The political context prevents the resignification of the saldy famous police station, uncomfortable memory and the last big symbol of the francoist repression in Barcelona
“Inside a cupboard of Polo’s office there were all kinds of truncheons, they chose a different one each day for the regular beating, especially for the ones without identification in the party’s responsibilities. The interrogations were done at dawn, with the silent corridors and with complete impunity. Frequently the armed police, who watched over us in the basement, had to take us completely wrecked”. This is the testimony of Sebastià Piera, survivor of the Civil War, Hitler and the Russian steppe, and also of the 1947 interrogation by the Social-Political Brigade (BPS) at the Police Headquarters of Via Laietana during the fall of the eighty. He saved his neck, but facial paralysis would remind him all his life he was close to dying.
It is impossible to know how many people passed through this nightmare. Without the police documentation, guarded and protected at the archives of the Ministry of Interior or, even worse, burnt during the Transition by orders of the then minister Rodolfo Martín Villa, any quantification is just a conjecture. However, there were thousands of men and women of any ideology and social profile of the francoist opposition who were brutally repressed there. Communists, anarchists, socialists, Catalanists, students, workers, and even liberal intellectuals and professionals tasted, more or less rudely, the methods used by Social. From top clandestine leaders to grassroots activists, police crackdowns were common to the majority. Paradoxically, entering prison after passing through the Headquarters was a liberation.
December 1970, almost a quarter of a century later, and the exact same story is still being told: “They wouldn’t let you sleep. They threatened to shoot you with a gun. The black belly fruit hits, which causes you terrible pain. All kinds of harassment, kicks, the wheel, the good cop and the bad… ”. This time it is Carles Vallejo, a CCOO unionist, who talks about his seventeen-day experience at the headquarters. The advice of the Nazi Gestapo to the incipient Francoist secret police was far away. Also, the courses taught by the FBI in New York on counter-intelligence techniques, which were attended by Commissioner Antonio Juan Creix himself, the sad protagonist of that police headquarters, invited by the government of General Eisenhower in the late 1950s.
All these innovations were not really perceived in Via Laietana. The stork, with his hands handcuffed behind his knees and his legs bent; the surgery, with the body on a table and the boot hanging in the air; or the stick, from which hanged the handcuffed detainee, continued to be common against those considered most dangerous. Only the toughest and most prepared resisted those long sessions of medieval torture: not everyone could emulate PSUC politician Miguel Núñez, as Creix said in person to the communist journalist Manuel Vázquez Montalbán during his arrest in 1962. Núñez himself, from the Burgos prison, was in charge of writing a small manual (I don’t want to talk. The duty of the communists in front of the police and the Francoist courts), in which he instructed the militants on how to prepare. Other organisations would adapt it or make it their own.
No talking about it
“We have gone from the Franco government to the Kafka government,” said the filmmaker Pilar Miró when, by order of a military tribunal, all copies of her film The Crime of Cuenca were seized. It was February 1980 and the film was about events at the start of the century, when – under torture by the Guardia Civil – two men ended up confessing to a murder they had not committed.
The harshness of the images, at a time when the methods of the Meritorious were in doubt, aroused the wrath of a military establishment that had not yet assumed the recent regime change. The film was not released in Spain until a year and a half later and, ironically, ended up being the highest – grossing film of the year, ahead of Superman II.
There had been tortures throughout the 20th century and continued to be in 1981. In February of that year, Joseba Arregi died after passing through the General Directorate of Security in Madrid. In Via Laietana, the sisters Eva and Blanca Serra, among other pro-independence activists, reported ill-treatments. And they would not be the last ones. We were in a democracy, but some things had not changed even a bit. Genuine Navales, the chief inspector of the frightening Social-Political Brigade, had made it clear to Carlos Vallejo: “I am a professional, I am a policeman with Franco, I will be a policeman with democracy and I will continue to be one when they send yours. ”
He was right. This agent, who was fond of cutting off the wrists of detainees with handcuffs, was appointed commissioner-general of security in 1982, being in charge of coordinating the Pope’s visit and the World Cup. He would have been appointed head of the police in Barcelona in 1979 if it were not for the fact that CCOO publicly protested for his past and the government did not want to generate controversy. Everyone knew what had happened, but no one, or almost no one, wanted to talk about it. Vázquez Montalbán, on the death of the most famous of all the torturers, regretted: “Nor did we do anything to focus their victims with the spotlight. The Reformation had acquitted the owners of the Creix, would it have been fair to persecute the servants? ”
The last bastion
Year 2007. After long and hard controversies between the City Council and the PSOE government, the Ministry of Defence finally cedes the Montjuïc Castle to the city. The fortress that had watched over and punished the people of Barcelona for more than two centuries was returned to its citizenship. Despite the lack of definition of the castle usability and its remoteness from the city centre, the recovery of the castle was seen as a great victory of the movement in favour of democratic memory, because it would dignify the gallow of President Lluís Companys. It was also the first great symbolic space of war and dictatorship that could be reinterpreted. The other three (the Model Prison, Camp de la Bota and the Headquarters of Via Laietana) presented very different situations.
