Garfia's great escape (from himself)

The remarkable transformation of a ruthless killer into a man called Juanjo

Garfia is escorted by civil guards in 1992 after 71 days on the run.
Garfia is escorted by civil guards in 1992 after 71 days on the run.J. Ferreras (El País)

Exhausted by hate, sick of living "like a dog," tired of looking for cracks to slip through, he decided to plan his final evasion very carefully. The last great escape by Garfia, Spain's most dangerous inmate, was an escape from himself: "I am no longer Garfia. I am Juanjo."

 It took Juan José Garfia Rodríguez three murders, five holdups, 26 years in prison, the kidnapping of a lieutenant colonel, a hunger strike, over 10 mutinies and two escape attempts to turn his name into a veritable prison brand - the best, the most respected, the most feared, the most detested and the most worshipped, depending on from which side of the law one looks at it.

Even today, at age 45, people stop him on the street to ask him about his past. He spent half his life conscientiously building a legend for himself between bars, only to delete it and try to start afresh - and not because he was transferred to another prison or because a new governor was appointed at the one he was at.

Garfia's great escape - the real one - began on the day he tried to be simply Juanjo.

Those months he spent in solitary confinement at Dueso penitentiary (Cantabria) were a turning point. This old prison, a kind of Spanish Alcatraz, had reopened its FIES module for inmates requiring special monitoring. The module was closed again later after a humanitarian association reported the prison for its treatment of these prisoners.

His next-to-last escape - from a Civil Guard van transporting him and 40 other inmates to the Burgos penitentiary - had come at a great cost. Once again he had been the leader, pulling the floorboards out of the van and jumping out at a traffic circle near Valladolid while the vehicle was still in motion.

He had to delete the legend formed over half a lifetime between bars

"As soon as I sat down in the cage [one of the cells inside the security vehicle], I noticed that there was a crack of light in the floor that disappeared as soon as they closed the trunk," he explains in his first book, Adiós prisión (or, Goodbye, prison). The exploit was also taken to the silver screen with Alberto San Juan in the lead role; the biopic, called Horas de luz (or, Hours of light), was directed by Manolo Matji. The actor and filmmaker have lately been accomplices to Garfia's last and personal escape, along with a reduced group of friends.

"They helped me pay the rent or a bill when we couldn't make ends meet," he says.

When he jumped out of the police van, Garfia managed to remain free for 71 days, until the GEOs, the special operations unit of the national police, surrounded him early one morning inside a house in Granada's picturesque Albaicín neighborhood.

The jump from that van, at 50 kilometers per hour, was on February 25, 1991. By May 7 of that same year he was back in the can, and a few months later he was transferred to the isolation cell in Dueso. During that brief time of extreme freedom, he spent a few days in Valladolid, where some friends helped him out, and later headed south. He stopped in Salobreña, a village on the coast of Granada, where he shot a Civil Guard patrol officer who asked him for ID.

After leaving him badly wounded, Garfia continued on his mad, headlong flight. He thought of robbing a bank - he eventually robbed several - and found an associate; together they stole a car in Málaga, and left the driver bound and gagged on a hill. The driver turned out to be a lieutenant colonel.

"I always ended up running into them," he later said. "Escape, escape, escape - that's all you think about at the time."

As soon as I sat down in the cage I noticed a crack of light in the floor"

Juanjo has been out on parole for two-and-a-half years now, living behind the bars and fences that he himself has placed on the windows and courtyard of a first-floor apartment he rented out in the Madrid area of Carabanchel. On this particular Saturday, a hot Saharan wind is blowing through every crack of this home that he painstakingly reformed, painted and decorated all by himself. Even the paintings that hang on the walls are his own.

Sitting at the table with him are his mother, Eugenia Rodríguez, 64, and his mother-in-law, who only speaks Romanian and Italian and who has been working for the owners of a mansion in Sicily for a long time. This woman had not seen her own daughter Helena, 34, for over six years. Helena, an architect born in Romania, has been married to Juanjo for a week. With them is their four-year-old son, Roberto. Normally it's just the three of them at the table, but the recent wedding triggered the visit by "the mothers."

Eugenia, a longtime widow, lives in a permanent state of motion, moving from one city to the next depending on which prisons her children get sent to. Until Juanjo got out, four out of her five kids were behind bars. She has earned herself a "master's degree" in prison visits and releases, and proof of it is the pacemaker that helps her heart keep beating, as she points out. She still has three children doing time.

"I haven't tripped up again, but my brother Carlos cannot live without the security of the food tray. He gets nervous; he doesn't know how to handle himself on the outside," says Juanjo.

"The twins, the younger ones, are at Valladolid [penitentiary] but the truth is I'm not really in touch with them. They have imitated me all their lives - they have lived like "Garfia's brothers," so let's see if they copy me now too and get out of there..." says Juanjo with undisguised pride at his own self-determination.

Helena interrupts gently. "A bit of salmorejo ? I made it myself." The couple met at Estremera penitentiary (Madrid), where she was serving a two-year sentence.

