Footnotes to History: “Operation Durruti”, First of May Group

 

On 24 October 1966 five members of the anarchist ‘First of May Group’1 were arrested in Madrid by the Francoist Brigada Político-Social and charged with preparing acts of terrorism. The action in question, ‘Operation Durruti’, involved the kidnapping of US Rear Admiral Norman Campbell Gillette, Jr., commander of US forces in Spain, but the plan was compromised and betrayed from the beginning by a sixth member of the group, police informer Inocencio Martínez, who was allowed to escape and return to France where he continued his treachery for some years.

The question who held jurisdiction over the five anarchists triggered a fierce turf war between Franco’s civilian and military legal authorities. Spain was, technically, still under military rule and until late 1963 every political dissident, no matter what their crime — from urban guerrilla, to striker, to freemason or possessor of illegal leaflets — was tried by councils of war, usually on charges of ‘military rebellion’ or ‘banditry and terrorism’. Councils of war doled out twenty- and thirty-year sentences as well as occasional death sentences as though there were no tomorrow. On the other hand, the new Public Order Tribunal (TOP) —created on 5 May 1963 after the furore caused by the execution of Communist Party member Julian Grimau, although the TOP didn’t become operational until December that same year — tried political offences in the civil courts as civilian crimes rather than as military rebellion. TOP sentences ran from two to six years and caused far less international outrage than those passed by the military tribunals.

The introduction of civil tribunals was part of the attempt to foist on the world the illusion that Franco’s Spain was moving towards a democratic and law-based society. The global indignation that followed the military execution of Grimau (20 April 1963) and the barbaric strangulations of Delgado and Granado (17 August 1963) had shaken the regime and forced the Francoist apparatus to change tack to avoid further international ostracism.On 8 December 1966, Octavio Alberola, lead coordinator of the First of May Group actions (and previously of Defensa Interior, responsible for the assassination attempts on Franco) flew to New York where he gave a press conference at which he confirmed that the group’s target had been Rear Admiral Norman Campbell Gillette, Commander-in-Chief of US forces in Spain.

London, 1962: Salvador Gurucharri, FIJL, and Octavio Alberola Surinach, FIJL-Defensa Interior-First of May Group

Copies of Alberola’s press statement denouncing the policies and injustices of the Francoist regime were sent to the Secretary-General of the UN, and to all the UN delegations. He also sent a letter to Franco’s ‘liberal’ Foreign Minister, Castiella, stating that unless the trial were seen to be fair, the First of May Group would launch a coordinated international campaign to further discredit the Franco regime.

Back in France in the wake of the New York press conference, and after meeting with the comrades from the FIJL Liaison Commission, Alberola and other members of the group set about planning a series of solidarity actions in London. In mid-March 1967 a woman comrade rented a house in London’s east end, after which four other comrades arrived from Paris and began shadowing Spanish Embassy staff members, particularly the ambassador’s secretary and the embassy’s legal attaché.

Press coverage of First of May Group machine-gunning of US Embassy in London, 20 August 1967.

In mid-April, the group’s lawyers in Madrid, Jaime Cortezo2 and Alfonso Sevilla, wrote saying they feared that the Public Order Tribunal was dragging its heels in trying Edo and his group, so it was decided to take pre-emptive3 action in London. On April 1, 1967, the London group forcibly detained, for about an hour, the ambassador’s secretary in his underground garage when he returned home. He was told not to alert the police, but to contact the ambassador, immediately, and tell him he would be hearing from the group shortly. Members of the group then went to the home of the legal attaché where they left a letter addressed to the ambassador, to be forwarded to the minister of Foreign Affairs, Fernando Maria Castiella. The letter urged the Regime to proceed quickly with the trial of the five anarchists and warned that, in the event of harsh sentences, the group would proceed to take an unspecified number of Franco’s diplomats hostage. The letter also reminded Castiella of the Stuart Christie case. Neither of the two actions made it into the press, and it was only in mid-1968, when reporting the arrest of a First of May Group in Valencia, that ABC mentioned these “intimidatory actions by the First of May Group”.4

A week later the Madrid Public Order Tribunal announced it would try the five anarchists.

Luis Andrés Edo and the others were finally tried by the Tribunal de Orden Publico (Case no. 314/66) on 4 July (American Independence Day) 1967. Edo, the leader of the group who had given a clandestine press conference in Madrid on May 1 1966, on the Rome kidnapping of Francoist ecclesiastical diplomat Mgr Marcos Ussia, was sentenced to three years for illegal association (membership of the FIJL), 6 years for illegal possession of weapons and a 25,000 peseta fine for using a false identity card. He was released in July 1972. All the others received sentences of three years and three months for illegal association and were released in September 1969.

 

Luis Andres Edo (1925-2009)
  1. Luis Andres Edo, former secretary of the FIJL in Paris; Jesus Andres Rodriguez Piney, sculptor; Alberto Herrera Dativo; Alicia Mur Sin; and Antonio Cañete Rodriguez, a member of the SCW action group ‘Niños de la Noche’
  2. The murdered body of Christian Democrat lawyer Jaime Cortezo Velázquez-Duro, lifelong antiFrancoist and longtime lawyer for the CNT-FIJL (Libertarian Youth), was discovered in the boot of his car in a Madrid street on 13 November 1991. His hands and feet had been bound and tied, and his throat cut.

3. It had to be pre-emptive becase the group was pressed for time and didn’t have the resources to rent another property for the kidnapping.

4. Soon after these actions in London — and on the first of May exactly, Octavio Alberola’s 72-year old father, José Alberola Navarro, a well-known and respected anarchist teacher and militant, was tortured and murdered in his Mexico City apartment.

 

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