The Model Prison was still in full use (it would not be closed until 2017) and its conversion into a memorial centre is still far today because of the complexity of the works and the high budget. The Camp de la Bota, the scene of more than 1,700 shootings between 1939 and 1952, had changed to the extent that it was unrecognisable. The 2004 Forum of Cultures ended up erasing the last drops of dignity of the place. The headquarters of Via Laietana, probably the space with the most symbolic load of all four, also continued to operate, but the building and location were so inadequate for the needs of a 21st-century police force that it was not unreasonable to think of a change of uses if a good exchange of lands was obtained.
The Catalan Association of Political Expresses of the Francoist regime, among other memorial entities, had been demanding this for years. Ten years later, thanks to a remarkable civic and political movement, the change seemed possible when the ERC group in the Congress presented to the Interior Commission a new non-law proposal to convert the Headquarters into a memorial centre and, against all odds and predictions, was approved with the votes of PSOE and Ciudadanos. None short-term consequences, but at least a glimmer of hope.
Nowadays, that possibility is more distant than ever. The state’s reaction to the independence process seems to have broken the bridges of dialogue on this issue. The Headquarters is, with the Subdelegation of the Government, the highest symbol of state sovereignty in the heart of the Catalan capital. Which politician would want to take on the diatribes of his opponents if he dared to lower the Spanish flag from the balcony?
A ‘dangerous’ lectern
In the current political context, any criticism of the building’s past disaster, any proposal to resignify the space, is twisted to the point of presenting it as an attack on the security forces and bodies and, in return, on the State, in general. That’s what happened when the City Council installed an explanatory lectern on the building in March 2019. The Interior Ministry Fernando Grande-Marlaska wrote a letter to the mayor warning that it was “dangerous to identify democratic state institutions with a political regime of the past.” The Secretary of State for Security has recently emphasised that the police station “has been and is a symbol of public service from which several generations of police have contributed and continue to contribute to strengthening democracy.”
That there was no purge of the Francoist police is not said by the old opponents who were beaten, but by Rodolfo Martín Villa himself, Minister of the Interior between 1976 and 1979: “I realised the logical insufficiencies and the logical failures of the police and the Civil Guard, but the state needed them if they wanted to survive, and it was unfair, radically unfair, politically and morally, that in a political process like the one we were conducting would allow the slightest purge. ”
But if we really want to differentiate between these two periods, why not take on this uncomfortable legacy at once and allow the scenario of the violation of the rights of so many people to serve the cause of democracy throughout the memory of those who fought for her?
Executioners and resistants
The building on Via Laietana sets a place for a sad ‘dramatis personae’ between torturers and tortured ones and those who consented to it all:
Busquets, Joan. As a child during the Civil War, Busquets (1928) came into contact with the libertarian movement in exile in the late 1940s. It was then when he joined the maquis groups in the area, with which he made several forays into Catalonia. In October 1949, he was arrested in Barcelona and tortured for three weeks before being sent to prison, where he was sentenced to death, commuted to thirty years in prison, of which he would end up serving twenty of them in different penalties.
Cuevas, Tomasa. A communist militant since adolescence, with the Republican defeat Cuevas (1917-2007) he was charged with five years in prison and exile for his activity during the Civil War. In Barcelona, she joined the PSUC and was arrested again in 1945. She spent forty days in the Headquarters, subjected to heinous tortures by police officers Pedro Polo and the Creix brothers, before entering in a deplorable state to the prison of Les Corts. Her experience, as well as the numerous testimonies of tortured and imprisoned women that he collected in various works, show that women were equally resistant irons and victims of repression.
González, Carmen. Born in Barcelona in 1956 in a gypsy family, extreme poverty and nomadic life marked her early years. She was first arrested in 1973 on charges of complicity in her husband’s robbery. During the seven days she was held incommunicado, she was beaten hard. From there he went to the Trinitat prison under the Law of Danger and Social Rehabilitation. Although the headquarters was the quintessential scene of repression against the political opposition, those arrested for common crimes were also victims of police brutality. Rescue the lives of these invisible victims is as difficult a task, but it is very necessary.
