLE) in exile(1) — aggravated by Cerrada’s clandestine activities and his compromising criminal connections made during and after the Nazi occupation — led, in 1950, to his expulsion from the CNT. His black market activities cost him many friends in the movement, or people he thought were friends but who turned out to be opportunistic acquaintances.

“At the time of his murder in October 1976, Cerrada was a supporter, albeit on the periphery, of the anarchist Grupos de Acción Revolucionario Internacional (GARI), the successors to the First of May action groups (1966-1972). Even after his expulsion and imprisonment in 1950, he continued in the role of ‘facilitator’ and as a ‘wise head’, someone the younger militants, the ‘Apaches’, could turn to for advice, moral solidarity and, when required, logistical and financial support.

“As for Cerrada’s business associates and ‘clients’, Farquhar was unable to identify anyone with a strong enough grudge against him, other than his old adversary Benicho Canuda and his associates in and around the CNT National Committee in Exile in the Rue de Belfort in Toulouse: Germinal Esgleas, José Borrás Cascarosa, Roque Santamaría, Federica Montseny and others. Cerrada’s ‘business partners’ may have been the venal riff-raff of the Parisian, Marseilles and Corsican milieu, a squalid collection of secret service types, Walter Mitty characters and chancers from the four corners of the globe, but their relationship with Cerrada seemed entirely professional, and without rancour. These were the connections he had built up during the latter days of the Spanish Civil War and the Nazi occupation of France when he, Farquhar and others were running escape and evasion lines across the Pyrenees, harassing the German army, the Gestapo and the Milice, and providing support in 1944 for the Allied armies who were fighting their way through France. The Nazi retreat and the Allied advance provided valuable opportunities for accumulating the much-needed matériel and funds with which to continue the armed struggle against Franco. Cerrada, always with an eye for the main chance, was never one to squander an opportunity.

“The longer Farquhar pondered the complicated bubble-charts Venn diagrams and mad arrows that covered an entire wall of the living room, the more he realised just how entangled, impenetrable and diverse were his friend’s business and friendship networks. It was a veritable Vershrankung. As Mark Twain said, somewhere: ‘Everyone is a moon, and has a dark side which he never shows to anybody, if he can help it.’ Cerrada certainly had his dark side, which was, only now, after his death becoming visible to Farquhar.

“Farquhar could identify the links between individuals and organisations and could see, albeit dimly, how each part might relate to the whole picture, but it was nigh on impossible to unravel the complexities linking Cerrada with his multifarious circle of acquaintances, or figure out what was and what was not relevant to his investigation. There were too many strands; too much confusion as to possible motive. Farquhar could only follow his intuition. Nowhere was there evidence that Cerrada’s murder and the attempt on his own life had anything to do with his ‘business connections’ with the French, British, Israeli or US special services. Of course one could never be 100 per cent certain, but a close reading of his friend’s documents indicated that neither they nor the gangsters of the milieu appeared to have anything to gain from his death — quite the contrary, in fact. As a middleman-cum-quartermaster he was too useful to everyone …”

NOTE (from ¡Pistoleros! 3: 1920-24′)

“…. Laureano Cerrada Santos was one of the few comrades who, in the aftermath of the Liberation, were committed both to direct action and to supporting Germinal Esgleas’s position vis-à-vis the National Committee of Juan Manuel Molina (‘Juanel’). It wasn’t because he liked Esgleas (husband of Federica Montseny]. He despised him, for promoting inertia and effectively paralysing the organisation, but for pragmatic logistical and selfish reasons it suited Cerrada’s purpose to maintain his connection with the official exile organisation in Toulouse.

“Cerrada was old school — anti-political and critical of the National Committee of the Interior’s decision to collaborate with the republican government in exile and the Alianza Nacional de Fuerzas Democraticos, the umbrella organisation that united most of the anti-Stalinist resistance: republicans, nationalists, socialists, anarchists and even the POUM — everyone that is except the Communist-led Union Nacional Española. Cerrada thought the CNT should go it alone and have nothing to do with the parliamentary parties, even though the Alianza was possibly the most effective instrument the disparate clandestine anti-fascist organisations had to continue the struggle against the regime.

“Esgleas detested Cerrada, but his greed and constant need for money sucked him irrevocably into the latter’s orbit. It was a marriage of convenience, each ignoring the other’s character flaws, at least in the short term. Cerrada provided the funds while Esgleas, as National Secretary, pulled the strings of the MLE in exile and manoeuvred to dominate the Organisation in Spain and bring it under his control.

