Tomorrow, 10th of May, will be the 30th anniversary of one of Spain’s most notorious cases of police brutality, when three young men on holiday in Roquetas del Mar and Pechina were tortured to death by the Guardia Civil after police wrongly thought them to be wanted ETA terrorists.
Luis Cobo Mier, Juan Mañas Morales & Luis Montero García were three young men who had taken a long weekend off work at their workplaces in Cantabria to come to Pechina, where Juan’s younger brother, Juan Mañas Morales, was about to celebrate his first communion. Juan Mañas was from Pechina, and had left a couple of years earlier to seek work in the north of Spain. The two Luis’s were more than happy to go on a “road trip” with their friend to the other side of the country -then the almost unknown and mythical Almeria, a thousand kilometers away from green and luscious Cantabria.
On the 7th of May 1981, the day before the three arrived in Almeria, a terrorist cell from ETA carried out a daring gun attack in Madrid on General Joaquín Valenzuela, head of the Royal Division, in which the General was wounded and three others killed. The culprits, however, had been identified as three young Basque men, and the national news carried the photos and names of Mazusta, Bereciartúa, y Goyenechea Fradúa.
Meanwhile, Luis, Juan and Luis suffered a breakdown in their elderly car whilst passing through Cuidad Real. Abandoning the -largely defunct- vehicle at a garage, and being in a hurry to carry onto the coast, they rented a Ford Fiesta. The man who rented them the car later switched on the TV and saw that three young Basques were fleeing the capital, believed to be heading south, and called the Guardia Civil, informing them that three “Basques” -the two Luises had presumably been talking to each other in Basque- had broken down in the town, and had rented a new car in a hurry. He told the Guardia that they were heading to Almería, and all police forces in the province were put on high alert for the rented car.
Meanwhile, the three youths arrived in Roquetas del Mar, planning to spend the day on the beach before heading back up to Pechina. Whilst buying some supplies at a beachshop, they were quickly surrounded by armed police who bundled them into the back of a van and drove away.
They were never seen alive again.
Later the next day, a local resident found their three bodies, mutilated and then machinegunned, inside their burnt out Ford Fiesta in a riverbed outside Gergal.
The official version of events, as issued by the provincial head of the Almeria Guardia Civil -Colonel Carlos Castillo Quero- and later repeated by the Minister of the Interior, Juan José Rosón in Parliament- was that the three wanted ETA terrorists had been located in Almeria. Colonel Castillo said that the three young men had been “armed”, without identification papers and had resisted arrest. He said that they had been put in a police car to be taken to Madrid for questioning, but had managed to overpower the driver and guard, and had escaped. He continued to say that his units had “pursued the vehicle through the mountains” and had eventually been forced to shoot out the tires, at which point the vehicle had flipped over and gone down the side of a ravine.
However, locals passed on pictures and testimony to the national press which clearly showed that the three young men had been heavily tortured, and one of them had even had his leg and arms cut off in order to be forced inside the vehicle. The vehicle showed no signs of gunfire damage, despite having been burnt out, and the vehicle had clearly not been shot off the road. The press also wanted to know why the police claimed they had been armed and were resisting arrest, when locals in Roquetas del Mar confirmed the three had been innocently buying beach supplies when suddenly they were bundled off by armed police, and had cooperated fully.
A major press investigation continued, which ended in Coronel Castillo and 11 other Guardia Civil officers being eventually arrested after an internal investigation.
The courts eventually decided that Coronel Castillo, who during the trial was revealed to be a wife beating alcoholic, was carried away by the excitement of “catching ” Spain’s three most wanted men and decided to keep the glory for himself. The Coronel and his squad took the three youths to an abandoned Guardia Civil station in Casafuerte, where they tortured the three men throughout the night in an attempt to make them “confess”. It is believed that at least one of the youths died during the beatings over night.
However, when the Coronel realised the next morning the severity of his error he decided to commit a cover up. He personally ordered -or even pulled the trigger- the machine gunning of all three youths, put their bodes back inside their car -one of the youths had to be cut up in order to fit – set light to it and pushed it over the side of a cliff in the hope nobody would find them.
The scandal was a major issue that the collapsing government of Adolfo Suarez was determined to keep quiet, despite the pressure from the media, a tactic that was continued by the newly elected (1982) government of Felipe Gonzalez.
Remember, Spain was a recently elected democracy, and the armed forces were at the time still trying to prevent those within their own ranks from attempting another coup détat. It was felt by many of the ex-fascist officers in the military that ETA had to be crushed, and if a few people got in the way, what did it matter? The government was not going to risk a major flareup (it was only a couple of years after the failed 28-F coup d’etat, when army officers held the Spanish parliament hostage until the intervention of the King) over a few youths.
The Provincial Court of Almeria eventually declared the Coronal and two other officers culpable of “murder and torture” and ordered a compensation payment of three million pesetas (15,000€, although the monthly average wage was around 45,000 pesetas a month in 1982) to be paid to the families of each of the youths. In 1984 the Supreme Court ratified a sentence of 24 years in jail for Colonel Castillo, 15 year for Lieutenant Gómez Torres and 12 years for officer Fernández Llamas. However, the families repeatedly complained that the sentences of the three men were commuted to army imprisonment, meaning that the sentences were to be carried out by confining them to barracks instead of sending them to a civilian jail, and that all three were allowed to keep their army pensions, as well as being on part-pay during their imprisionment.
The other eight officers who were implicated in the case were absolved of responsability and a 2010 press cutting says that all of them continue(d) in the service of the Guardia Civil until retirement, although some still serve.
Dario Fernandez, the lawyer who represented the families of the three youths, was for a time given private protection after threats were made on his life, and at one point was forced to flee Madrid to live in a cave after an attempt was made on his life. Although it was never proven who was responsible, Dario always claimed that these threats were pressure put on him by the military to drop the court cases.
Castillo was given “third degree sentencing” in 1992, meaning he was allowed out of prison on parole. He died in his hometown of Cordoba, of natural causes, in 1994. The other two officers served most of their sentences in military barracks before being released.
A small ceremony is held in Pechina every year on this date, presided over by the family of Juan Mañas, in which neighbours who remember Juan come together to remember a dark and tragic episode in the history of the province. The three families have tried, several times, to gain official recognition or even an apology for the deaths, but to no avail.
El caso Almería continues to live on in the memories of the locals, and, indeed, across Spain as one of the dark and tragic events of the past.