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Obituary: Lucio Urtubia Jiménez

Lucio Urtubia Jiménez
Basque anarchist & bricklayer. Born in Cascante, Navarra, 18 February 1931 – died in Paris, 18 July 2020.

The film-biography of Lucio Urtubia (“Lucio” 2007) turned him into a legend as some sort of anarchist Robin Hood. But until the age of fifty, Lucio had spent most of his time trying to keep out of the limelight. The spectacular conclusion to his life of crime in 1981, with the Citibank forgery trial, was a pyrrhic victory for the prosecution; Lucio was the real winner against all the odds.

Lucio was many things to many people. Radical theatre director Albert Boadella, whose dramatic escape from under the noses of the Spanish police in 1977 was organised by Lucio, dubbed him ‘a Quixote who tilted, not at windmills, but at real giants’. French counter-terrorist cop Paul Barril cast Lucio as a dangerous criminal mastermind who pulled the strings of a vast international anarchist conspiracy. And the examining magistrate who presided over the Citibank case, Louis Joinet, had Lucio round to dinner, twice! To Stuart Christie, Lucio was ‘a man of generous spirit who valued freedom and justice above all else, even above his own life’

Growing up in the brutal poverty of Franco’s Spain, Lucio was instinctively drawn towards the twin-flames of rebellion and crime which became the leitmotif of his life and propelled him into the ranks of the anti-Franco resistance. At the age of 17, he became a smuggler. Conscripted into the army, he wangled himself a cushy job in the canteen and began selling-off the contents of the army stores on the black market of Logrono. Fortuitously he was on leave in August 1954 when his thievery was discovered. He promptly deserted and moved to Paris to live with his sister. Lucio found work on building sites as a bricklayer. One day he fell into conversation with a Catalan workmate. While discussing politics, Lucio said he considered himself a ‘Communist’, because the Communists were against Franco. His friend laughed and told him, ‘You are an anarchist!’ The Catalan gave Lucio a copy of “Solidaridad obrera” and later introduced him to the CNT local in Paris. Lucio never actually joined the CNT, but he was accepted into Juventudes Libertarias (FIJL, the Libertarian Youth).

By his own account, the turning point in Lucio’s life came in late 1958, when he was asked to look after the famous expropriator Francisco Sabaté, El Quico. Lucio says Sabaté stayed with him for several weeks; that he persuaded Sabaté to surrender to the French police to avoid extradition to Spain; and that before going to prison Sabaté turned-over to him his arms (a pistol and a Thompson sub-machine gun) to take care of. The story goes that Lucio put the guns to good use by taking part in several robberies before Sabaté left France. In the film “Lucio” he says the experience was not what he imagined it would be, and that every time he pointed a gun at a bank employee he wanted to wet himself: ‘I wasn’t made to rob banks. We did it because there was no other bloody option. It was the only means the anarchists had’. The money from the robberies went to the anti-Franco resistance inside Spain. Alas, oral history doesn’t always match the facts. Things get changed in the telling over time. Dates and sequences of events fall out of kilter. And Lucio never let the facts get in the way of a good story. Actually Francisco Sabaté was arrested in Céret in the south of France, on 12 November, 1957, and served six months in prison in Perpignan and Montpellier. A Spanish request for extradition was refused by the French government and Sabaté was released from prison on 12 May, 1958. Germinal Garcia was a militant of the FIJL and CNT in Paris during 1950s and 1960s, and his apartment was often a safe haven for Sabaté. In the film “Lucio”, Germinal is skeptical about Lucio’s claims: ‘Who knows, with Francisco Sabaté, there was a question mark…’ Any association between Francisco Sabaté and Lucio ended abruptly on 5 January, 1960, when Sabaté and four comrades walked into an ambush on the Spanish border and were all killed. The manner of their deaths, the result of betrayal, had a strong effect on Lucio, who from then on trusted nobody and based his future activities on a strict need-to-know policy.

Carried away by the overthrow of the Cuban dictator Batista, Lucio and several other Spanish anarchists made approaches to the Cuban embassy in Paris seeking material support for the anti-Franco resistance in Spain, all to no avail. Fidel Castro, who Lucio subsequently lambasted as the “devil incarnate”, was more interested in cultivating diplomatic relations with the fascist Caudillo. Lucio’s meeting with Che Guevara in 1962, to propose a grand scheme to devalue the American dollar by flooding the world with forged US currency, is dismissed as pure fantasy by Germinal Garcia, ‘I don’t believe it at all!’ But the actuality was closer to a scene from “Minder”, with Lucio in Arthur Daley-mode pitching his plan to Che during a brief stop-over at Orley airport. Che was not enthusiastic and Lucio found him ‘cold’. He was informed later that the Cuban government had rejected his proposal.

Lucio found love in the middle of a riot in May 1968 in Paris, when he met his French wife, Anne. Their romance produced a daughter, Juliette, on whom Lucio doted. Anne and Lucio set up a print shop to produce anarchist posters and pamphlets, and they surreptitiously brought together a team of people with more specialist skills to produce fake Spanish ID cards and passports, drawing upon the expertise of Laureano Cerrada (who was shot dead in Paris by a Spanish police agent on 18 October, 1976). The forging operation blossomed to include documents of other countries, which Lucio supplied to revolutionaries or sold to criminal customers as circumstances decreed. Throughout all this Lucio was scrupulous in keeping up his day job as a bricklayer (it was good cover if anyone asked how he supported his family); leaving for work early every morning and spending his evenings at the print shop.

