One Episode in the Libertarian Movement’s Struggle against Francoism : The “First of May Group” and the kidnapping in Rome of Monsignor Marcos Ussia, the ecclesiastical attaché at Spain’s embassy to the Vatican (Friday 29 April 1966 – Wednesday 11 May 1966)

At the 3rd Congress of the Local Federations of the Spanish CNT in Exile, held in the latter part of October 1963 in Toulouse (France) the agency called Defensa Interior (DI) which had been launched at the 2nd Intercontinental Congress of the CNT held in Limoges in August-September 1971 to breath new life into the struggle against the Franco regime was finally wound up. With the DI now gone, on to the scene came the First of May Group, which came to be the armed wing of the Iberian Libertarian Youth Federation (FIJL), which had been proscribed by the French authorities in a decree published in the Journal Officiel de la République Francaise on 20 October 1963. The story we tell below covers one of the operations carried out by that Group, whose activities continued into 1974. It ought to be remarked that the “terrorist” activity of the First of May Group was at all times characterised by a scrupulous respect for human life.

For several days, the movements of Monsignor Marcos Ussia, the ecclesiastical counsellor with the Spanish Embassy to the Vatican, had been under surveillance: he always left the Spanish Embassy in the Piazza di Spagna at around the same time, to travel by car to the Spanish College at No 151, Via Giulia, where the prelate had his lodgings.

On Friday 29 April 1966, as usual, but a little behind schedule, Monsignor Ussia set off on the same rout. As he crossed the Via Farnesi, a narrow, poorly-lit street in old Rome about 200 metres from the Spanish College, he was obliged to stop his car: another vehicle was blocking the roadway and he could see someone stretched out on the ground. It was doubtless a traffic accident.

A man emerged from the car causing the obstruction to help the casualty, and the prelate did likewise without even switching off his engine. As he approached the supposed victim, the latter stood up, whilst the other gentleman who had come over, assisted by a third, pinioned him and escorted him to the car which had barred his path. They placed some goggles on him, blinding him completely and roared away from the scene.

The three men wore caps pulled well down over their eyes and their faces were hidden by kerchiefs tied at the back of the neck. They drove for nearly three quarters of an hour before stopping. Helped by two of the abductors, they got him out of the car and up some steps into a house. Then they removed the goggles and he saw that he was in a modest room containing a bed, a wardrobe, a table and two chairs. They gave him a pair of pyjamas by way of a change of clothing and took away his priestly garments.

During the day the three men took turns to keep watch on him, never leaving him on his own, and by night, two of them stayed with him. At no time was he able to see the faces of his kidnappers, for they never removed their masks. According to what Monsignor Ussia said after his release, two of them were very talkative, speaking Spanish in an accent similar to his own, which is to say, with a Basque accent. Whereas the third never uttered a word, which led him to think that he must have been dumb.

From the outset the kidnappers made it their business to set their captive at ease, telling him that they would not harm a hair on his head: that they had been forced to kidnap him despite their repugnance at being forced to take such action, because the position in Spain for anti-Francoists was worsening by the minute: the jails were full of political prisoners and they, who were at large, had a duty to do something to defend those of their brethren suffering under the dictatorship. They even read to him the communiqués that they had drafted as the “First of May Group” and which had been released to the newspapers and press agencies. They allowed him to write to his sister to reassure her and they advised him to write also to ambassador Antonio Garrigues to brief him on the reasons why he had been kidnapped and the conditions upon which he might be freed.

At 10.00 pm on 29 April, the Carabinieri were informed that a Peugeot with the licence number CD2811 was parked in the Via del Farnesi with engine running, headlights on and door open, blocking the street. The priest’s car was immediately identified and inquiries into his disappearance were promptly launched.

From his place of captivity Monsignor Ussia wrote two letters to family and another two to the ambassador were dictated to him. According to what he admitted after his release, the soothing words of his captors had not convinced him and he was sure that he would never again see the light of day, in that the conditions being asked by the anti-Francoists were unacceptable. The objective of getting the Pope to lobby Franco to release prisoners was puerile and the intention of forcing Franco to bow to their demands by means of this kidnapping was even more ridiculous.

On Saturday 30 April the Italian evening newspapers reported the mysterious disappearance of the ecclesiastical counsellor at the Spanish Embassy in Rome and the next day this was front page news in every newspaper once it was confirmed that he had been abducted by a Spanish anarchist commando which was demanding to trade him for the release of all political prisoners in Spain.

