Expropriation as a Weapon against Capitalism

Expropriation as a Weapon against Capitalism

Hello again readers. Here we are again, as ever, straining to meet our end-of-the-month deadline. Today I am going rogue and rather than talking about this or that group, or this or that individual, or this or that action, I have decided to probe a little deeper into the sort of operation that the guerrillas carried out, for good or ill. Thus I will be trying to explain, as best I can, their modus operandi, whether they claimed responsibility, what victims they sometimes left in their wake and the consequences they had for the libertarian movement. In short, there is much to cover so let us start right in.

In the case of anyone following this blog with any sort of regularity and even though they may not been too eagle-eyed about events in the area – as in my own case – they will have realized that whenever we start to talking about actions mounted by the various groups, be they rural or urban, their favourite was the hold-up, or expropriation, to borrow the jargon used in libertarian circles. The reasons behind these relentless hold-ups are pretty clear. First of all, there was the cash factor: in the capitalist world in which it has fallen to us to live, cash is necessary. Cash for buying food, obtaining medicines or information and rendering the lives of prisoners and their families a little less hard (back in the 1940s and 1950s, there were, unfortunately, all too many of these). And since, for a little cash, a judge could be induced to pass a lighter rather than a heavier sentence, or some border guard to pop out for a quick coffee at the right moment, or the duty police officer to look aside, all of this – like it or not – took money. And since this entry finds me immersed in book launches for my book on Manolo Huet*, then I cannot resist offering you his view of the matter: “And in the summer of 1944 in the wake of the liberation of France, our people were slow to realize that if we were to carry on the fight to some effect, we needed a lot of resources to which, lawfully at any rate, an organization like ours had no access. ‘Poor but honest’ was a thing of the past. Or did they imagine that the revolution could be made on the back of membership dues?” This is not going to be the last time that we run into Huet in this entry as his many years as an activist anarchist and the many hold-ups he carried out ensure that we do.   

Getting back to the libertarian action groups and focussing on the ones coming down from France, it needs saying that the MLE (Spanish Libertarian Movement) could furnish them with suitable weapons and phoney papers, but when it came to stumping up money, fat chance. So, as a rule, on arrival in Barcelona, they generally had to carry out expropriations as whatever cash they had brought with them was being swiftly eaten up. And then what? Well, their presence in the city was reported and the police set to work and swallowed the bait.

Speaking of the rural groups, they were up in most of the mountainous areas around Spain, over three fourths of the country. Money was needed to pay those who acted as support and contacts, cash to support them, cash for their families which were ground down by the Francoists for having connections in the hills. Cash for when people had reached the end of their tether and had to try and escape from the enormous rat-trap that was the Francoist state. Which brings us back to hold-ups again, to expropriation, to planned kidnappings, revolutionary taxes (which were not an invention of ETA’s). Cash.

Somewhere else where, in the libertarian community at least, received part of the proceeds of the expropriations was the anarchist press. Usually it operated at a loss, but that did not make it any less significant. Wherever there was a single libertarian, there was a bulletin; where there were two or three this might develop into a newspaper and, if more than five were involved, there was the afore-mentioned newspaper, plus one for the dissidents. So, after all this publishing effort, we do not query the Falangists and the bankers and the business world making their contributions, meaning, stumping up some money and if they would not do so willingly, then they did it at the point of a gun.

And just to finish off with the reasons behind all those hold-ups, we also have to add that they were designed simply to breach the peace that Franco boasted about so much. One hold-up was a concern, generating tension in the authorities and their lapdogs and stirring things up.

On now to the ‘modus operandi’, to the preparations for and carrying out of the hold-ups themselves. Let us start with the fact that there were lots and lots of the libertarian action groups, so there was a spectrum of ‘professionalism’. The same hold-up might be a success or a failure depending on who laid the groundwork and above all, how much time had been invested in the planning. Added to which there were all the imponderables, meaning the element of chance. But since fate alone determines that, I will not go there.

