The Atocha Massacre: 44 Years After

On 24 January 1977 three extreme-right terrorists stormed into the offices of labour lawyers working for the trade union Comisiones Obreras (CCOO) in the Calle Atocha in Madrid. They opened fire murdering three of the lawyers, Enrique Valdelvira Ibáñez, Luis Javier Benavides Orgaz and Francisco Javier Sauquillo. They also killed a law student, Serafín Holgado, and an administrator, Ángel Rodríguez Leal. Four other people, Miguel Sarabia Gil, Alejandro Ruiz-Huerta Carbonell, Luis Ramos Pardo and Lola González Ruiz, were seriously wounded in the attack.

In a context of political violence, impunity for members of the far right and social unrest, the massacre led to a slow opening up of rights and liberties during the transition towards constitutional democracy which followed the death of Franco in November 1975. The aim of the massacre had been to destabilise the fragile government of Adolfo Suárez. However, instead of provoking violence, this terrible terrorist attack united the forces of the left: over 100,000 people silently accompanied the funeral cortège.

«Forever remembered for the freedom for which you gave your lives (Hasta siempre en la libertad por la que disteis la vida)», was the headline in Mundo Obrero, the daily newspaper of the Central Committee of the Spanish Communist Party following the funeral. Less than three months later, on 9 April 1977, the Prime Minister Adolfo Suárez ordered the legalisation of the Communist Party.

Decades later the importance of the massacre is clear, as well as that of the roles played by other Atocha lawyers, colleagues of those murdered, in the defence of civil rights and their role in our democratic system. The memory of those murdered is also preserved by the Fundación Abogados de Atocha (Atocha Lawyers Foundation) and by the Comisiones Obreras, who have collaborated in the recent publication of a book which we consider to be important, opportune and worthy of review here.

As is well known, Manuela Carmena avoided the massacre because the meeting she was attending had been moved to an office in a nearby building. One of the other people who attended the meeting with Carmena was Juan José del Águila as he recalls on justiciaydictadura. com

The Tribunal de Orden Público (TOP) and its role in the repression of the later Francoist period

Now retired, Juan José del Águila, was a labour lawyer who later became a labour court magistrate  In 2001 Editorial Planeta published the first edition of the book El Tribunal de Orden Público (TOP). La represión de la libertad, written by him, which was fundamental for our understanding of the political repression carried out by the Tribunal de Orden Público (Tribunal of Public Order) in the later years of the Franco Regime.

The book was well received within a specialised readership and the author was invited to speak about it by various institutions, including the Colegio de Abogados of Madrid, the Ateneo, the Club de Amigos of UNESCO as well as the Employment and Training Agency of the Unión Sindical Madrid Región (USMR) of Comisiones Obreras. This latter meeting took place in what are now the offices of the Fundación de Abogados de Atocha. The book must have made uncomfortable reading for many people who were named in it; despite selling well, it was withdrawn by the publishers and any remaining copies were destroyed.

Fortunately the author has written an updated second edition, incorporating new judicial material, which is now on sale in bookshops.

This new edition has been reviewed by Enrique Lillo for the blog Según Antonio Baylos [Madrid, 6 November 2020], together with the previous introductory text. We wish to thank both for their kind permission which allows us to republish it here. 


by Enrique Lillo Pérez

This book has been edited by the Fundación Abogados de Atocha, which was founded by the Unión Sindical de Madrid Región CCOO, and has received support from the following: the Ministerio de la Presidencia, Relaciones con las Cortes y Memoria Democrática of the Spanish Government; the Consejo General de la Abogacía; the Ilustre Colegio de Abogados of Madrid; and, obviously, CCOO Madrid. 

This second edition includes a prologue written by Dr. María Emilia Casas Baamonde, Emeritus President of the Spanish Constitutional Tribunal and Professor of Labour Law and Social Security (Presidenta Emérita del Tribunal Constitucional y Catedrática del Derecho del Trabajo y Seguridad Social) at the Universidad Complutense of Madrid. 

Juan José del Águila is a labour lawyer and expert in criminal law, who regularly defended those prosecuted by the Tribunal de Orden Público.

