A deadly legacy
Posted on October 19th, 2016
The Massacre of Atocha took place on 24th January 1977 at 55 Atocha Street, in central Madrid.
General Francisco Franco had died fourteen months before, ending 35 years of fascist dictatorship. Spain thus entered a struggle for democracy known as La Transición. Franco had nominated King Juan Carlos I as his successor to continue his legacy, but Carlos, a quiet follower of El Caudillo during his final six years of power, soon began the transition to a constitutional monarchy. If La Transición to democracy was to be successful it required extremists from both sides to abstain from violence. Some did not.
Haunted by the spectre of the Civil War (1936-39), Spain remained split between right-wing Francoists championed by the military and the Republican left, ever suspicious of a dictator-appointed king. Hostile to the direction Spain was taking, far-right Falangist-Carlist-Catholic groups commenced violent attacks. Principal targets were the trades unions, along with underground communists.
On that day in January 1977 three assassins entered the offices at 55 Atocha Street, looking for Joaquin Navarro, a communist leader who had called for a strike against the “Franco mafia” and the government-approved trades union. Unable to find Navarro, the gunmen lined up eight trades union lawyers and shot them all, killing five. Their funerals were attended by over 100,000 people and the massacre led to the legalisation of the Communist Party in April 1977.
Confident they would enjoy political protection, the killers did not even bother to flee Madrid. One of the three, Fernando Lerdo de Tejada, was personal secretary to Blas Piñar, leader of the far-right Catholic-Falangist party Fuerza Neva, or New Force. The murderers were sentenced to a collective 464 years in prison. Lerdo de Tejada escaped from prison two years later, fuelling suspicions that he had friends in high places, particularly the security services. Revelations from former Italian Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti also suggested the involvement of Italian Carlo Cicuttini from the NATO Gladio anti-communist network who had fled to Spain following a 1972 bombing in Italy.
The violent legacy of Franco eventually subsided, but not before a failed coup attempt on 23rd February 1981 led by Lieutenant-Colonel of the Guardia Civil Antonio Tejero, an admirer of Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet. Tejero’s son later described his father as “a sincere religious man who was trying to do his best for Spain”.