One of the renowned libertarian hold-up merchants, none other than Juan García Oliver, spelled this out in 1934 in a text forwarded to the Confederal Defence Cadres, multi-disciplinary bodies available for the protection of a meeting or demonstration, or for the carrying out of expropriations or other offensive actions, or, when they all worked together, the thwarting of an army uprising, as in July 1936. Oliver stated: “The core group had to be small, no more than six members, so as to boost its clandestinity and agility. Each group would operate as an information-gathering and fighting unit. Whether held in reserve or active, they were assigned a theatre of action to which they had to stick and from which they should not depart without express notification.” Plainly that was before the civil war when every barrio had one or several defence groups or committees. “First there was the delegate whose role was to liaise with other groups as well as setting up new ones. Second, there was the intelligence-gatherer. Third there was the intelligence analyst. Fourth, once that intelligence had been screened, there was the one who picked the targets, working out escape routes, safe houses, etc. The fifth member concerned himself with public services, lighting, water, gas, etc., which to exploit, which to sabotage, identifying weak points, etc. And the last member was in charge of tracing and planning the acquisition of weapons for the group as well as the manufacture of war materials …” chemicals and such. Albeit that by the time the guerrilla war arrived, all of this was left behind. But certain things had not changed; the operation had to be planned, a feasible target selected, one that would net proceeds worthy of the risks being run and they had to be clear as to how many people would be at the target and their positions there, the numbers of guards and, if they carried any, what weapons they had. They needed a rough idea of how long they had to get in, grab as much as they could and take off on foot and to try to keep the time to a minimum, whether or not the alarm would be raised. Normally they picked pay-days where the target was a business and they also picked pharmacies, shops or lottery kiosks, as most of these were run by persons in good odour with the Franco regime.

Having examined the raid and picked the target, a taxi would be hijacked and the driver dumped out in some remote location; usually he was told where his cab might be recovered the next day and went and collected it. The driver stayed in the car with the engine running, as close as possible without attracting attention. Depending on the number of the raiders, someone else from the group would keep a lookout and provide back-up from outside. Finally, the raiders would split up the tasks of keeping an eye on the staff and grabbing the cash. With weapons on display, the odd threat and the effect of being in control, all of these made the job go easier. Then came a gentle getaway car and once out of the danger zone the car could be dumped where agreed with the taxi driver, assuming that all had gone off smoothly.

As you might imagine, petty robberies or those carried out in rural areas were unconnected, each of them being self-contained, depending on the group raiding or the target expropriated, be it a farmhouse, a village store, some horse-owner or whatever the case might be. A lot of groups went in wearing masks, others did not. Some were trigger-happy, others less so. They almost all picked prominent or wealthy right-wingers, but unfortunately this was not always the case. Sometimes they used “moles” who might be folk working in the businesses or locations raided, as they might be able to provide intelligence, leave a door or window open or whatever. In most cases these “moles” were uncovered and arrested. Throughout the state there were several groups that politicized their hold-ups ensuring that they raised their profiles. Quico Sabaté may well be the best known such raider. “We are not robbers, we are libertarian resisters. What we take will be used to feed the children of the antifascists they have shot, as they have been left high and dry and are going hungry. We have not given ground and nor will we and we will carry on fighting for freedom while there is breath in our body.” That comes from a note left behind after one of his hold-ups. 

As for the state, from 1945 onwards it had a clear idea that the political content of the guerrilla war had to be silenced and so it forbade the media and its own forces from referring to the rebels as anything other than “bandits” or “robbers”. Francoism had a very clear notion of what its interests were.

We come now to a thorny issue. The victims in the hold-ups. The fact is that when you go armed, waving it around and using it to threaten, most people just comply. But there are those – fewer in number, granted – who will not play ball. Besides, if all of this is happening in the aftermath of a war, or a couple of wars, with a fraction of the population living in terror, and another fraction brutalized, then unfortunately a fairly long list of hold-ups and expropriations ended up in bloodshed. A fairly long list of Falangists, landowners and other right-wingers, faced with the point of a gun and demands for money, lost their tempers and attacked their assailants. Usually, the upshot was as might have been expected in such a situation; they came to blows and the raider became nervous or the struggle did not go well, a shot rang out and the intended target wound up wounded or, worse, dead.

It is equally the case that when the police and Civil Guards showed up at some raid, they always shot first and always pinned the fatalities on the other side. Seven civilians wounded in a shoot-out between police and the bandits? Well, as it so happened, the other side were poor shots although if this were to happen these days the outcome would be the same. That is just a fact of life. Nor are we going to deny that within the ranks of the expropriators there were people who were also brutish and thirsting for revenge, although on other occasions it was sheer bad luck and on the occasions when the shoot-outs went pear-shaped it did a lot more harm to the organization than any benefit that the stolen proceeds might have represented.  One example of a hold-up that blew up in the MLE’s face was the notorious hold-up in Lyon in 1951. After a failed raid on a post office van, the outcome was disastrous. Two police officers and a pedestrian were killed, another officer was seriously wounded and nine more pedestrians were wounded. Once it was found out that Spanish anarchists had been behind it, there was a brutal crackdown on them in France, with hundreds arrested, many being ferociously tortured, with the potential for a ban on the CNT in France looming larger than ever.  The MLE’s support for the action groups in France as well as within Spain all but evaporated after that. 