He has studied extensively the repression of the Francoist Dictatorship and is an expert on the repressive mechanisms and institutions which it employed. These include the following: public officials (funcionarios públicos); the secret police (Brigada Político Social); military institutions (special military courts established for the repression of freemasonry and communism, as well as those dealing with extremist activities, courts martial and military judicial authorities such as the Captaincies-General of the Military Regions); and judicial institutions (the Tribunal de Orden Público). His research uncovered the chronological antecedents of the latter, including the magistrates’ courts of February 1956 and May 1957, presided over by examining magistrates from Madrid and which had been established by the Governing Council of the Supreme Tribunal (Sala de Gobierno del Tribunal Supremo) under the Presidency of José Castan Tobeñas, and which were given powers to carry out summary trials of those accused of the offences of attending illegal meetings, publishing clandestine material and carrying out illegal propaganda).

This book is required reading for any citizen who wishes to understand, as part of our historical and democratic memory, the institutional mechanisms used in the Francoist repression by means of the torture carried out by members of the Brigada Político Social and by members of other public and military bodies, as well as the prison sentences imposed by the institutions listed above in summary courts martial without any procedural guarantees whatsoever, including the massive numbers of death sentences were imposed.

These are essential requirements for a system of justice to operate objectively and impartially and to conform with the strict principle of legality by making judgements on the basis of valid supporting evidence established by means of an oral judicial procedure and allowing opportunities for the defence of the accused  

The analysis provided by Juanjo del Águila is exhaustive and is presented with a high level of historical and judicial rigour. The same rigour is also to be found in material published on his personal blog  which is indispensable reading for understanding the reality of the political repression and institutional violence of the Franco Dictatorship and the mechanisms and institutions used in the process as well as being essential to enable us to recover a historical and democratic memory in Spain.

In her prologue  María Emilia Casas asserts the fundamental importance of the reissue of this book, which will now fills the gap which should have been occupied by the first edition published by Editorial Planeta and which included a prologue written by Gregorio Peces Barba.

The publication of this new edition establishes Juan José del Águila as one of the most authoritative voices in the historiography of the special jurisdictions which existed under the exceptional powers (ordenamiento de excepción) which operated under the Franco Dictatorship and he is, without any doubt, the authority on the Tribunal de Orden Público. He has studied in detail and publicised the activities of the Tribunal and the prison sentences it imposed on many people, along with the role played by the Brigada Politico Social, whose statements and reports, although extracted through torture, were never questioned by the Tribunal, but were invariably accepted.

The book includes an examination of the case of Julián Grimau, who was executed by firing squad in April 1963 following a summary court martial carried out without due process of law, the death sentence being confirmed by the then-supreme military judicial authority, the Captain-General of Madrid, General García Valiño, without any kind of opportunity for appeal. The decision to impose the death sentence was expressly confirmed by Franco and his government, ignoring the numerous petitions for a pardon, including one from the Pope Pablo VI, and in spite of the fine and well-argued defence of Grimau presented by Alejandro Rebollo, the military officer assigned to defend him.

The detention of Julián Grimau, an experienced leader of the Spanish Communist Party, led not only to his torture but to a lot of dishonest stories. One of these, published in contemporary newspapers such as the daily newspaper ABC, falsely claimed that Julián Grimau had attempted to commit suicide by jumping out of the window of the offices of the Dirección General de Seguridad and that this accounted for the multiple injuries from which he was suffering as a result of the torture he had endured.

After detailed and careful examination of the evidence and, after reading the political memoirs of Fraga Iribarne [Note: at the time Minister of Information and Tourism] as well as other historical sources, Juanjo del Águila comes to the conclusion that, as a result of the efforts of Franco and his most devoted and fanatical colleagues, the announcement of the projected law establishing the Tribunal de Orden Público. was maliciously delayed until after the Grimau case. The new law would have transferred the case from a court martial under military jurisdiction to the new tribunal and therefore it was agreed to keep news of its approval by the government from being announced until after the execution or murder of Julián Grimau, which thus became a state crime. 

Had the projected law establishing the Tribunal de Orden Público been introduced on the date which Fraga gives in his memoirs, then the Grimau case, which had been carried out under military jurisdiction, firstly by the involvement of a military officer, Colonel Eymar as an examining magistrate prosecuting cases for the suppression of extremist and communist activities, and then, by means of a Court Martial carried out in the Madrid Military Region, it would have have been necessary to stop the entire case and to transfer it to the new tribunal, even though this had not yet begun to operate. 