Luis Andres Edo, a militant of the FIJL, made the following statement relative to the kidnapping of Monsignor Ussia to the Agence France-Presse in Madrid on Sunday 1 May:

“The desperate efforts to which the regime has been reduced to find an alternative to the undeniable and runaway decomposition evident within its ranks, to which must be added the aggravating circumstance of Franco’s physical disability, which of itself inevitably poses the problem of succession, along with the deterioration of the situation in every one of the spheres of activity in the country (…)

The Libertarian Movement DECLARES:

“That the holding of the Spanish Embassy to the Holy See’s ecclesiastical counsellor, Monsignor Marcos Ussia, is a plain and definitive expression of the stance of libertarian militants vis a vis the dictatorship (…)

“And DEMANDS: the immediate release of all political and social prisoners by way of a ransom for the release of Monsignor Ussia, the physical integrity and personal safety of whom are scrupulously guaranteed.

PROCLAIMS: Its solidarity with the conscious elements of the nation, the workers, students and intellectuals who, on the street, in the university and in he factory, are, under the impact of dynamic direct action, hastening the downfall of the dictatorship (…)

“The Libertarian Movement, cognisant of the historic times in which the country finds itself, reaffirms its confidence in the popular action that is daily, with the commitment of upcoming generations, less and less disposed to go on tolerating the ignominy and arbitrariness of the moribund Francoist regime.

Madrid 1 May 1966”

On Monday 2 May and Tuesday 3 May, Monsignor Ussia’s case remained hot news, with the statement by Luis Andres Edo in Madrid and a letter that the kidnappers sent to the Italian Socialist Party newspaper Avanti. The letter sent to the paper stated:

“We are a group of Spanish anarchists who have found ourselves obliged to resort to this sort of action to get the Spanish ambassador to the Holy See to sue the Pope to publicly press General Franco’s government to release all the Spanish democrats (workers, intellectuals and young students) sentenced to lengthy terms in the prisons of the Francoist dictatorship which, almost 30 years ago, was embodied in Hitler and Mussolini.

Our goal is to secure just such a declaration so that the dictatorship may be obliged to heed the Church’s petitions and that jailed Spanish democrats may recover their freedom as all European democrats wish.”

The statement added that Monsignor Ussia’s physical well-being and personal safety would be scrupulously maintained and that he would be released just as soon as their aims had been achieved.

The world press expended a lot of paper and ink on Monsignor Ussia’s case and the Spanish press did not lag behind in this, although the latter misrepresented the story, in that it declined to reprint either Luis Andres Edo’s statement in full or the letter to Avanti.

By contrast, the AFP correspondent who jotted down Edo’s statement was arrested and interrogated by the police for several hours.

The Italian police deployed an enormous range of resources to uncover Monsignor Ussia’s whereabouts, but all to no avail.

After 12 days of fruitless inquiries, the Italian press was informed that the hostage was due to be freed, as indicated in a communiqué they had from the First of May Group:

“Effectively our action was designed to grab the attention to the Pope, as the supreme authority in the Church, and to get him to issue a public statement calling upon the Spanish government to free Spanish political prisoners. To that end we decided to kidnap Monsignor Ussia rather than Señor Garrigues.

“When the news broke in the press and on radio, our comrades in Madrid decided that the primary goal was no longer attainable in that the Pope would not succumb to public bullying. From that moment on there was no option left but to expose the dramatic situation of the Spanish antifascists held in the jails of the Francoist dictatorship, confronting the Pope and the Church with a matter of conscience at the very time when the Francoist repression is brutally targeting Catholic workers and students and even priests.

“By way of a demonstration of our profound regard for freedom – our own and that of others – we are going to honour our first commitment by returning Monsignor Ussia to his normal life, trusting that the present Spanish government – so emphatic in its pretensions to being a Christian government – will very shortly demonstrate on its own part its own conscience and desire for peace by affording freedom to the Spanish democrats currently denied it.

We state that we have done our duty of solidarity and that, if we resorted to a method which has hitherto been repugnant to us, it was because we were forced to do so by the arrogance and cowardice of Spanish fascism which has never offered any response to the proposals we have put to have political prisoners released.

