A friend in Lisbon

In this installment of EL PAÍS’ series based on Mexico’s archive of letters by Spanish exiles, the key role of the Mexican ambassador to Portugal of getting Republicans out of Europe

Gilberto Bosques, the Mexican ambassador in Lisbon who helped thousands of Spaniards flee from repression.
Gilberto Bosques, the Mexican ambassador in Lisbon who helped thousands of Spaniards flee from repression.

When the fascists took my village they came looking for me to put me up against the wall, but they were too late: I'd already fled. As they couldn't shoot me, they shot two of my brothers." Joaquín Martín Reinoso was 33, unmarried, and had been an active a member of the Spanish Socialist Workers' Party (PSOE) when he left the village of Fuentes de León, in Extremadura at the beginning of the Spanish Civil War. Ten years later, in 1946, he would cross the nearby border into Portugal and make his way to the Mexican Embassy in Lisbon, where he applied for asylum.

His is just one of hundreds of stories that have come to light after the Mexican Foreign Ministry recently released archives pertaining to the Spanish Republicans who sought refuge in Mexico during and after the Civil War, helped by the country's ambassador in Portugal, Gilberto Bosques. EL PAÍS has been given exclusive access to the dozens of letters and statements, which provide further evidence of the systematic repression that General Franco inflicted on Spain throughout the war, and in the decade that followed, when anybody suspected of Republican sympathies faced summary execution, and an estimated 150,000 men and women were either shot or simply taken away and disappeared.

"I had already left for Madrid," continues Martín Reinoso's statement. "I had joined the Margarita Nelken battalion, and fought until August 28, when, in Carabanchel, I was hit by shrapnel from a mortar shell. They amputated my arm, and I was declared unfit for service. I had to get out of Madrid, but didn't know where to go, so I took a train home. In Tallarubias, in Badajoz, they arrested me, and sent me to Siruela, where I was then taken to the Castuera prison camp, where men were held before being executed. One day, this fascist beat me up just for the fun of it. After a year I was transferred to Herrera del Duque, where we were fed once a day: 150 grams of bread and two sardines."

In January 1941 Martín Reinoso was sentenced to death, which was then commuted to 20 years and one day in prison. In 1946, he was pardoned, and returned to his village. In some ways he had been lucky, but his problems were far from over.

"I went to the village junta, and they sent me to the Civil Guard barracks. Things did not get off to a good start. The commanding officer insulted me and threatened to cut my other hand off. He told me that I would have to report every Sunday, and that he was going to keep a close eye on me. I was forbidden to enter bars, and had to be in the house by eight every evening. On October 27 was the last time I reported; that night they called me back. I didn't like the sound of things, and decided to cross the border into Portugal."

His story concludes: "I still hadn't forgotten what they had done to my two brothers, or what had happened to my beloved father, who was killed by two fascists looking for me. He didn't know where I was, so they shot him as well. I don't want to continue writing any more, because remembering all this makes me feel ill."

The Civil Guard called me back that night. I decided to cross into Portugal"

His case, like the hundred or so more stored in six heavy folders covering the period 1946 to 1948, sheds new light on one of the darkest periods of Spain's recent history, told by men and women whose lives had been torn apart by the war, and who even now, in peace, faced long harsh years of retribution and repression.

Their only hope was exile, either to head north over the Pyrenees to a France much of which was still in ruins after four years of war and occupation, or west to Portugal, and the slim chance of starting a new life in Mexico.

"It took me 39 days walking from the Pyrenees to Málaga, during which time just about everything that could go wrong, did," says Juan Contreras Mancera, then aged 36. A former member of the anarchist labor union CNT, he escaped from a penal battalion based in Huesca, and headed home to Málaga in June 1943, where he managed to hide for two years, until, in early 1945 -- "sometimes by train, sometimes walking" -- he finally made it to Portugal.

Isabel Pavón Pavón was a 42-year-old nurse and PSOE activist from rural Badajoz. She tells the story of the events that led her to flee across the border to Portugal. When Franco's forces took the city at the beginning of the war, she was arrested. "They wanted to shoot me, but they didn't; I don't know why. Instead they made me drink half a liter of castor oil and shaved my head. My father, who was aged 70 and had been mayor of Aceuchal, was shot, while my brother, who was mayor of Almendralejo, managed to escape."

Until late 1942, immigration into Portugal was strictly controlled by the authoritarian government of Antonio Salazar, an ally of Franco, and, like Spain officially neutral in World War II, although with closer leanings to Britain and the Allies. Spaniards found by Salazar's police trying to make their way to Lisbon without the right papers were returned to the Spanish authorities. The Unitarian Service Committee (USC), run by the US-based Unitarian Church, had set up offices in Marseille and Lisbon in 1940, initially to help Jews and all those persecuted by Nazi Germany get out of Europe. It later extended its role to help people seeking to escape from Spain, working secretly with the Mexican Embassy in Lisbon.

Mexico's ambassador to Portugal, Gilberto Bosques, came to Lisbon from Marseille, where as consul, he had already established contacts with the USC under the Vichy regime. He had saved thousands of Spanish Republicans from being sent to German concentration camps, helping them with visas to the United States and Mexico. The Spanish ambassador to Portugal was Franco's brother Nicolás Franco, who applied pressure on the Portuguese authorities to ensure that they cooperated in returning Spaniards trying to get out of the country.

