The most spectacular escape in the history of ETA, and one of the most important in the history of Spain, occurred in one of the most complicated moments that the country has experienced in recent decades. Franco had died on November 20, 1975, filling the expected transition from dictatorship to democratic freedom with uncertainty. Everyone was aware that it was not going to be easy.
One of the most serious problems that Spain was going to have to face would be, without a doubt, that of terrorism, which contributed to creating additional tensions to those already existing due to its destabilizing capacity. Since the murder of José Antonio Pardines, a civil traffic guard who was fired five times by two ETA members at point-blank range in 1968, ETA had added 43 fatalities up to that time.
With the dictator gone, however, it soon became clear that the terrorist gang would continue to kill.
Proof of this is that the military branch of ETA quickly adopted a new organizational structure whose objective was to make its criminal activity even more effective when democracy arrived. They assumed that with the new regime the practice of terrorism would be much more difficult than it had already been during the dictatorship. The first post-Franco attack occurred on January 17, 1976. The terrorist group hid a bomb in an ikurriña placed on a farm in Ordizia, so that it would explode when a civil guard went to remove it, as it happened.
The detonation ended the life of Manuel Vergara Jiménez, who was 21 years old and was following the orders of his superiors. That year ETA murdered 17 people. In 1977, another 11, beginning the bloodiest period in the history of Basque terrorism, known as the ‘years of lead’. Of all that period, however, no event was so reviewed and commented on as the surprising escape from Segovia prison, on April 5, 1976, of no less than 29 prisoners. Of these, 24 belonged to ETA Militar and another five to the PCE, the Revolutionary Anti-Fascist and Patriotic Front (FRAP), the Catalan Liberation Front (FAC) and the Iberian Liberation Movement (MIL).
‘The most important escape since the Civil War’, assured ABC in its edition the following day, where it reported that “it had already been attempted on two previous occasions through underground galleries that the prisoners have made from inside the prison to the Exterior”. And he added: “The mass flight was prepared for several weeks and had the collaboration of people who acted from abroad.” The information in this newspaper was true, as confirmed later.
That same year the first contacts between the Government and the different branches of ETA had taken place. In them, the envoy of the split of the ‘milis’ to the meeting, José Manuel Pagoaga, alias ‘Peixoto’, with the then commander Ángel Ugarte, warned that they had nothing to talk about with the Spanish military and that «if they wanted to negotiate something, that they grant total amnesty and democratic freedoms and then ask for another interview». A very different attitude from the one taken by political-military ETA, which with the Transition decided to lay down its arms in exchange for pardons and penitentiary generosity.
According to Giovanni Giacopucci in
‘Political-military ETA: the other way’ (Txalaparta, 1997), the ‘milis’ accelerated the implementation of a new armed strategy with the aim of “aborting the attempt to open up and continue the Franco regime”, at a time when the arrests of terrorists were affecting their organization. The poli-milis, for their part, organized several actions against the State to divert its attention and launch the escape plan from Segovia, where the imprisoned ETA members were already ready to flee.
A priority objective
In recent times there had been some successful breakouts in Basauri and Loyola, although others had failed. This happened in the prisons of Iruñea, Zamora, Córdoba and Burgos and in the Garellano barracks. The one in Segovia, however, had become one of the priority objectives of political-military ETA, since the release of these prisoners to “rejoin the front” meant a demonstration not only of operational force, but also of politics, since it entailed re-enlist in its ranks militants who had been an important element in the internal political debate in previous years.
The work of organizing the escape was meticulous and was carried out, mainly, by the prisoners for a year before it took place. So much so that two of them, Txutxo Abrisketa and Traktorra, managed to go out into the street near the prison to find out, on the ground, the possible escape routes. According to the statements of both collected by Giacopucci in his book, they did it up to three times and in one of them they moved up to two kilometers away from the jail.
The Police, however, managed to infiltrate the group with a spy from the Central Documentation Service (Seced), Mikel Lejarza, alias ‘El Lobo’, who leaked the plans and documentation that the prisoners had to the authorities and disrupted the first Attempts. Still, they kept trying and opted to take advantage of the prison toilets, which prisoners had found out had double walls. From there they managed to dig a tunnel during six months of work, whose entrance they concealed with a cover made with the same tiles as the wall.
From Segovia to Navarre
The tunnel they built led to the sewer system of the city of Segovia. On April 5, 1976 they decided to jump in and try one more time. They managed to cover a section of 800 meters that reached an industrial estate where a command organized by Miren Amilibia was waiting for them. Once there, they hid in the trailer of a truck loaded with wood, in which they traveled to the Navarran town of Espinal, which was in the council of Erro, very close to the French border.
He had successfully carried out the most complicated part of his plan, while the government was desperately searching the outskirts of Segovia, as reported by ABC on April 6: “The public force has made a great deployment, even with reinforcements from the Armed Police of Valladolid. Members of the General Police Corps, Armed Police and Civil Guard have been called to reinforce the capture operation. There is strong protection from the Civil Government, as well as severe controls on all roads leaving the capital.
The terrorists had to breathe a little easier away from all that deployment, but it was right there when the plans began to go wrong. While they waited hidden in the small Navarrese town waiting for the contact that was going to help them cross the French border, crossing the Pyrenees forests on foot, the nerves among the escapees began to make an appearance. Apparently, a misunderstanding caused the guide not to show up at the agreed time.
“Rest spreads in Segovia”
“Unrest is spreading in Segovia, especially in the San José neighborhood, a popular suburban neighborhood very close to the prison, where surveillance movements are constantly taking place,” this newspaper reported. The Government expanded the search area and the desperate escapees decided to go into the mountains on their own, but a group of thirty people was not easy to hide, even if they walked in the middle of the night and with a dense fog over them. In the end, they were intercepted by the Civil Guard that was monitoring the area, which caused them to disperse and lose contact with each other.
During the exchange of shots that took place between the agents and the largest group of prisoners, the anarchist Oriol Solé Sugranyes, 28, died. At that time, 21 prisoners decided to surrender and surrender. In the following three days, three members of ETA were arrested who were unable to cross into France. The operation was directed by General Juan Atarés Peña, who took charge of two entire companies of the Police Corps and members of the Army from the Roncesvalles barracks. That put him in the crosshairs of the terrorist group, which assassinated him on December 23, 1985 with a shot to the neck. He was 67 years old and had four children.
Of the 29 prisoners who participated in the escape from the Segovia prison, only four managed to cross the border: Mikel Laskurain, Carles García Solé, Jesús María Muñoa and Koldo Aizpurua. In France they were also in search and capture. They were located on the island of Yeu, but also managed to escape. They were free for a year, until a general amnesty was decreed in Spain and they were able to return without fear of being imprisoned.
Another of the escapees who benefited from this measure was Angel Friend Quincoces, who had been a political-military ETA militant until he decided to lay down his arms in 1977. When he was released, he wrote a book about his experience on the run and helped director Imanol Uribe write the script for his famous film. The film was starring Basque actors like Ramón Barea and the late Alex Angulo.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism