The life of Francesc Sabaté Llopart, aka ‘El Quico’, reads like the story of an anarchist action film: participating in the Spanish Civil War, the anti-Nazi resistance in France and armed struggle against Franco, Sabaté carried out assassinations of fascists, illegal border crossings across the Pyrenees and armed robberies to fund the resistance.
In his excellent biography, Sabaté: Guerrilla Extraordinary, Antonio Tellez (himself a member of the anti-Franco guerrilla resistance), recounts some of Sabaté’s exploits from his youth until his death at the hands of a Francoist militia on the streets of Sant Celoni, Catalonia. In telling Sabaté’s story, Tellez also tells the stories of dozens of other anarchist guerrillas who might otherwise have been forgotten: people like Ramon Vila Capdevila aka ‘Caraquemada’ (‘Burnt face’), Jose Lluis Facerias aka 'Face' or Francisco Denis Diez aka 'Catala' as well as the tragic stories of Sabaté’s brothers, José and Manuel.
Named during his lifetime as ‘Public Enemy No. 1’ by the Franco regime, here are five examples taken from Tellez’s book of when Sabaté lived up to that reputation.
1. Robbing the rich to fund the resistance
With little more than a month since the end of World War Two, Sabaté was back in Barcelona establishing contacts and building the anti-Franco resistance. In order to fund the arms, vehicles, printing equipment and operational bases the groups would need, Sabaté carried out a series of robberies on wealthy Franco supporters in his hometown of Hospitalet de Llobregat, just outside Barcelona.
One was Manuel Garriga, who was tied up along with his wife, while Sabaté and two others stole 30,000 pesetas, two typewriters and two sacks of food. Before leaving Sabaté left a note which read:
We are not robbers, we are libertarian resistance fighters. What we have just taken will help in a small way to feed the orphaned and starving children of those anti-fascists who you and your kind have shot. We are people who have never and will never beg for what is ours. So long as we have the strength to do so we shall fight for the freedom of the Spanish working class. As for you, Garriga, although you are a murderer and a thief, we have spared you, because we as libertarians appreciate the value of human life, something which you never have, nor are likely to, understand.
Among the other targets was one of the leading fascists in Hospitalet, breaking into his house at 4am and making off with 25,000 pesetas, a sack of beans and a sack of potatoes.
In total, this round of expropriations gave resistance groups a start up capital of over 90,000 pesetas (worth between £50,000 and £80,000 in today’s money)
2. The attempted assassination of Eduardo Quintela, Barcelona Commissioner of Police
In February 1949, Sabaté’s group and another armed resistance group called ‘Los Maños’ collaborated to assassinate Eduardo Quintela, the Barcelona Commissioner of Police. The groups, doing their research, noticed Quintela left the Police Headquarters in Via Layetana to return to his home in the Calle La Vina, in the suburb of Guinardo, passing through the Calle Marina between 1.45 and 2.10 pm. This daily journey was made in his grey-coloured car, which carried the official insignia of his office. The groups hatched their plan: between the Calles Mallorca and Provenza on 2 March 1949, they would be waiting.
That morning, the ‘Los Maños’ group stole a Fiat to use in the assassination while Sabaté commandeered a truck before reconvening at a pre-arranged meeting point. As Tellez explains:
At 1.45pm they parked the truck in the Calle de Marina, about a hundred yards from the church of the Holy Family. One man sat in the driving seat and another, in blue overalls, inspected the engine with a preoccupied air. The mechanic who seemed so absorbed with his engine was in fact watching carefully from the corner of his eye a young man in a brown hat, who was strolling up and down the pavement fifty yards along the road. The man in the driver's cab was Jose, the other, in overalls, El Quico.
About 20 yards further up the street the other three comrades were sitting in the parked Fiat … with their Stenguns hidden from view, but ready to open fire at a moment's notice.
At 1.55 the man strolling on the pavement ostentatiously removed his hat. The grey car, so anxiously awaited, was approaching the comrades along the Calle de Marina. El Quico removed his machine gun from the open engine compartment and moved out into the middle of the road, balanced himself with his legs wide apart and opened fire on the approaching car. Riddled with machine-gun bullets, it screeched to a halt and two men jumped out in a vain attempt to escape. The Fiat drove forward and the occupants opened fire on the running men. Sabaté, with gun on hip, ran to the bullet-torn car to check the identity of the victims. Quintela was not there ! Despair was written across Sabaté's face—the carefully prepared attempt had failed.
Instead, the car contained two Falangist leaders: Manuel Pinol Ballester and Jose Tella Bavoy. The former, along with the chauffeur, was killed immediately; the latter, though wounded, was allowed to escape. Why it was that Quintela’s car (or one identical to it) drove down the same road, at the same time he usually drove down it, but without him in it, is something that remains a mystery to this day.
3. Sabaté did it on his name
Sabaté’s activities as an anti-Franco guerrilla soon gained him the kind of notoriety mentioned by Omar Little in The Wire: “When you doin' it as long as I have, you do it on your name.” Similarly, Sabaté’s infamy meant that often all he need say was “Soy el Quico!” (“I am el Quico”) for people to know who they were dealing with and act accordingly.