Bosques managed to persuade Salazar not to interfere in his activities

But Ambassador Bosques was successful in persuading Salazar not to interfere in his activities, allowing the Mexican Embassy "to protect and embark Spanish Republicans headed for Mexico," as he later remembered in interviews.

Mexico's support for the Republican cause had been initiated by President Lázaro Cárdenas, and his successor, Manuel Ávila Camacho, who took over in 1940, continued the policy, giving Bosques free rein to help those seeking to escape from Franco's Spain.

In Mexico itself, a number of leading Spanish Republicans such as PSOE leader Indalecio Prieto, or the former governor of the Bank of Spain, Luis Nicolau d'Olwer, worked hard to help others leave.

The first stage in the process was checking whether those seeking refuge were who they said they were, and that they were fleeing Spain because of their political views. The USC took statements from them, usually in the first person, which were then signed. Among the documents now released by the Mexican Foreign Ministry are a number of cases where asylum was refused: "From his statement we deduce that the real reason he has left Spain is because of lack of work or economic reasons, and not because he is being persecuted for his political beliefs..." "Several people have accused him of being an informer..."

But the vast majority of the statements tell stories of heroism and resistance against Franco's military overthrow of Spain's democratically elected government in 1936. Manuel Trigo Domínguez had fought in the Republican army, reaching the rank of lieutenant. He had been sentenced to death at the war's end, and then pardoned in late 1940. After making his way to Portugal in December 1946, he described how the only way that he had been able to avoid the constant police surveillance was by pretending to go mad.

Things look bad; the government is being run by a bunch of idiots"

"I spent until October 1946 in the Miraflores Hospital in Seville. I was able to leave with a pass because my condition had improved, and used that to get to Portugal, away from the fascist terror that has gripped my country."

José Couvelo Lorenzo, a 28-year-old from the Galician city of Pontevedra, told the USC that he had been "chained in manacles until I bled," and that he had been "placed in a metal press to make me confess."

Ángel López Sot had been a student at Málaga University, and a member of the Socialist Youth until he was captured by Italian soldiers in February 1937. He managed to escape and make his way back home, but was reported by a neighbor.

"A few days after I arrived, at one in the morning. I was taken with nine young men and a young woman to the San Rafael cemetery. They were all shot in front of me: I was saved only after an officer intervened and asked my age, saying that I was too young to be executed."

Agustín Giménez Campaña, from Córdoba, was condemned to death after the war. He decided to tell his story in the third person: "Transferred at dawn on May 28, 1940 to the Municipal Cemetery East in Madrid and shot along with 50 others, but not injured, and managed to escape and hide..." He was captured, but eventually managed to get to Portugal.

The profile of most of the men and women who made it Lisbon is almost always the same: condemned to death at the end of the three-year conflict, their sentence then being commuted to 20 or 30 years in jail; often being moved from one prison to another, until usually being freed, but encountering new problems that led to rearrest; and finally the decision to escape from Spain.

In Spain the dictatorship was taking root, and gaining growing international approval

The documents also show that resistance to Franco continued throughout the 1940s, with small bands of guerrillas hiding out in remote rural areas. Ángel Ansareo Grandas had taken part in the attack on the Montaña barracks in Madrid in the first days of the uprising, subsequently fighting in the Guadarrama mountains to the northwest of the capital, and then in Teruel and Catalonia, finally fleeing to France at war's end. He stayed there for 10 months, until the French police sent him back to Spain, where he was then imprisoned. Ansareo Grandes escaped and was captured, this time being sentenced to death in May 1940 before finally pardoned in 1943. He immediately contacted guerilla units, and returned to the fight. Under the nom de guerre of A. Ribas, he organized a number of rebel units, staging attacks against the Civil Guard. He told the USC that a price of half a million pesetas had been put on his head, and that unable to move in Spain any longer, he made his way into Portugal, arriving in Lisbon in August 1946.

His statement finishes: "Long live the Spanish Republic. Long live peace in the world!"

The documents also show the lengths that Ambassador Bosques went to, circumventing all sorts of red tape to save lives or reunite families. By now the Mexican authorities were less enthusiastic in their support of Bosques, and he was warned by the country's Foreign Ministry about "irregularities and a failure to follow proper procedures in dealing with political asylum seekers."

At the same time, certain sections of the Mexican press became increasingly hostile to the policy of helping Spanish Republicans. A clip from a Mexican newspaper included in the archive includes a story about a Spaniard accused of robbing 3,000 pesos. Underneath a photo of Agustín Giménez Campaña and his wife is the caption: "Two wily birds of Spanish nationality who came to Mexico thanks to the generosity of the Mad Monk of Jiquilpan [a reference to President Lázaro Cárdenas]."

Things were changing in Mexico, and there was growing unrest against the government of Miguel Alemán for the perceived failure of its economic policies. There was a mood that Mexico had done enough for Spain, and a turning against the policy of international solidarity espoused and practiced by Cárdenas. Arturo Bretón, Bosques' cousin, wrote to him in May 1948 saying: "Things look bad; the government is being run by a bunch of idiots."

Meanwhile, in Spain, the dictatorship was taking root, and gaining growing international approval. Within four years, the country would be admitted to the United Nations, and soon courted by the United States as an ally in the fight against communism. Many of the Republicans who had managed to escape would never return, while those who had been unable to get out would spend years more in prison and soon be forgotten.

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