The last man standing

Thirty years ago today, rebel officers tried to overthrow Spain's fledgling democracy. Head of state security at the time, Francisco Laína, has finally told his story

EL PAÍS first asked Francisco Laína to tell his version of the events leading up to and culminating in the failed coup of February 23, 1981 two decades ago. But the former head of state security preferred to keep silent, saying over the years that one day he would write it all down. Now aged 76, and retired, he has decided to tell his story, and is putting the finishing touches to a book planned for publication later this year.

At the time of the coup, Laína joined a provisional junta set up by King Juan Carlos and then-Prime Minister Adolfo Suárez to coordinate a response to the plotters, and, once the coup was foiled, to decide how to continue the transition to democratic rule. Aside from Suárez, who suffers from advanced Alzheimer's Disease, and the king, Laína is now the only surviving member of that junta.

"We cut the phone lines in Congress, and waited for the soldiers to lose hope"
Laína's book paints a picture of a Spain teetering on the edge of chaos

In his book, he describes the build-up to the coup, painting a picture of a Spain teetering on the edge of chaos, thanks to ETA setting off car bombs and killing with impunity in the center of Madrid, along with an economic crisis and mounting unemployment - not to mention rumors of military plots. The UCD centrist party's transition government overseen by Adolfo Suárez was increasingly unpopular, and was being attacked by right and left, while the polls showed that the Socialist Party was set to win the elections, due to take place in March.

Less than four years earlier, Laína had played a role in preventing another attempted coup by disgruntled military officers known as Operation Galaxia, in which a Civil Guard lieutenant colonel named Antonio Tejero had been implicated. On February 23, 1981, Tejero would enjoy a brief moment of global fame, making the front pages around the world, snapped in his shiny tricorne hat brandishing a pistol in the Spanish Congress.

Laína says that he remembers two key events in the run-up to the failed coup attempt. The first involves Tejero. "I was at a funeral for a civil guard assassinated by ETA. The then-director of the Civil Guard, José Luis Aramburu Topete, was standing next to me. I asked him what Tejero was doing there. He told me that he had not been assigned to any unit since Operation Galaxia. I thought, therefore, that he must have a lot of time to think about new plots. To leave him to his own devices in Madrid without putting him under surveillance was a big mistake."

The second event was when Laína had to hand over a confidential report to Suárez. In it, King Juan Carlos' increasing criticism for the prime minister was evident. The report also contained the details of a meeting between Alfonso Armada, a senior member of the military and former advisor to the king, and the Socialist Party's defense spokesman.

"I showed the two-page report to Suárez, who read it, and then a moment later said, 'You're not telling me anything I don't already know'." Suárez would resign on January 27, to be replaced by Leopoldo Calvo Sotelo, whose investiture was scheduled for February 23.

Laína says that on the day of the coup he was listening to the investiture of Calvo Sotelo on the radio in his office. "Suddenly, I heard shouting and gunshots. Five minutes later, the king called me. He asked me if I knew what was going on, and I said that I suspected that Tejero was involved."

He spoke with the king on several occasions that afternoon. "At 7.45pm, the king rang to say to me, 'Be careful with Armada, he's in this up to his neck'."

Due to his long-standing links to the king, Armada had sought to convince his fellow conspirators that the coup had the blessing of Juan Carlos, and that he, Armada, was directing operations from the Zarzuela Royal Palace, the king's official residence just outside Madrid. The ruse was uncovered when General José Juste, the commander of the Brunete tank division based in Brunete, 30 kilometers west of the capital, called the Zarzuela asking for Armada, and was given the now-legendary reply: "He's not here, nor are we expecting him."

Laína says that he confirmed Armada's role in the plot after speaking with Tejero, now holed up in Congress. "Tejero told me that he was obeying the orders of General Jaime Milans del Boch, the military commander of Valencia, and Alfonso Armada."

In the hours that followed, Laína was named head of the interim government set up to oversee the crisis. "The decision was based on the fact that as director of state security, I had the best idea of what was going on, and who was involved. Initially, we believed that the coup was limited to Valencia, where Milans del Bosch had already put the tanks on the street, and Brunete, as well of course the Congress, where Tejero was. But as the night wore on, it looked as though some of the other military commands were beginning to waver, and wanted to join in the coup."

Then there was the question of how the media would deal with the coup, as well as the response of ordinary Spaniards. Aside from trying to talk to the main barracks around the country, and to assess the loyalty of the Civil Guard, Laína says that he met with the head of Spanish state television, Fernando Castedo, to convince him that a news blackout was needed to prevent people taking to the streets, which would have given the military the excuse they needed to impose order. "What we needed was a sense of normality, so that people could go to work, and children to school," he says.

The situation in the early hours after Tejero seized Congress was fluid to say the least, remembers Laína. A provisional control center had been set up in the Hotel Palace, just across the road from Congress. "When I turned up there, it was clear from the faces of many present that they supported the coup. "I asked Aramburu Topete if we could count on the support of the Civil Guard in Madrid. "He said, 'You can count on me, but I don't know if the men will obey me'." But the head of the national police force, José Antonio Saénz de Santamaría, said that the police could be counted on. The only problem was that in the event of having to stage an assault on Congress to release the deputies being held there, he had no armored personnel carriers available in Madrid: they were all in the Basque Country. But an attack was soon ruled out, says Laína, because of the fear of injuring or killing the hostages in the process.