Juan Creix, brothers. The two big black myths of the Via Laietana headquarters. Antonio Juan Creix (1914-1985) joined the police force before the war. In 1938, he was arrested and sentenced to death for counter-espionage, but his sentence was commuted and he escaped. In 1941, he joined the Political-Social Brigade in Barcelona, where he led, with brutal methods, the persecution of the opposition, particularly communists, even though he was associated with arrests of all kinds (fall of the eighties, death of the maquis Facerías and Quico Sabater, Fets del Palau…). In 1968, he was transferred to Bilbao to fight ETA, and in 1970 to Seville. He was fired in 1974, it remains as the only known case of police clearance. Vicente Juan worked side by side with his brother, specialising in the catalanist and student movement. They were the most famous and feared policemen of the dictatorship in Barcelona.
Martín Villa, Rodolfo. As the civil governor of Barcelona (May 1974 – December 1975), he was the head of public order at a time of great political conflict and constant police abuse. Responsibility that would extend when being named minister of Interior with the first Suárez government (1976-1979). His performance was far from the self-indulgent reformist spirit that has worked on creating. Not only did he learn first-hand about the many murky actions of the police and parapolice corps, but he did nothing to break with the repressive legacy of the dictatorship.
Polo, Peter. Like Eduardo Quintela, to whom it was united all his professional life, he was formed as a police officer in the dictatorship of Primo de Rivera. With the Republic, he placed his repressive baggage against libertarian elements under the orders of Miquel Badia (the “Captain Collons”). In 1937, he crossed the Pyrenees and acted as a double agent. From 1939, he combined his position as deputy commissioner of the BPS in Barcelona with incursions on the other side of the border. When he retired in 1962, he was appointed “honorary general commissioner” and, later, head of the Civil Government Information Office.
Quintela, Eduardo. Forged in workers’ repression during pistolerismo, with the Republic, Quintela (1891-1968) adapted to the various changes of government, as evidenced by the fact that in 1935 he was called as a witness to testify against President Companys. He spent the war in the Francoist rear, where he had close contact with Gestapo agents. In March 1939 he returned to Barcelona, with the position of head of the future Political-Social Brigade. In Via Laietana, he imposed terror on detainees on the basis of extreme violence, as evidenced by the numerous detainees “committing suicide” during their interrogations, or tortured to the point of exhaustion.
Cèsar Lorenzo holds a PhD in History from the University of Barcelona and is a member of the Study Group on the History of Prisons and Punitive Institutions (GEHPIP) and the work team of all his research projects. His research has focused on the penitentiary system in Spain from the mid-20th century to the present day. He is the author of the book Cárceles en llamas. The movement of social prisoners in the Transition (Virus, 2013), as well as several book chapters and articles related to this topic published in national and international specialised journals.
More information about the Via Laietana Headquarters
Via Laietana Headquarters, Impunity or memory
“So that history does not repeat itself, we must remember that impunity, which rewards crime, encourages the offender. And when the offender is the state, which rapes, robs, tortures and kills without telling anyone, a green light is emitted from power that authorizes the whole of society to rape, steal, torture and kill. “Eduardo Galeano
If the walls talked… if we listened to what the walls of the Via Laietana Headquarters could tell us, we would have a strong dissociation between the account of the events that took place there and what is officially explained.
The countless number of people, some known, many anonymous, who suffered torture and all kinds of ill-treatment at the Via Laietana Headquarters, are condemned to oblivion, to invisibility, first by the impunity with which the regime protected its bloodiest side, then by the lack of recognition and reparation of these episodes by the administrations in a kind of pardon and law of silence, tacit but firm (until proven otherwise).
We considered that the best way to approach the case of the Via Laietana Headquarters should be to contribute to the restoration of the victims’ memory, giving voice to the silenced, exorcising these practices and collaborating to give them a closure. It is a wound that will not be able to heal until restorative actions and care are taken in all areas; and it is a duty we have as a community, as a city, as a country.
In this intervention, taking advantage of the diptych format, we wanted to confront impunity and memory. On the one hand, impunity and its impact on the direct victims, but also on society as a whole. On the other hand, memory, as an act of denunciation, justice and reparation.
The stories of pain and suffering, but also of struggle and resistance to the dictatorship, are many and varied, we have chosen one, one of the faces, one of the many names, that of Tomasa Cuevas (it could have been any other) , to represent on one side of the play all those who suffered hours of horror in the premises of Via Laietana.
Detainees who were tortured were dehumanized by these unacceptable practices, so we wanted to represent them on the other side of the artistic work. We believe that until the practices of torture, abuse of power and human rights violations of the Via Laietana Headquarters come to light, hidden and decaffeinated in the official account, we will be covering them up and validating them. The whole society will be denied the right to the truth.
In this struggle there is no middle ground, we must do justice to memory, we must remember and vindicate those who put their bodies to fight against Francoism, we must demand that the administrations make real and effective recognition, reparation and guarantee of non-repetition of the impunity experienced in the heart of Barcelona.