Taking place just two years after Franco’s death in 1977, the Atocha Massacre was one of the darkest episodes in Spain’s transition to democracy. However, while the assassins aimed to goad the far right into a bloody exchange that would justify a coup, the wholesale murder of leftist lawyers and trade unionists instead met with firm yet passive resistance. In the days following, the Spanish public flooded into the streets to show their solidarity with the victims and shortly afterwards, the Communist party was made legal in Spain.
It all went down just over 45 years ago on the evening of Jan 24, 1977, when the offices of a law firm specialising in labour law on Calle Atocha, 55, was stormed by gunmen. Their target was Joaquín Navarro general secretary of transport union. Labelled a troublemaker by the deposed Francoist establishment, Navarro had been leading a transport strike in Madrid, something that could not have been possible under Franco’s rule. However, Navarro had just left the office, as had Manuela Carmena, a young lawyer, who was later to become mayor of Madrid. Even without their target there, the gunmen decided to strike. The law firm was also the clandestine offices of the Communist Party in Spain making the lawyers working there enemy number one in the eyes of these far right assassins.
The gunmen ordered the group of lawyers and union leaders up against the wall and spattered them with bullets. Five died and four were gravely injured. The attackers then fled, most likely believing they would be protected. It later transpired that they were affiliated with two extremist fascist groups: Fuerza Nueva and Guerrilleros de Cristo Rey. Both groups had links to what had been the ruling establishment. But this didn’t protect them.
After the attacks, the public demonstrated peacefully against the atrocity and the perpetrators were quickly arrested. A trial followed and the two gunmen responsible for the Atocha Massacre were given 193 years in jail each. It transpired that Francisco Albadalejo Corredera, the secretary of a Francoist transport labour union, had ordered the attacks and he was sentenced to 63 years in jail. Lerdo de Tejada, the henchman who had guarded the doorway with an unloaded pistol managed to escape abroad before facing justice and it’s rumoured may have returned to Spain under the protection of powerful Francoists.
While others were punished for their part in the plot, the Atocha Massacre was not an isolated incident. Though these terrorists did not manage to bring about coup as intended, an attempt to forcibly shut down the government was staged in 1981 when rogue members of the Guardia Civil stormed parliament, holding it hostage for 18 hours. Again, the attempt to destabilize a return to democracy failed with King Juan Carlos denouncing the perpetrators in a televised address.
In order to ensure the victims of the Atocha massacre do not go forgotten, memorials have been set up all over the city, in particular by Anton Martin metro station, just a few meters from where the bloody incident occurred. Installed in June 10, 2003 “The Embrace” is the work of sculptor Juan Genovés and acts as a poignant reminder of a dark episode in Spanish history.