Instead, following the advice of three psychologists, Laína and his colleagues in the junta decided to take a softly-softly approach, while trying to gauge the extent of support for the plotters, and bringing round doubters in barracks throughout the country via long telephone conversations.

"We gradually cut the telephone lines in the Congress, and waited for the soldiers in there to lose hope. We were told by the psychologists that because the men didn't belong to the same unit, and barely knew each other, they would soon see that their situation was hopeless, and that is what happened. After a night in the Congress, a number of the soldiers began to give themselves up."

Juan Carlos' decision to wait eight hours from when Tejero stormed Congress at 6.30pm before appearing on television has been interpreted by some as a sign that the monarch was doubting which side to back. Laína explains that the delay was caused by the king's insistence on speaking to regional military commanders in Spain first, to ensure he had their support.

The king's televised message went out at 1.14am, and effectively spelled the end of the coup. An hour earlier, General Alfonso Armada had spoken with Tejero in person at Congress. Now Laína wanted to talk to Armada himself. "Once Armada was finished there, I had him brought over. He had seen the king's broadcast, and said that the king was wrong, that his message would split the armed forces in two, and that this was a military matter that needed to be sorted out by the military.

"I told them that the king was the head of the Armed Forces, and that what he, Milans and Tejero needed to do was follow the king's orders," says Laína. Armada made one last attempt to persuade Laína to join the plotters, and then gave up. Laína says that he had Armada escorted to his office at the High Command, where he was kept discreetly under guard. "The Chiefs of Staff of the High Command all swore their loyalty to the king," says Laína. The next day, after listening to telephone conversations between Tejero and the other plotters that implicated Armada, it was decided that he would be arrested on February 25.

Among the myths surrounding the failed coup attempts, says Laína, is that there were up to 125 hours worth of intercepted telephone conversations between Tejero and the other plotters in the run up to the failed coup. He says that the only surviving tapes are those recorded by the security services between Tejero and Juan García Carrés, a former labor-union leader under Franco with close links to far-right military officers. "There are no other tapes. We tapped García Carres' phone because we knew of his links to the military. Tejero's wife was on the phone the whole night her husband was in Congress. We have around 10 hours of conversations with a wide range of people. We weren't able to tap the phones of the military, because there were too many leaks in the Interior Ministry, who would often alert suspects that a request had been made to have their phones tapped. There was no way that I could have tapped the phones at the Zarzuela or the regional military commands. It would never have occurred to me, and would have been illegal. There are a lot of myths about what happened that night."

The conversations between Tejero and the other plotters revealed Armada's role in the plot. When the king heard them the next day, he was moved to tears, says Laína. "You can hear Tejero say to García Carres that Armada 'has come to Congress because all he wants is to sit on the throne, and he doesn't care if it's a military regime or a government of Communists. I threw him out.' The king lowered his head when he heard this, and covered his face. When he pulled himself together, I could see that he had been crying. He dried his face, and said, 'Paco, I don't know how to thank you for all you have done for the monarchy and for me'."

That said, Laína accepts that there was a failure to investigate the involvement of civilians in the botched coup, or the role of military intelligence, the CESID, which had been set up in 1977 to replace Franco's military intelligence. "There were civilians involved: former combatants, members of the Falange, and some businessmen, but there was very little evidence, and I don't think that they played an important role in events on February 23, 1981. And there is no evidence to suggest that the CESID was involved either. But some members were found guilty of involvement: the organization was divided, and the head at the time didn't have a clue what was going on." Thirty years later, with the benefit of hindsight, Laína says that he has learned little to change his mind from his initial conclusions in the days after the failed coup as to who was behind it.

"My impression is that Armada fooled everybody, he convinced Milans del Bosch to get involved, and he tried to use the king," he says succinctly.

Tomorrow: EL PAÍS founding editor Juan Luis Cebrián on the decision to keep the presses rolling during the coup attempt.

The former head of state security, Francisco Laína, in Ávila on February 16, 2011.
The former head of state security, Francisco Laína, in Ávila on February 16, 2011.G. L.

Democracy hanging by a thread

At around 6.30pm on February 23, about 200 soldiers and members of the paramilitary Civil Guard stormed the lower house of the Spanish Parliament, firing automatic weapons and shouting orders.

They took hostage about 350 members of Congress, who were taking part in the investiture of Prime Minister Leopoldo Calvo Sotelo. The group - led by Lieutenant Colonel Antonio Tejero Molina - famously told all those present to lie down. Tejero then called on the king to make an announcement supporting the coup.

Meanwhile, the king put together an interim government based at the Zarzuela Palace. Eight hours after the coup was launched, the king went on television to assure Spaniards that the coup had failed. The joint chiefs-of-staff later issued a communiqué saying all measures had been taken to put down the rebellion and restore order.

The rebel forces and their leaders surrendered and released their captives 22 hours after the siege had started.

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