“We state too that we are sure that we are fighting in a just cause and that our conduct with regard to Monsignor Ussia will have shown that we anarchists are more respectful of man than those who, hiding behind the overwhelming machinery of a police state, vent their spleen on defenceless victims.

“And to prove that from the outset we have been speaking the truth just as we declared it publicly and to Monsignor Ussia, let it be known that he will be released on Wednesday.

Freedom for political prisoners!

Freedom for the Spanish people!

Down with the dictatorship!

The First of May Group (Sacco-Vanzetti).”

That communiqué was accompanied by another which stated:

“The First of May Group (Sacco-Vanzetti) is part of the action groups of the Iberian Federation of Libertarian Youth (FIJL)

“Signed in Madrid and stamped by the FIJL ”Peninsular Committee”

The kidnappers even announced that the release would come at 7.30 pm on 11 May in one of the great public parks in Rome.

Neither the police nor the press believed that the prelate’s release would take place as announced: it was obvious that the reference to a public park in Rome was a ruse designed to mislead the police while they released him elsewhere, without needless risk, as was indeed the case.

Monsignor Marcis Ussia was freed as promised at 6.30 am on 11 May 1966. Five hours later he gave a press conference in the function room of the Spanish Embassy and explained the circumstances attending his release.

His kidnappers had woken him at 4.00 am, giving him an ordinary grey suit and a straw hat and had put the welding goggles on him again: they walked him to a car and after a journey of half an hour they had pulled up, handed him a parcel containing his soutane and ID documents and told him to budge not turn his head until they were out of sight.

When the priest looked around him he recognised the place: he recalled that he had been there once before to attend the inauguration of the new Vatican Radio transmitter at Santa Maria. He saw from a road sign that he was in fact 4 kilometres outside of Bracciano, or 8 kilometres from the transmitter. In Bracciano he caught the bus into Rome and dismounted outside Vatican Radio. He told the policeman on guard duty: “I am Monsignor Ussia. They freed me an hour ago. Kindly call the Embassy while I rest for a moment.” This was at 7.00 am. Within minutes the news of his release had reached the embassy, the operations centre of the forces which had been searching tirelessly for him for the past 13 days, the Vatican Secretary of the State and the news agencies.

Half an hour later the ambassador Antonio Garrigues ventured out to meet him, along with all the Carabinieri officers who had been involved in the investigations. Monsignor Ussia quit Vatican Radio at around 8.30 and it took only a couple of hours rest before he was ready to face the press who were keen to hear his own version of his adventures.

Flash bulbs popped at the press conference and the reporters fought with one another to put their questions: How did the abduction take place? – Where was he driven? – Who in fact were his kidnappers? – Was his letter and one from the mysterious First of May Group sent to the Spanish ambassador, to Osservatore Romano, to the news agencies and dailies genuine? – How had they treated him?

Calmly and with a shadow of a smile, the freshly shaven priest replied to all of their queries.

We have already outlined the circumstances surrounding the abduction. The cleric confirmed these in every particular. As to where he had been taken, he explained that during his days in captivity he had tried everything to discover where they were. Had it been some farmhouse, barn or outhouse – Monsignor Ussia reasoned – he would doubtless have been able to make out the sounds characteristic of that sort of building: hens clucking, the braying of a donkey, farmers’ voices… but there was only silence. Except that from time to time he could hear a car engine. So was it some remote bourgeois country villa? Monsignor Ussia stated that he had only a few seconds to concentrate because, all day long, his captors played a transistor radio very loudly, tuning into stations playing light music. The only window not shuttered – the ones in his room were shut at all times – was a little one in the lavatory but a fig tree planted up against the wall blocked the view. He also stated that he had not heard the cannon fired at noon each day on the Giancolo hill, nor the siren that did likewise in Rome, even though both could be plainly heard right around the city, so it was obvious that his hiding-place had been well outside Rome.

All these clues, vague though they assuredly were, were of no use in further inquiries.

Then again Monsignor Ussia did state that he had been treated well, that the food had been, if not good, acceptable, basically soup and tinned fare. They had also given him some fruit and mozzarella cheese. He said that at no time had he seen guns in his kidnappers’ hands although they had told him that they had pistols.

The chief feature of this kidnapping was that although it was mounted in Italy not a single Italian was involved. Both the preparation and effecting of it were down to the First of May Group.

From: Polémica No 57, April-June 1995. Translated by: Paul Sharkey.