All I could think of was how to get out of there but I never gave up living"

"I allowed myself to get involved in something set up by a son-of-a-bitch. If it hadn't been for Juanjo, I would have died of a depression in there. He enrolled me in the painting workshop," she says. "How's the salmorejo ? I used four tomatoes, just one clove of garlic, three fingers of oil, salt and bread, and then I beat it real well and sprinkled hard-boiled egg and ham on it. It's really easy."

The menu is completed with a steaming platter of roast meat and another one of French fries.

"Papa, won't you give me some meat?" asks Roberto, who speaks in a very correct Spanish and who was "commissioned" on the table of the painting workshop at the prison.

"We made him courtesy of a few prison wardens," jokes Juanjo, adding that nine months later, he listened to the birth via a cellphone on loudspeaker mode, also courtesy of the "house."

Juanjo was out working this morning. He does odd jobs - construction, pasting and removing wall posters, and all kinds of sanitation work. He has just signed up as a self-employed worker with Social Security while he saves enough money to start his own refurbishment company, Terboros.

He does not hide his past. "Most people who know me know who I am and who I've been," he says, although he is also quick to turn the page.

I began to hold on to anything coming from the outside, to love and to forgive"

"I did what I did and I paid for it," he says in reference to the three men he killed at close range in 1987, one after the other (a local police officer, a civil guard and a passerby), on a road near Valladolid shortly after he stole a car with the aim of robbing a bank. "This is what happens when you carry 'instruments' around that you have no head to deal with. Then you use them and you fuck up royally," he says. Garfia's legend was beginning to take shape.

He had first been caught at age 18 with three kilos of explosives he had stolen from the mine in León where he had been working. He served three out of the six years of that sentence and came out "poisoned."

"Prisons are made to destroy people. Most of those who went in with me with big sentences are not here to tell the tale," he says.

"Now it's not like back in the 1980s, when we used to get organized. We felt united - we did things as one man. Now there are more submissive people in there, also dodgy gangs from other countries, urban herds; prison is a reflection of society, and some people are willing to put up with things that nobody ever put up with before, and that's why fighting from within gets even harder. I can no longer change what I did, but sometimes I think that if I were one of the relatives of my victims, maybe I'd come after me."

He says he got weary. One day, he no longer wanted to be the king of the courtyard.

"It's exhausting; I was a walking hate bomb. All I could think of was how to get out of there. But I wanted to live. I never gave up living; even if it was just inside my head, I was free."

Managing his freedom - this has been Garfia's great battlehorse, then and now, inside and outside of jail. Back when he enjoyed being "an eighties criminal," he did as he pleased: if he wanted a car, he 'took' a car; if he needed money, he robbed a bank; if he wanted to escape from jail, he planned it; if conditions in the can were bad, he led a mutiny...

"They never did manage to break me," he recalls with pride.

What repressive measures did not achieve, love did, no matter how stereotypical it may sound. The change inside that violent head, the 180-degree turn inside the mind of that cornered dog who bit people just in case, was caused by a love affair with a prison worker: a nurse who was the daughter of a Civil Guard officer. They spent 12 years together and were married in prison.

"I began to hold on to anything that came from the outside. I learned to love and to forgive," he says. He also studied art history as well as Spanish language and culture, and organized all sorts of workshops (carpentry, painting, theater, arts and crafts and even skating).

He also read every piece of printed matter that he could get his hands on, and wrote a short story and a book.

"I was obsessed with keeping my mind active," he says, the meal now over.

That was the beginning of his last escape, the longest and most patient one, for which he even devised a dynamic, a system, a method against adversity, a set of fixed rules to keep him on the road towards Juanjo and away from Garfia.

"Every time they transferred me to a new prison I had to start from scratch. As soon as I got there I asked for permission to attend whichever workshop they had, and tried to let the director take advantage of my cooperative attitude; I sought out the press and tried to trigger the photo op that would be good for all of us: the directors were interested in having people speak well of their management, and I wanted to create guarantees that would let me breathe inside the prison, so everyone came out a winner," he explains, rolling himself a cigarette.

And so the merciless criminal of the late 1980s - Garfia, the name that all the inmates screamed out from their cells when he was transferred to another prison - decided to use his "freedom" to create a different sort of prison brand for himself: that of the baddest reformed prisoner ever, of the recalcitrant inmate-turned-role model. And he worked on this image with the same persistence that he used to craft his former reputation.

The various steps of this last, elaborate flight from himself and from prison can be followed on the enormous murals he painted in all the penitentiaries he stopped at before getting released, and whose pictures he keeps in a heavy file on his computer.

In his transformation from Garfia into Juanjo, he did time in 37 separate jails. In some cells he had a printer, in others he lacked even a mattress until sundown.

"After that kind of mental and physical training, I believe there are few things that can ruffle me," he says. He remains slim and wiry, but his face bears the signs of thousands of days and nights between bars.

Now, Juanjo walks out of his house every morning, rucksack slung on his back, and makes his way to work. Not long ago, a local police officer who was in the area stopped him as he was headed for the subway and asked him for ID. When he also asked him whether he had a record, Juanjo smiled ironically and told him to call headquarters. Then, he says, the officer stared at his face and asked: "Are you THE Garfia?" Will you sign an autograph for me?"

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