With regard to the impact of some of the hold-ups on the libertarian movement, there were times in Barcelona, especially in 1940s Barcelona, when personnel from the action groups held down organizational posts, especially within the CNT. The arrest of activists was accompanied by the arrests of trade unionists. Not only that, but many a time the groups coming down from the exile community would, after an operation, retreat to the relative safety of France, but the police unleashed in the wake of hold-ups and sabotage attacks, did not stand down just because the guerrillas might have left. The mass arrests and torture sometimes triggered by the guerrilla groups but visited upon couriers and trade union organization within Spain proper, represent another thorny issue. 

Being reluctant to close this entry with civilian deaths and a bad taste in my mouth, I leave you here with an account of one that went pretty well.

Laureano Cerrada was in need of cash so he set about planning a raid in France that would boost his finances. He looked into the matter, picked his target, worked out how the cash would be removed and selected his personnel, putting Manuel Huet in charge. And the target he chose? A Crédit Lyonnais cash van. 

As far as possible, they relied upon militants who were not living in the targeted area to avoid their being identified by locals and, besides, after the raid they could melt back into “normal” life without mishap. Once “el Murciano” (Huet) received the commission, he hotfooted it up to Paris and had a meeting with Cerrada. According to Huet, Cerrada had a well worked-out plan but even so, he asked to be given a week to check everything out. And then, after a week, there was another meeting between them.

Cerrada: ‘Everything check out?’

Huet: ‘Look, I’m going to need three rather than two cars, two for the robbery and another to wait for me, with just the driver on board, in an adjacent street. And once the bags have been loaded up, the driver of the third car will depart with the comrades and I, on my own, will take over so that no one but I will know where we have taken the cash. I’m going to need six men rather than four. And you’ll have to furnish me not just with six sub-machineguns, but an equal number of tear-gas grenades. Ok? Afterwards we will divvy up, 75% for the organization and the remaining 25% for us.’

Cerrada: ‘The organization customarily keeps 90%.’

Huet: ‘That was back in Spain. We have a lot more outlay here. The comrades need to be given enough money for them to leave Paris as quickly as they can and try and rebuild their lives however they may.’

Cerrada: ‘Listen … and might we know the reason for so many cars, so many personnel and all the weaponry?’

Huet: ‘Very simple, Cerrada. I mean to plan this raid so as to make a real impression on people and so that not a single shot gets fired. I want this hold-up to be plain sailing throughout.’

Huet dropped the comrade chosen as the getaway driver from the operation, reckoning that he was too nervous and then ruled out another two more. They were all appropriately recompensed. The remainder he warned: “This matter has been planned down to the last detail so that it goes off smoothly. Anybody who mucks it up will have me to reckon with and you should know that I do not take such matters lightly. So if there any anyone among you who does not want to take part in the hold-up, he still has time to pull out.”

The raid went off perfectly. Once the target vehicle arrived, the two guards in the cab, the driver and his companion were neutralized and the same was done with the ones in the back once the doors were opened. Two men transferred the bags to the cars parked across the street, all done very calmly, with no raised voices. It was all over in three minutes. Later they switched cars and Huet made off in the last car with the cash. Cerrada used part of the proceeds of this raid to buy the Norecrin light airplane that was used in the attempt to assassinate Franco in San Sebastián in 1948 during the yachting regatta in San Sebastián Bay.

And I cannot close without citing what we have been uncovering as we go, the contribution of the women.  Over the course of some guerrilla commemorative events in the Empordá, a more than well-deserved tribute was paid to Joaquina Dorada. Although she might have been able to regale us with so many stories, she always said “the time is not yet right for talking” and in the end she passed away, taking all her memories with her. Luckily one of the female comrades involved in the commemorations knew her quite well and told us how, from time to time, Joaquina, on seeing one of her girlfriends fallen upon hard times, would fly off the handle. She would then storm off to fetch her “iron” and pop out for a while. When she returned, whatever she had been able to get hold of wound up in the hands of her needy friend. 

Goodbye, comrades. 

Source: El Salto, 31 October 2023 https://www.elsaltodiario.com/ni-cautivos-ni-desarmados/expropiacion-herramienta-libertaria-capital 

*Imanol, El Angulo muerto: Manuel Huet y la clandestinidad libertarian en Francia (Piedra Papel Libros, 2023)

[Image: Manuel Huet “el Murciano” in 1944. (Imanol)]

Translated by: Paul Sharkey.