Jail break on the high seas

Juan Redondo and José Tarrío had spent most of their young lives behind bars In 1991 they decided to make a daring escape bid while being transferred by ship

Luis Gómez
Tarrío and Redondo managed to escape the Civil Guard while on the JJ Sister ferry.
Tarrío and Redondo managed to escape the Civil Guard while on the JJ Sister ferry.TOMÁS ONDARRA

Among the better-known convicts in Spain's prison community in 1991 were Juan Redondo and José Tarrío. Redondo, from Andalusia, was famous for having made several successful escape attempts, while Tarrío, from Galicia, was known for his anarchist beliefs. They had both grown up under tough conditions and gotten in trouble with the law at a young age. Now in their twenties, the two had little to look forward to, having already spent most of their adult life behind bars for violent crimes. They were both also HIV positive. The two men were considered dangerous, and kept in isolation and under observation. But that summer a series of circumstances would bring them together, making the headlines after they kidnapped 17 people in a Tenerife prison, and again a month later, when they managed to escape from the boat that was taking them from the Canary Islands to Cádiz. The getaway impressed the prison authorities for its originality, and for its precise execution. What the police didn't know at the time was that both events were connected.

Escape was on the minds of many convicts in Spain's jails in the 1980s. The country's prisons were dangerous, violent places: overcrowded, run-down and supervised by poorly paid and badly trained staff, most of whom were hangovers from the Franco era. Drug abuse was rife, and many prisoners, like Redondo and Tarrío, were HIV positive. Riots were common, and violence the order of the day. The only way out was to escape. For desperate men with no future, there was no price too high, including the risk of death, or committing murder.

Redondo had already managed to escape three times, and had tried unsuccessfully on another 10 occasions. He was aged 28, and had established a reputation as a hard man, prepared to do whatever was necessary to get out of jail. Tarrío was four years younger, and had little experience of the outside world: he had been sent to a reformatory at the age of 11, and then moved on to prison at age 16, when he committed a robbery. He had grown up in a poor neighborhood of the port city of A Coruña, and been given few opportunities in life; subjected to beatings at home, at school, at reformatory, and then in prison. But he learned to survive in jail, until one day he went too far, stabbing a fellow prisoner to death. At the same time, he was different to most of the men around him: he read, and associated with political prisoners, taking part in several protests to improve conditions.

He began to emerge as a leader at the same time as Tarrío, and although the two men did not know each other personally, they knew of each other, until one day in July 1991 they found themselves in the same prison in Tenerife. Redondo had already been at the jail for several months. In his autobiography Huye, hombre, huye (or, Run, man, run), Tarrío recounts their conversation on the day they met.

The getaway impressed the prison authorities for its originality

"'How can we get them to transfer us together?' I asked, attracted by the idea.

'We organize a kidnapping, and use it as a way to tell the world about what is going on here. After the kidnapping we will be transferred.'

'Give me some time to think about it.'

'Okay. If you want to do it, let me know. If not, I'll do it alone'."

For men like Redondo, with the experience and the ability to escape, a transfer offered the opportunity to make a bid for freedom. It was the weak link in the chain. Redondo asked to see the prison governor. This gave him the chance to move around the prison. He and Tarrío were now working together, and had both acquired makeshift knives. Redondo managed to take 15 people prisoner in the cafeteria, while Tarrío held two staff at knifepoint in the telephone exchange. They made a list of what they wanted, and demanded that the authorities begin negotiating.

Hostage-taking was common in those days. At the same time as Tarrío and Redondo were holding 17 people, a riot was underway in the El Puerto de Santa María prison in Cádiz province. One prisoner took advantage of the mayhem to settle an old score. He went to an enemy's cell, stabbed him, and then cut his head off. He then took the head and brandished it before the prison's closed circuit television cameras. This prompted the authorities to restore order quickly.

Escape was on the minds of many convicts in Spain's jails in the 1980s

Tarrío and Redondo had other plans. One by one, they released their hostages - the women first. They knew that they would be sent to solitary confinement as punishment, and they would then be transferred to another jail. This would be their opportunity. Tenerife offered the added advantage of transfer by boat.

Events transpired as the pair had planned. They finally released their last prisoners on July 29, were then kept in solitary confinement, and on August 23, Tarrío was informed by the prison authorities that he and Redondo would be transferred. Two Civil Guards would take each prisoner to the port. They would be joined on the crossing aboard a ferry called the JJ Sister by two other prisoners, a Briton and a Colombian.

The pair were by now confident they would be able to make their escape. During the voyage they would be held in a tiny cabin deep within the ferry with just enough room for two bunk beds and a lavatory.

"That tiny space would be our world for the next 48 hours. We could hardly move: when one of us wanted to stand up, the other would have to lie down," writes Tarrío in his book.

Tarrío and Redondo were separated, which initially seemed a problem, although the two realized that it was better, and would allow them to keep an eye on the other two prisoners. During the crossing to the mainland, the four prisoners were to be watched by two civil guards, who would sleep in a similar cell. The door to the guards' cabin could be observed through the spy hole in the prisoners' cell door.

