On the night of Monday, February 25, 1929, it rained in Béziers. A taxi that made a service from Perpignan to this French town halfway between Narbonne and Montpellier circulated swiftly along the avenue Marshal Pétain. Suddenly, a man crossed the road. The driver honked his horn. Too late. The car rammed him and dragged him ten meters.
The driver immediately took him to the hospital, but he arrived dead. Then the taxi driver himself appeared at the police station to explain what had happened. The passerby was a homeless man who was temporarily busy as a porter at the local station. No family member claimed it.
Ninety years later, the accident would have no more significance than the unfortunate victim if it were not for the fact that the driver was the anarcho-syndicalist Eusebi Carbó and has allowed La Vanguardia to solve one of the mysteries of the espionage plots in Barcelona in times of the First War World. To get there, however, you need to unravel the story and set yourself a few years earlier.
At the time of the accident, the CNT teacher and journalist from Palamos was forty-five years old. He had lived in exile for six years in Perpignan and almost the same that he survived as a taxi driver while participating in the conspiracies against the Primo de Rivera regime. In 1925, Carbó had been a liaison between anarcho-syndicalism and the Estat Català political-military formation in the run-up to the Prats de Molló events.
Its leader, Francesc Macià, had helped him financially for a while, although in the end the anarcho-syndicalists had not decided to participate in the insurrection that separatism wanted to launch in Catalonia to free it from the dictatorship and create an independent state. Carbó, however, never lost the good relationship with the future president of the Generalitat.
The young Carbó had evolved from family federalism and anticlericalism to embracing anarchism based on diverse readings. As a young man he had already spent time in prison and in the 1910s he was one of the renowned delegates of anarcho-syndicalism in Catalonia and editor of the CNT newspaper, Solidaridad Obrera.
While Carbó gained weight in the union, established contacts with the Italian anarchist Errico Malatesta and became interested in the prolegomena of the Russian Revolution, in the summer of 1914 the Great War broke out between the German, Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires and the Allies, with France and England in front.
Spain, with an economy at half gas and a second-class army badly hit in the Moroccan protectorate in the struggle to keep Abd-el-Krim's Rif rebels at bay, declared itself a neutral country. Although, in practice, during a good part of the conflict he helped the allied side underhand.
The government's decision to stay out of the contest favored exports and large sectors of Catalan industry grew rapidly rich. But it also began an inflationary period that harmed, above all, manual workers and increased social conflict.
At the same time, Barcelona became a den of spies. In this framework, where loyalties were bought with foreign currency, no one was who they seemed. Surprising as it may seem, Solidarity itself received German financing so that the head of anarcho-syndicalism would promote the neutrality of Spain among its parish.
In a multi-sided game, however, German intelligence also captured the Drassanes police chief, who was in charge of a large part of Chinatown, the most dangerous area of the Catalan capital. The Kaiser's services wanted him to spy for them in order to break the political and business ties that the monarchy of Alfonso XIII maintained with the allied powers. And to prevent, for example, that ships with provisions and material for them leave the port of Barcelona.
Manuel Brabo Portillo –with a “b”, as he signed, instead of “bravo”– was attracted by the money. Born in 1876 in Guam, in the Mariana Islands, and a law graduate, the son of a Spanish governor, he soon joined the army. At the beginning of the 20th century he landed in Barcelona, the most conflictive city in Spain, and in 1908 he joined the police force. Aspiring to become a Sherlock Holmes, he was sent to Rome to study police organization and published an essay on the methods of the scientific police.
In the ten years, when he was in his forties, he had already been decorated several times. His lightning rise in the force was largely due to violent methods against those he considered criminals, especially union members, who knew him as "the pimp from the fifth district." Those who had suffered it described him as frivolous, perverse, harsh with the humble and servile with the powerful, with a way of life above his income, very well educated and with a honeyed, studied voice, which was part of his manner in scene.
While Brabo was building his murky career of success, at the beginning of 1918 the engineer, businessman and arms dealer, Josep Albert Barret, was shot dead in the street. The murder was attributed to the CNT, which rejoiced in the Soli saying that "every pig gets its San Martin", but that he always denied being responsible. (Many years later, Eduardo Mendoza based on this crime to write his first novel, The Truth About the Savolta Case (1975)).
Brabo Portillo took advantage of the attack against Barret to arrest CNT members from the most radical wing. The anarcho-syndicalists understood that the commissioner, "the executioner of the workers", not only besieged them with violent methods and that, in addition, he had infiltrators in his action groups, but was also capable of organizing plots to frame them. The CNT, then, chose to denounce their practices through their spokesperson Solidaridad Obrera, who led Ángel Pestaña.
On June 9, 1918, the publication hit public opinion with a juicy headline: “Extremely important documents. The torpedoing of the ”. The syndicalist newspaper published on its front page a couple of letters from the commissioner, bearing the stamp of the Drassanes police station, which showed that he was providing information to the Germans about the ships that were transporting materials for the Allies, so that the German submarines They could sink them. These, aware that the steamer Mumbrú was carrying a cargo of contraband leather, had sunk it in the middle of the Atlantic on the last day of 1917.