By the 1970s a new generation of resistance had emerged in Spain. The Iberian Liberation Movement (MIL, 1971-1974) was a coalition of anarchists and council communists which had grown out of the strike movement in the Spanish car industry. Their Autonomous Combat Groups (GAC) robbed banks to finance anti-Franco propaganda, operating with swashbuckling audacity. On one occasion, after the police confiscated a MIL printing press, the MIL simply marched into the police station and took the press back again at gunpoint. On 22 September, 1973, MIL activist Salvador Puig Antich was arrested in Barcelona after a shoot-out with police in which one of the cops was killed. Despite widespread international protest Puig Antich was sentenced to death and garroted at dawn on 2 March, 1974. On 3 May, 1974, the Groups of International Revolutionary Action (GARI), formed in solidarity with the MIL, kidnapped the Paris representative of the Banco Bilbao, Balthasar Suarez. The kidnappers demanded the release of 100 political prisoners in Spain (under the Franco governments’ own laws) and the repayment of part of the CNT funds seized by Franco. Suarez was released unharmed 20 days later, after payment of an undisclosed sum. The moment Suarez was freed French police arrested nine anarchists in Paris, including Lucio and his wife Anne. All were eventually released on conditional liberty pending trial. The fact that Octavio Alberola had been arrested with the ransom money sparked bitter recriminations. Lucio had repeatedly warned Octavio to stick to being a spokesperson and not to get directly involved, and he blamed the arrests on Octavio’s high profile and the surveillance it naturally attracted. That triggered a series of accusations and counter accusations focused on some of Lucio’s less salubrious connections. The row resulted in a lot of bad blood which never really went away. By the time the Suarez case finally came to court in 1980, Franco had been dead for five years and the moral stature of the kidnapping as an act of anti-fascist resistance had attracted a lot of public sympathy, even in high places in the French government. After a ten-day trial all of the accused were acquitted for lack of evidence.

Lucio was back to his old tricks even before the Suarez case was concluded, forging documents and accumulating weapons. In 1977 Lucio had the bright idea to create fictitious identities for workers who didn’t exist; his team forged “pay-cheques” for these people, which were promptly taken to a bank and exchanged for cash. His next idea was to copy genuine books of $100 travellers cheques, but to change the serial numbers so they would not appear on any lost-or-stolen lists. Cheques with the identical serial number could then be presented simultaneously at multiple banks and all be cashed without arousing suspicion. The crime would only become apparent after the cheques had passed through the clearing process. Citibank was chosen as the target because their cheques could be cashed all over the world. The operation eventually encompassed revolutionary groups and “ordinary decent criminals” all over Europe, the USA and Latin America. Citibank lost millions of dollars, their share-price plunged and in the end they were forced to ban all cheques above the value of $10.

The Citibank fraud was going great until July 1980, when Lucio met an American called Tony Sarro, who said he knew someone who would buy the cheques off him for 30% of their value. The prospect of easy-pickings got the better of Lucio’s natural caution. When the day came to do the deal, Lucio met Tony at a table outside the famous café “Les Deux Magots” in the Saint-Germain-des-Prés area of Paris. As soon as Lucio sat down cops appeared from all directions and he was led away in handcuffs. Tony was an agent working for the French police. Lucio was released pending trial, but in July 1981 he received a summons to appear in another court case. A man had been arrested with false documents which he claimed had been given to him by Lucio. Enraged, Lucio wrote a long letter to the judge, refusing to attend and explaining his reasons for declining the invitation. He promptly disappeared and went on the run, with false ID papers in the name of “Fermin Gil Munarriz”. On 9 October, 1981, he was finally arrested on the street. ‘A bricklayer may only be a bricklayer, says Lucio in the film, ‘but he can have friends in high places.’ Roland Dumas, a former French Foreign Minister, agreed to defend Lucio in court as his lawyer in the Citibank trial. When he appeared in court Lucio was released by the judge on conditional liberty. And between the first and second hearing, Citibank got a phone call from an advisor of the French Prime Minster. The French government had reached the conclusion that a trial was ‘detrimental to France’. Citibank was told to negotiate a deal directly with Lucio for the surrender of the printing plates and remaining cheques, and to drop all charges against him, in return for his promise to stop the forgery operation. With typical hutzpah Lucio demanded of Citibank that they also pay him to stop, otherwise the fraud would continue even if he went back to prison. Citibank agreed to everything. A lawyer delivered the plates and cheques to Citibank officials in a Paris hotel room, and was handed a case containing a large sum of money in cash. Lucio received a derisory six months in prison for forgery. Citibank dropped all other charges. Lucio went back to bricklaying. In 1996 he renovated a derelict building on Rue des Cascades in the Belleville area of Paris and opened it up as “Le Space Louise Michel” (named in honour of the famous Paris Communard and anarchist), to serve as a cultural space for anarchists and anti-establishment projects. In 2008 he came to London for the screening of the film “Lucio” at the Anarchist Bookfair.

Lucio Urtubia was a rare individual who lived life according to his own rules and defied authority at every opportunity. Not all of his exploits were exactly as he portrayed them, but he did make an immense contribution to the Spanish resistance and to the ongoing cause of anarchism. In a reflective moment during an interview for Vice News in 2014, Lucio told Alex Orma, ‘I used to spend a lot of time with Jean-Marc Rouillan, who was responsible for the French revolutionary group Direct Action. He has spent 28 years in jail. We’re very good friends and I’m very fond of him, but I’m fed up with all his “armed struggle” nonsense. We don’t need anyone to lecture us on what we must or mustn’t do. When the time comes, everyone will act as they see fit. These days, we must be intelligent above all else… I don’t regret anything at all. If I had to start my life all over again, I would do everything the same way. One thing I am particularly proud of is standing up to a judge and saying, “Yes, Sir, I’m an anarchist because I believe in anarchy.” History should mark his passing kindly.

Philip Ruff

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