The JJ Sister would first stop off in Las Palmas, on the island of Gran Canaria, and then take two days to reach Cádiz. Redondo immediately took stock of the situation and began preparing a plan. He began working on the idea of how to force the door of each cabin open by making some kind of crowbar out of the beds. He was able to talk to Tarrío through a small hole that had been gouged out of the thin wall separating the two cabins.

Without guns there was little they could do, even if they could make it to the bridge

The locks on the cabins were not particularly strong or sophisticated. Redondo's idea was to use a makeshift knife to force out the screws holding the lock in place, and then force open the mounting that held a padlock. They would then take care of the two officers. The din of the engines would hide the noise they would make when forcing the lock open. The two civil guards spent most of their time up on deck. The only problem was that the engines were less noisy at night. They could only work during the day.

They began trying to break open the lock mounting. But within hours they realized the knives they had made were not strong or sharp enough to cut through, but were tough enough to cut their hands. The plan was not going to work.

They talked about the possibility of trying to kidnap their guards, but the problem with this was that the two officers were not carrying their pistols during the voyage, and they could not be sure of being able to overpower them, even unarmed. And without guns there was little they could do, even if they were able to make their way up to the bridge.

Nine hours away from docking in Cádiz, and while the prisoners were eating, Redondo whispered to Tarrío through the tiny hole between their respective cabins.

"I'm going to burn through the plastic in the spy-hole and try to open the food slat to see if we can force the padlock."

"What about the civil guards?"

They were now out of their cells, and turned their attention to their guards

"I think that they have gone up on deck."

Tarrío then took out the thin wire that held the pages in a notebook he had been allowed to keep and instead of burning the plastic covering of the spy-hole, tried scratching a hole in it through which he could push the wire and slide the bolt open.

"But my colleague Juan then had a better idea, and took his mattress apart, using a lighter to heat up one of the springs and was able to burn a small hole through the plastic covering of the spy-hole," Tarrío relates in his book.

Redondo kept working, until eventually, bathed in sweat and his hands burnt, he was able to introduce the wire through the hole he had made, open the food slat with the cable, put his hand through and slip the bolt across. All he had to do now was prize open the small padlock using a bar he had dismantled from his bed.

They were now out of their cells, and turned their attention to their guards. They decided to wait for the pair to return, crouching behind the door.

"I was very frightened, which helped me concentrate. Fear is the sixth sense," says Tarrío.

I was frightened, which helped me concentrate. Fear is the sixth sense"

They quickly overpowered the first guard who came down to check on them. "While Juan held a knife to his throat I tied his hands and searched him, but he was not carrying a weapon."

The second guard came down after a couple of hours. He too was quickly overpowered, searched, and found to be unarmed. The guards had been told to leave their weapons in their cabin by the captain of the ferry. The two officers were carrying 30,000 pesetas, the equivalent of 180 euros, but worth a great deal more than that 20 years ago. The two men were then gagged and bound while Tarrío and Redondo changed clothes. At 8pm, as they had the evening before, the JJ Sister's engines slowed down.

The two men began making their way up to the deck. They thought about taking the agents' guns, but thought better of it. They separated, and met up 20 minutes later in the waiting area, watching as the vessel approached Cádiz and the gangway was lowered ready for docking.

They froze when they saw several civil guards board the vessel, looking at each other, but saying nothing. They had agreed that if something went wrong, they would take hostages from among the passengers. If they were asked to identify themselves by the police, they would do the same to the officers and take their guns.

In the event, they were able to disembark without being discovered. They took a taxi once ashore to the nearby town of El Puerto de Santa María. They had considered taking the taxi driver hostage, putting him in the trunk of the car and using the vehicle to get to Seville, but decided against this, fearing their escape was by now known, and there would be roadblocks. Instead they decided to stay in the outskirts of the town, hiding out on wasteland for two days while they made their plans.

"I was free," says Tarrío in his book.

If something went wrong, they would take hostages from the passengers

"After four years of almost continuous solitary confinement, locked in tiny concrete cells, my lungs filled with pure, free, air."

They considered robbing a bank, and then using the money to disappear once and for all. In the event, they decided it was less risky to separate. They agreed to meet on December 1 in A Coruña in front of the landmark statue to Rosalía de Castro.

Tarrío headed for the nearby town of Rota. There, in a bar, he read about his escape in the newspapers, seeing his photograph in EL PAÍS. "I wasn't particularly worried about being spotted: the photos had been taken when I was much younger and I was barely recognizable from them," he says in his book.

On the night of August 28 at the local bus station, a plain-clothes police officer carrying out routine surveillance as part of the precautions taken following ETA's threat to bomb the work being carried out in nearby Seville in the run-up to the 1992 Expo, he was asked to identify himself. Unable to do so, he was taken to the local police station. His brief interlude of freedom was over.

Redondo was captured nearby two days later in the small town of Utrera, close to Seville. A police officer had spotted him acting suspiciously as he prepared to rob a bar.

Four years later, Redondo tried to escape again while being transferred from a prison in the northern city of Gijón, killing a police officer in the process. In 2007 he managed to escape once more, and was arrested, as before, in Utrera, during a bank robbery. He remains in jail.

Tarrío was finally made eligible for an early release program, and enjoyed a brief period on furlough, during which he was able to publish his book. But he returned to jail, where he suffered a stroke, spending his last years in a hospital bed before dying in 2003. He is still remembered by some in the anarchist community.

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