One such example came in the spring of 1955. Arriving in Barcelona on April 29 with four comrades, he and his group needed to equip themselves, for which they needed funds with Sabaté naturally wanting to procure such funds from a bank. Yet even to rob a bank, they needed funds in order to equip themselves to rob it!
Thus, to solve this problem, on 3 May 1955, Sabaté and a friend took a taxi to the Travesera de Gracia in Barcelona before entering a textile shop with a large shopping basket and asking for the manager. As Tellez recounts, “the moment the gentleman appeared [Sabaté] announced famous words - ‘Soy el Quico!’” Without hesitating, the manager handed over everything he had: 4,000 pesetas.
With this money, Sabaté’s group prepared themselves for a bank robbery in order to finance the activities of the Spanish Libertarian Movement. After arriving by taxi at the Banco de Vizcaya, one remained in cab while the other three (including Sabaté) entered the bank with a large vegetable basket, passing the two Policia Armada standing guard outside.
Once inside, the three produced their submachine-guns from the basket and told everyone to remain quiet. One of the group positioned himself in the hallway to keep an eye on the two unsuspecting guards outside, while another kept watch on everyone inside the bank, and the third went with the cashier to the safe. The cashier, frightened out of his life, helped to fill up the sack with 700,000 pesetas from the vaults. This done, they retreated to the doorway and told everyone to lie down, saying they would shoot without mercy the first one to show his face outside the bank. The three comrades then calmly proceeded to make a graceful exit—wishing the guards “good day” as they passed—and left in the waiting taxi.
Tellez then also tells of how,
Following this neat job the manager of the textile store received a Giro cheque for 4,000 pesetas, the amount he had ‘loaned’ Sabaté.
4. Sabaté the ingenious propagandist
Sabaté and his group had numerous ingenious ways of distributing anti-Franco leaflets and newspapers in Spain during the dictatorship. One method was to place dampened bundles of leaflets on the roofs of buses or trams and, when the vehicle drove off, the bundles would gradually dry and the leaflets blow off in the streets of Barcelona.
Another method involved a type of homemade mortar able to fire projectiles filled with propaganda over a distance of 200 yards. The charge would explode in mid-air and leaflets would be scattered over a large area.
On September 28 1955, this method of distribution was employed during one of Franco’s visits to Barcelona. Sabaté hired a taxi with a sun-roof and told the driver he was working for the Ministry of Information, distributing official leaflets in honour of the dictator. As they drove round Barcelona, Sabaté fired his leaflets from the taxi. People were soon extremely surprised to see that, rather than official propaganda, it was in fact thousands of subversive leaflets, written in both Spanish and Catalan, falling from the sky and signed as coming from the ‘Libertarian Movement - Committee of Relations’.
5. The life of Sabaté: an action film
The question about Sabaté’s life as an action film is, ultimately, not whether it would be good (it obviously would be), but who would play him: Bruce Willis? Too old. Mark Wahlberg? Too racist. Jason Statham? Maybe, but might be too shit.
One event typical of Sabaté’s actions took place during the Spring of 1955, as part of his work forming action groups in Barcelona. Sabaté arranged to meet the CNT’s Secretary of the Regional Committee of Catalonia in Calle Wad-Ras at 3pm. Shortly before the arranged time, Sabaté passed by in a taxi to check the area and noticed suspiciously large groups of ‘workers’ on both sides of the street. Asking the driver to park away from the rendezvous point, he decided to investigate and, reaching the corner of Calle de Luchana, he saw a truck full of police: he was in a carefully laid trap.
Before the police had noticed Sabaté, the Regional Secretary arrived and so Sabaté hailed him cordially as if nothing was wrong. While they walked to the taxi, Sabaté informed him of the trap. Once in the cab, Sabaté told the driver to drive off, opening his suitcase and pulling out a Sten gun which he used to smash the back window in order to be ready for any eventualities (much to the consternation of the driver, especially as it turned out to be unnecessary in the end!). Pulling up by the Hospital of Santa Cruz y San Pablo, Sabaté gets out of the taxi, Sten gun in hand waiting for the police van. As Tellez recounts:
When it came in range he ran out in the road and opened fire, smashing the windscreen. As the van screeched to a halt the driver fell slumped over the wheel and the police jumped out, throwing themselves flat on the ground. The taxi, which had brought Sabaté and the Secretary, drove off at high speed, preferring in the circumstances to ignore the fare on the meter! At this particularly crucial moment, El Quico discovered he had run out of ammunition magazines. He fired a few shots with his Colt to discourage pursuit, and was off before the police could pluck up the courage to give chase. At the first comer he threw himself against a wall, until he heard the sound of their running footsteps in his direction. Waiting until they were only a short distance away he ran out towards them with the submachine-gun on his hip as though he were about to mow them all down. At this unexpected appearance they turned and ran off the way they had come while he gained the necessary minutes to shake them off completely and make good his escape. He ran down a nearby street, stopped a passing car with his pistol and sitting beside the driver, told him to take the first left-hand tum, go round the block, and stop in front of the hospital where there was a taxi-rank. Having changed taxis a number of times he then considered it safe enough to return home. … Once again, almost incredibly, Sabaté had managed to cheat death.