Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Joan March And The Gibraltar Smuggling Connection

There are few more controversial figures in Mallorca's history than Joan March. This son of Santa Margalida has been all but officially disavowed by the town; airbrushed from the past. Yet, March's name is to be found close to the town hall building outside a different building - a bank. He founded the Banca March and founded a dynasty that has made his family one of the richest in the world.

March arouses controversy for different reasons. His initial wealth came from smuggling tobacco and from dealing on the black market during the First World War. He was to become closely associated with Franco. He died in what are still questionable circumstances; was the car crash in which he lost his life in 1962 really an accident?

March was well known before he acquired the tag "Franco's banker". His fame or notoriety was such that in the edition of the "ABC" newspaper for 5 November, 1933 there was a full-page report based on an interview with him that had been conducted by journalists in Algeciras. The interview had been done by phone. March was in Gibraltar. He had sought a safe haven because he was on the run, having bribed his way out of prison. His crime? His various illegal dealings; he had been convicted of smuggling, tax fraud and bribery. In the year after "ABC" conducted its interview (March was staying at the Rock Hotel before, with British assistance, going to Paris), a book came out which explored his nefarious activities; it was called "The Last Pirate in the Mediterranean".

March was not unfamiliar with Gibraltar or with parts of Spain near to it. In 1928, he bought a considerable amount of land just up the coast from Gibraltar. It was to become Sotogrande, which is now the largest privately owned residential development in Andalusia and summer residence for some of Spain's richest and most powerful families. At the time, it was an area that required cultivation and development. March entrusted this development to farming families from Campos and Ses Salines. Raimundo Burguera was from one of these families. He became March's right-hand man and was one of those who helped him to escape from prison.

The story of these Mallorcan families is told in a recently published book by the professors Margalida Juan Taberner and Honorat Bauçà Roig. Its title is "El Tesorillo, the Mallorcans in the footsteps of March"; El Tesorillo was the name of the land and there is now what is known as an autonomous local entity - San Martin del Tesorillo - not far from Sotogrande. The book is full of murder, intrigue and betrayal, but a couple of questions arise from this story. One is why did March ship a load of Mallorcans over to what was inhospitable land in Andalusia, and the second, more crucially, was why did he acquire the land in the first place.

The answer to the first question lies partly in the vastly greater agricultural skills of Mallorcan farmers but also in the emphasis that March placed on loyalty. He thus displayed a trait that is key to understanding current-day Mallorca. There is a premium on loyalty, which may be no bad thing, but it can lead to things that aren't so good, such as nepotism, corruption or, back in March's day, rather worse. As to why he bought the land, a reason was so that there was a base for doing business with northern Africa and with Gibraltar. Not all of this business was dodgy, but a good deal of it was. The farms that were created at El Tesorillo were the cover for smuggling that continued after the Civil War and which was conducted with March's express wish. Burguera was crucial in all this as he spoke French, which was of course widely spoken in northern Africa.

The extent to which Gibraltar actually figured in this smuggling is probably open to guesswork, but Burguera, who was married to a Panamanian woman, was, astonishingly enough, made Panama's consul in Lisbon. This gave him diplomatic immunity. He could go, more or less, where he wanted to. Or where March wanted him to go.

At a time when the current arguments about Gibraltar raise issues to do with smuggling and loss of tax revenues for the Spanish Government, it is perhaps worth recalling that tobacco smuggling has gone on for centuries and that one of the biggest smugglers of all had a perfect base just along the coast from Gibraltar: Joan March, the banker who was given refuge by the British in Gibraltar, the banker who helped fund Franco and who did so with the ill-gotten gains of smuggling from the southern tip of Spain.

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