“The relationship didn’t last long. Cerrada’s financial and material support for the guerrilla groups in Spain, along with his involvement in all sorts of illegal jiggery-pokery in France, were causing the émigrés serious problems with the French authorities. By late 1947 and early 1948, the onset of the cold war meant realpolitik had subordinated and subsumed the anti-fascist euphoria and solidarity that had predominated in France in the heady days of the Liberation, with all the café-bistro talk of sending tanks and armies over the Pyrenees to rid Europe of the last of the fascist dictators.

“By 1948, Spain had signed important trade and commercial deals with France, and with US support the Franco regime now had the diplomatic leverage it previously lacked. So, when Spain’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs complained to France about the increasing numbers of guerrilla incursions, the smuggling of war materiel and propaganda, and, more importantly, the millions of forged pesetas that were flooding the country from anarchist sources, i.e., Cerrada, the French authorities took matters seriously. Forged pesetas affected them too, probably more than anything else.

“Also, as the public face of the CNT in exile, the high-profile Montseny was the scapegoat. It was her name that appeared as the principal mover and shaker in all the communiqués between Madrid and Paris. According to the police reports from Madrid, she was the ‘director’ of a secret Toulouse-based ‘School of Terrorism’.

“If any one person was central to these activities, it was Cerrada, especially after acquiring the Bank of Spain’s high-denomination intaglio printing plates from anarchist partisans in Milan in 1945. He became obsessed with bankrupting the Franco regime, which was why Esgleas and Santamaria of the FAI went to such lengths to get the plates from him. Their masters in the French and Spanish special services leaned on them heavily, ordering them to get the plates back ‘or else!’

“Cerrada had to go. The problem was that Esgleas and Federica were too deeply compromised in their relationship with him, financially and morally, to exert any influence him. The reality was he terrified them, which was why Esgleas stood down as National Secretary in 1947 to allow José Peirats to take over and initiate the process of expelling Cerrada from the CNT, which they finally achieved on the grounds of ‘inadmissible and immoral methods’.

“Apart from questions of morality or the ethics of Cerrada’s illegal and clandestine activities, the Toulouse ‘notables’ were more concerned about the French police uncovering his complex criminal empire and implicating them in a conspiracy charge that would compromise the emigré organisation. Matters came to a head in 1950, when on ‘information received’, the French police arrested Cerrada for forging the new issue German Deutschmarks. During their investigations the police discovered that almost everyone in Toulouse’s Rue Belfort was on Cerrada’s payroll, and that he held substantial IOUs from Esgleas and Montseny. Interestingly, in the run up to his arrest, Cerrada had been proving such a nuisance to the Toulouse notables — and the authorities on both sides of the border — that Esgleas and Santamaria even discussed the possibility of having him murdered Organising his arrest was a much simpler solution.

“This was when the Francoist authorities were pressing not only for extraditions and the closure of the Spanish anarchist press in France — which they succeeded in doing for a time — they were also pressing the French authorities to expel all the emigrés from the border area, something the French authorities were seriously considering. A French Interior Ministry report in February 1951, commissioned in the wake of the Lyon postal van robbery, stated that all the Spaniards arrested on robbery charges in southern France were CNT members.

“By the time Cerrada was released from jail in the mid-1950s the cold war was in full swing and Esgleas’s faction had won the power struggle. The armed guerrilla campaign in Spain was effectively over. With most of the rank-and-file exiles demoralised and fearful of extradition, deportation or losing their residency rights, and intimidated by the severity of the crackdown on Spanish émigrés that followed in the wake of the January 1951 Lyon bank robbery, Esgleas and his cronies had had no problems convincing the membership that the CNT should break, definitively, with all clandestine actions and its links with the action groups — over 200 of whose members had been killed in incursions into Spain since 1944. Esgleas’s platform for re-election as National Secretary in 1952 was predicated on the argument of a ‘clean’ CNT dedicated exclusively to promoting union activity in Spain. By this time most of the exiles, influenced by Montseny’s sophistry and powerful personality, supported the Committee’s position. They didn’t want a debate, they just wanted the security of Esgleas’s dogma and orthodoxy, and to be rid of the troublesome ‘uncontrollables’.