To avoid this, the Franco government deliberately delayed the approval of the projected law establishing the tribunal and the date on which it would begin to operate, thus ensuring that the death sentence on Julián Grimau would be imposed and carried out. 

In addition to this delay in the official approval date of the proposed law, which, according to the documentary sources consulted by the author, maliciously perverted the course of justice in the Grimau case, the book reveals other vital aspects of the case, such as the use of supposedly anonymous accusations made against Julián Grimau which were made after his detention and torture by the Brigada Político Social of Barcelona and which formed the basis for his death sentence by attributing to him criminal actions allegedly carried out during the Civil War.

Juanjo del Águila also describes the role of Ruiz Jiménez, a member (procurador) of the Francoist Cortes, who proposed an amendment for the total rejection of the proposed law, invoking in his support the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the encyclical “Pacem in Terris” issued by John XXIII (Cardinal Roncalli) a few days earlier on 11 April 1963.

Juanjo del Águila’s research also provides the basis for a sociological description of the treatment of citizens who were prosecuted and sentenced by the Tribunal de Orden Público. The accused were habitually held in prison during the investigation instead of being granted provisional liberty and, once they had been sentenced, the sentence was applied even during any appeal for annulment to the penal chamber of the Tribunal Supremo. In addition, the Tribunal de Orden Público allowed the reports and notes provided by the Brigada Político Social to be used on their own as valid evidence, ignoring the judicial requirement that evidence in penal hearings should be limited to material presented at an oral court hearing and not based upon previous reports by government agencies.

In a sociological account of people who appeared before the Tribunal the author analyses the large numbers of manual labourers, skilled workers, trade unionists, professionals and students who were victims of the repression. Many of them were neither politically militant nor members of organised trade unions, but rather were people who had merely participated in labour disputes or activities aimed at improving the existing minimal standards of living, or who had expressed their opinions during a meeting, or who had participated in protest demonstrations, or who had outlined their problems orally or in writing.

It is clear, therefore, that the role of the Tribunal de Orden Público was one of repression and punishment by imprisonment of people who attempted to exercise the fundamental individual or collective rights which already in the 1960s and 1970s were protected by international human rights declarations or by the international conventions of the International Labour Organisation (including rights to union membership and freedom of expression and of information, as well as the right to collective bargaining and to take collective action to seek improvements in working conditions).

The Tribunal de Orden Público was composed of members of the judicial profession and the author analyses the contribution of the higher judicial echelons of the dictatorship and of the Tribunal Supremo in the implementation of the repression.  

This role of validating and applying the repressive measures adopted was not only played by members of the Tribunal de Orden Público. Many of those judges who rose during the political transition after the death of Franco to sit on the Supreme Court had participated in the repression, as had those who became members of the penal chamber of the Supreme Court. One of these was Adolfo de Miguel who became President of this chamber and who, in 1981-82 was the defence lawyer for General Milans del Bosch, one of the key figures in the attempted military coup of February 1981.

These historical events must not be forgotten, because they are part of the democratic and historical memory of the struggle against the Franco Dictatorship, which always enjoyed the support not only of the military command, but also of those who controlled the judicial system, the prosecutory bodies and the police forces, especially the Brigada Político Social.

It is important, finally, to point out that, unlike other European countries in the 1960s and 1970s, Spain did not enjoy a so-called “golden age” of workers’ rights and social security, such as was consolidated in the rest of Western Europe after the victory over Nazism in the Second World War.

Spain, by contrast, endured many years of poverty and misery and these collective and human rights were not recognised during the years of the Dictatorship.

During these years the activities of the opposition were remarkable, exemplary and epic in character and it is important that recognition is given today of the efforts of sectors of civil society including many workers, trade unionists especially those of the Comisiones Obreras, students and skilled and professional workers to demand their rights and to defend them as well as to claim the freedoms and equality which are part of a democratic society. In the context of these remarkable and exemplary activities, those who worked as labour lawyers, among them Juanjo del Águila, through their defence of workers in the labour tribunals of the Francoist Regime (Magistratura de Trabajo) and in defending labourers, trade unionists, students and skilled workers in the Tribunal de Orden Público played a role which should not be forgotten and which forms a part of the democratic and historical memory of Spain. 

This book, therefore, is essential reading and should be widely read.

[Translation by Charlie Nurse]

PHOTO: The funeral cortège of those killed in the Atocha Massacre, 26 January 1977. Photographer unknown. Public domain.