Bandits, Brigands and Maquis in the Sierras of Southern Spain

 As part of my research for the next novel, I’m reading two books about the maquis, the guerrilla bands who took to the hills in the years after the Civil War to continue the resistance against Franco. One is a Spanish novel, Sulayr Dame Cobijo by Ángel Fábregas, the other a non-fiction account, Between Two Fires, written by David Baird, an English author long resident in Frigiliana.

Robbery, kidnappings for ransom, shootouts with the Guardia Civil and the fear of betrayal all formed part of life in the sierras. In order to eat, these men often raided local cortijos and farms, though in many cases the farmers or landowners cooperated and gave them food or money voluntarily, either because they sympathised or to protect themselves. Both the maquis and the Guardia Civil instilled fear in the local population, who were pressured from both sides.


Fear of robbers or bandits was nothing new in the wild, mountainous areas of Spain. For hundreds of years bandits had preyed on the merchants and noblemen who dared take to the region’s rough roads, especially during the 18th and 19th centuries. They captured popular imagination, instilling admiration as well as dread. Revered by some as Robin Hood figures, robbing the rich to help the poor, they quickly became household names in the local towns and villages, their notoriety enhanced by the colourful nicknames assigned to them: El Tempranillo, ‘The Early Bird’, who started out in banditry at the tender age of thirteen, El Pernales, whose sentiments were supposedly as hard as pedernal (flint), El Vivillo, the crafty one, named for his mental agility, El Tragabuches, ‘Swallowbellies’ whose name was inherited from his father, reputed to have once eaten a donkey foetus.

    José Ulloa, ‘Tragabuches’     

José Ulloa 'Tragabuches'European travellers like Prosper Merimée, Théophile Gautier and Washington Irving longed to meet these romantic figures and were disappointed when their journeys proved uneventful. Bandits, smugglers and flamenco artists peopled their imaginations as they journeyed through Andalucía, taking little note of the poverty and hardship, the bitterly unjust feudal system that characterised rural life at the time. Many of the bandits were forced into a life of crime on the margins of society by desperate circumstances.                                                                                                     El Tempranilloengraving of El Tempranillo 1834IMG_1158

They roamed large tracts of Andalucía, especially in the provinces of Málaga and Cádiz between Seville, Córdoba and Ronda, and further north in the sparsely populated Sierra Morena. The mountainous terrain of the Serranía de Ronda, for example, much of it covered in thick forests of cork, gall and holm oak with many natural caves and solitary cortijos to hide in was ideal territory for fugitives and those living outside the law. It was here in 1934 that the last of the area’s notorious bandits, Pasos Largos or ‘Long Strides’ met his death, shot by the Civil Guard, which had been set up in 1844 specifically to put an end to criminal activity in the sierras.

cave near Jimena

These forests and mountains along with other similarly wild areas proved equally useful to the maquis in the 1940s and 50s. During and after the Civil War, the Guardia Civil were feared and hated by one side, valued as protectors by the other – as revealed in some of the interviews I’ve been conducting in Granada with older people from families of very different backgrounds. In addition to the many fatal shootings by both maquis and Civil Guard, violence on a lesser scale was also rife, beatings an everyday occurrence: stealing a few potatoes in the countryside to feed your desperate family was sufficient cause. For many decades, fear was a normal accompaniment to life for a large part of the population.

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