“Eleven years of hardship, struggle, disorientation and frustration had passed since they had first been uprooted, torn from their villages, barris, cultural roots and traditions and forced into exile as displaced persons, with little or no prospect of ever returning home. Since then their lives had revolved around beach concentration camps, ration cards, agency numbers, Nansen passports — and the goodwill of their hosts. These people weren’t émigrés like Farquhar who made a conscious choice to leave his native land and travel the world, settling wherever the mood took him; they were immigrants, aliens — exiles in a strange land with all the insecurity and stigma that state of being, that mentality, entails. Even so, they were beginning to be accepted and were adjusting to life in their new homeland, putting down new roots, when their situation was suddenly thrown into jeopardy, in January 1951, when a group of Spanish anarchists, including Juan Català, a former member of the Durruti Column, the SIEP and one of Ponzán’s top passeurs, ambushed a post office van in Lyon, killing one person and injuring nine innocent bystanders in the process. The Spanish and rightwing French press had a field day demonising the entire Spanish republican diaspora with lurid stories about the criminal and murderous activities of ‘gangs of Spanish reds’ who were roaming the country exploiting French hospitality. It was a very unsettling event that many of the exiles were convinced placed them in serious jeopardy. Hence the increased hostility to the action groups and people like Cerrada and ‘Quico’ Sabaté.

“If Cerrada hadn’t been aware of Esgleas’s treacherous role before, he certainly was by the time he was released in the mid-1950s. While he was inside he learned from his lawyer that it was Esgleas who had betrayed him to Commissioner Tatareau, head of the French security service in the Eastern Pyrenees, regarding the existence and location of his clandestine printshop in the Tartas Monastery. After that Cerrada began collating whatever information he could glean about Esgleas and his wife.

“Montseny’s first stumble down the slippery slopes occurred in 1940 when she was arrested in German occupied Paris in possession of forged identity papers that had been supplied by Cerrada. In return for a Nazi laissez-passer back to safety in Vichy, where Esgleas had purchased the farm in the Dordogne, she bartered fourteen cases of highly sensitive SERE files (Servicio de Evacuación de Refugiados Españoles) in her possession. The pass had been arranged through her friend, André Berthon, a pro-Nazi lawyer who worked closely with the Greater Paris Kommandatur, and who had represented Nazi interests in France prior to the Occupation. Montseny later claimed the SERE files were burnt during a fire in her apartment,

“Apart from Barcelona police chief Eduardo Quintela, Bertrán y Musitu of the SIFNE also had his claws into Esgleas. Franco’s foreign intelligence chief had accessed Esgleas’s secret numbered bank accounts in Geneva, funds he had embezzled from the CNT, FAI, SAC and other pro-republican support organisations.

“The Vichy police eventually arrested Esgleas in late October 1941, but unlike many other prominent anarchist and republican exiles in a similar situation, he wasn’t extradited back to Spain to face a firing squad or the garrotte. Instead he received a relatively mild three-year jail sentence. The leniency shown to him probably had to do with the fact that he used his influence within the exile community to oppose collaboration with the Allies. He also openly denounced the resistance activities of comrades such as Francisco Ponzán Vidal, organiser of one of the most efficient Resistance escape and evasion lines. Notes in the French Justice Ministry archives acquired by Cerrada, show it was Franco’s ambassador in Paris, José Félix de Lequerica, who had intervened on Esgleas’s behalf.

“Ironically, Esgleas was sprung from of Nontron military prison 20 months later, in June 1943, by the very people he had denounced — and possibly betrayed — the Spanish autonomous guerrilla groups — in his case by maquisards led by Communist Emilio Álvarez Canossa. All the freed prisoners, including Esgleas, joined the maquis, but — surprise, surprise — he didn’t stay long. Within two months Esgleas was back home in Salon with Montseny, claiming illness and manoeuvring to reassert his authority over the CNT both in exile and in Spain. Soon afterwards, in November 1943, the entire Regional Committee of Catalonia was arrested. In fact, six National Committees fell in rapid succession after that. Was it a coincidence? We’ll probably never know.

“Montseny herself was arrested by the Vichy authorities in August 1941, on an extradition warrant alleging robbery and murder in Spain, but was released three months later, in November. Again, very strange when you consider the fate of other less prominent exiles, especially ex-ministers, in metropolitan France and French North Africa.”