Politics 18/08/2021

When the far right claimed responsibility for the Montserrat fire

The Catalan government bought submachine guns in Israel to arm police but the Spanish state requisitioned them

3 min
01. One of the slopes of the massif of Montserrat burned by the fire. 02. One of the monks resguardant the image of the Moreneta of the chapel that was built to the cave where it was found before the advance of the flames in an image that won the prestigious Fotopress contest in 1987.

BarcelonaOn Wednesday it will be 35 years since the mountain of Montserrat was consumed by a devastating fire. On August 18, 1986, Catalonia lived with a heavy heart as the fire reached the gates of the monastery, which was cut off and had no electricity for hours. The virulence of the flames, which devastated 75% of the mountain's surface area, led to plans to evacuate of all the abbey's resident personnel, although in the end only the nuns of Saint Benet, as well as the thousand tourists and parishioners who had come to visit, were evacuated.

It was the fourth fire in Montserrat suffered in only eleven days. If it was already suspected that some of the previous ones had been intentional, this one raised even more suspicions. The firefighters found rabbits strapped with cotton wool smeared with flammable liquid and the fire originated in three different points of the natural park. Shortly before eight o'clock in the evening, a person contacted newspaper Avui and claimed the fire in the name of Milicia Catalana, a Spanish paramilitary organisation that attacked pro-independence entities and organisations, Catalanist bookshops and also clinics where abortions were performed, such as Dexeus, as well as the local environment.

It did so by reading a statement. "Milicia Catalana is responsible for the fire in Montserrat that was provoked because the monastery is the cradle of separatism and as a response to the attacks of Terra Lliure," explained the alleged perpetrator of the fire, David Bertran, a young man of 18. He was arrested by the Guardia Civil just after making the call to the newspaper in a phone booth in El Bruc and kept referring to the fire excited with the action he had committed. After testifying at the Civil Guard barracks in Esparreguera, he was transferred to the courts of Igualada, where the judge released him that same day. The evidence was inconclusive.

Burning a symbol of Catalonia

"There was the will to burn Montserrat as a symbol of Catalonia because the great fire was preceded by at least two fires that did not take hold and that had been provoked", explains Josep Miró i Ardèvol, the then Minister of Agriculture. And he adds: "We had information from the field that there had been systematic attempts to light a big fire since days before"

The opposition did not support this hypothesis. "The opposition refused to accept it and interpreted it as an exculpatory argument. The PSC always maintained that it was part of a victim narrative," laments Miró. Who did validate this thesis was the pro-independence left, grouped around the MDT. "In those years the fascists set fire to our forests with a slogan that said: 'Do you want a Catalonia all to yourselves? You'll have it, but in ashes'" Carles Garcia reminisces, who was a militant of the Front d'Alliberament Català (FAC). He and other activists of this armed organisation that acted in the 70s were summoned to the Ministry of Agriculture. "They proposed we enter as volunteer forestry agents to reinforce the body with people who they totally trusted and had a patriotic will", says Garcia. He is one of the four prisoners who escaped Segovia prison who managed to reach France. Miró admits to the meetings with people from the FAC: "We were looking for committed people and the positioning of the council was echoed in this sector" .

Transfer without weapons

The controversy would arrive with the weapons. That year the State transferred to the Generalitat Icona, the body that managed the fires, but not the weapons they had. "It was a limitation of our powers and we were not more than the State but not less", denounces the former counsellor.

Faced with the refusal of the State, the Generalitat bought automatic submachine guns in Israel, but the Civil Guard requisitioned them in customs. Miró held several meetings with the then delegate of the Spanish government in Catalonia, Francesc Martí Jusmet, but to no avail. "It was a dialogue of the deaf. They interpreted that we wanted to create a paramilitary group", laments Miró. The Generalitat did not put up a fight either. "The government gave up on having an armed corps because it was a controversial and uncomfortable issue," says Miró, avoiding linking it to the fact that Terra Lliure was still active.