The stir generated by the information from the Soli was enormous. That day the edition, twice the usual number, sold out before the government could seize it. The French government went up the wall and felt cheated. It was not be for lowerly. The commissioner played a double game and also collaborated with French espionage by organizing a clandestine trade in workers who were promised work but who crossed the border and were enrolled in the Foreign Legion. Thus, the Gallic country pressured the Spanish government to dismiss Brabo. When a handwriting examination determined that the letters had been written by him, the judge had him arrested and imprisoned.
The policeman then threatened Pestaña with death. However, how had the incriminating letters been obtained? Brabo knew it, but he couldn't recognize it because he would have assumed responsibility, which he denied. La Soli never clarified it. She only admitted that they had gotten "a little romantic and fictional."
That gave rise to all kinds of speculation. For some they had been provided by the espionage services of the Allies, for others they had been sold by the policeman Royo San Martín, the recipient of the letters himself. This, consumptive, morphine addict, would have wanted to get money by selling them to a journalist from the Madrid allyophile newspaper El Parlamentario, who, not seeing himself in the mood to publish them, would have given them to Pestaña. The leader of the FAI Joan García Oliver, in his memoirs The echo of the steps – full of lies – attributed the letters to a forger hired by Pestaña. These versions are collected by the historians Josep Pich and David Martínez Fiol in a complete biographical article on Brabo Portillo in the magazine Vínculos de Historia (2019).
The fact is that obtaining those letters became one of the gossips of the Barcelona of those years because the policeman was not just any piece. Actually, the way they had been achieved was simpler. To find out, you have to go back to Béziers in 1929.
So, in the month of May, when there were already other concerns, the Correctional Court of this town in the French noon judged the accident involving Eusebi Carbó's taxi. The magistrate found him guilty of involuntary manslaughter and sentenced him to fifteen days in prison, a fine of one hundred francs, and six-year suspension of his license.
Next, the police prefecture of Perpignan, where he lived, considered the expulsion from France. The anarcho-syndicalist sought someone who would intercede for him to demonstrate his irreproachable conduct. The director of L'Indépendant des Pyrénées-Orientales and president of the Perpignan press, Juli Escargal, did it. The interesting thing, however, came when J. Bourrat, retired artillery colonel and federal adviser to the Grand Lodge of France in Perpignan, presented a biographical profile in defense of Carbó. In it, he stated that the French government should not forget that during the Great War it "personally obtained the documents that allowed material proof of the accusation against the head of the Spanish police."
The Roussillon transport businessman for whom the anarcho-syndicalist worked did the same. Phillippe Rey explained that Carbó, then editor of Solidadidad Obrera, “in collaboration with the director of the newspaper, Ángel Perstaña, publicly discovered the anti-French maneuvers of the head of security, Brabo Portillo, denouncing that he was in the pay of the Germans and that he informed them of the displacements of the Spanish and allied ships”. And he added that Carbó, "took from the hands of Brabo Portillo's mistress the letters that she, following her orders, had to send to a subagent so that they reached their final destination."
Carbó, if he had not done so before, explained to his acquaintances Bourrat and Rey an episode from his past to try to somehow demonstrate his Francophilia. Although, a decade after the events, it is likely that the prefect did not know what they were talking about. Nor did it make sense that the journalist had made it up. It was an insignificant detail at the time and if he were to invent it, he could have thought of other more effective things. In the end, the French Ministry of the Interior did not expel him, but ordered him to move away from the border. Which was a job obstacle. Thus, in February 1930, at the beginning of the Dictablanda, he returned to Catalonia.
The anarcho-syndicalist did not speak more about the fatal accident, nor about the fact that he had stolen the letters from Brabo. His granddaughter, Margarita Carbó, who wrote the biographical portrait of Eusebi Carbó i Carbó. Vida i militància (2014), she did not know. Her great-granddaughter Anna Ribera, a historian at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, explains to this newspaper that neither she nor her sister Eulàlia knew anything about her either. The crucial role of Eusebi Carbó in uncovering the commissioner's maneuvers was buried in the police documentation of the French National Archives until La Vanguardia has accessed and a century later has solved the mystery.
Despite the complaint, Brabo Portillo barely spent half a year in prison. In December 1918 he was released. The Soli called a demonstration in protest. He then began to work on the salary of the captain general of Catalonia, Joaquín Milans del Bosch, who, with the connivance of the military governor, General Severiano Martínez Anido, commissioned him to turn the captaincy police services into a parallel police force. All with the acquiescence of the bosses to attack anarchist militants.
It didn't last long. On September 5, 1919, the CNT action groups assassinated him with five shots on Santa Tecla street. In working-class circles, it was even said of Brabo's death that no man "caused such pleasure with his death." Already disappeared, the French secret service contacted the widow to buy the commissioner's personal file. She did not get it and, as this newspaper has learned, the fund continues in the hands of her descendants.
Carbo, on the other hand, had more luck. After returning to Catalonia in the 1930s he played a notable role as a member of the more moderate faction of the CNT. A fact that caused him not a few clashes with the supporters of the insurrectionary path. During the Civil War he was part of the Consell d'Economia de Catalunya, where he coincided with the then Minister Josep Tarradellas.
Precisely, between September 1937 and January 1938, Carbó traveled to New York on behalf of the Generalitat to seek the support of a contingent of Italian anarchists for the republican cause. This journey is narrated in the volume edited by his granddaughter. After the conflict, he went into exile in France, Santo Domingo and finally in Mexico, where he continued to be involved in anti-Francoism. He died in 1958 taking his secret with him, until today.