When Lucio Urtubia was arrested at Paris’s café Les Deux Magots in 1980, French police could not believe that this humble bricklayer was the mastermind behind the international plot to bleed Citibank dry. In recent months, Urtubia had been distributing thousands of forged travelers’ checks to revolutionary groups across Europe, from the Red Brigades in Italy to ETA in the Basque Country. Citibank’s response only deepened its losses as it placed a Europe-wide ban on all travelers’ checks above $10 — thus cutting off the revenue it normally generated through commissions.
As Urtubia’s checks spread to South America after his arrest, Citibank became desperate. Deciding to sue for peace, the world’s largest bank had little option but to meet its blackmailer’s demands: drop all charges and hand over a suitcase full of cash (which Urtubia would later use to fund social movements in Latin America). As the two sides met to finalize the agreement, the head of security for Citibank refused to shake his hand — leading Urtubia to tell the financiers: “You are the real criminals. You don’t know how to do anything but make wars and spread death.”
An anarchist, anti-fascist, bank robber and construction worker, Lucio Urtubia died in Paris on Saturday July 18, aged eighty-nine. Upon his passing, Spain’s deputy prime minister Pablo Iglesias remembered the Basque exile as “a revolutionary bricklayer that fought all his life for a better world with the joy of someone who knows he is sowing the seeds of the future.” Considered a latter-day Robin Hood by the French and Spanish left, Urtubia refused to characterize his actions as theft but instead, like other “social bandits” that came before him, talked of expropriation — claiming “he who robs a thief, is a thousand times forgiven.”
The Clandestine Struggle
Born into a poor left-wing family in Navarra in 1932, Urtubia began his extra-legal activities robbing from the Francoist army while he was doing his military service in post-Civil War Spain. “It was such a joy to steal from the fatherland,” he later told journalist Jordi Évole. Forced to flee Spain after one of his gang got caught, Urtubia made his way to Paris in 1954 where he began to socialize with exiled Catalan anarchists from the Confederación Nacional del Trabajo (CNT).
“I had thought I was a Communist,” he told El Salto, “because at that time everyone [in Spain] who opposed Franco was Communist.” Yet in Paris, he fell under the influence of anarchist leader Quico Sabaté, the head of a band of Catalan guerrillas that made a series of daring raids on Franco-controlled Barcelona. In his book Bandits Eric Hobsbawm claimed that: “The key to Sabaté’s unique career after 1945 lay in the moral superiority he established over the police by the conscious policy of always … advancing towards them [and so unnerving them]…. By his purity and simplicity Sabaté was fitted to become a legend.”
After Sabaté was jailed in France, Urtubia began to organize various bank robberies himself — donating much of the money to groups working with political prisoners in Spain. Yet unlike his mentor, he had no stomach for violence and ultimately chose to concentrate on his counterfeiting instead. Throughout the 1960s and ’70s, Urtubia continued working full time in construction but devoted his evenings to forging passports, identity cards, and checks for the cause. Originally the passports were produced with South American refugees and Spanish dissidents in mind. But later everyone from Germany’s Baader-Meinhof group to the Black Panthers would use them.
Urtubia was also convinced his counterfeiting could be used to strike a direct hit against the capitalist system. In a meeting with Che Guevara in the French capital in 1962, he offered to help Cuba print millions of counterfeit dollars — which the communist state could then use to flood the market and cause a sharp devaluation in the currency. Che declined the offer but Urtubia later sought to put a version of the plan into practice against Franco — forging thousands of payday checks with the aim of destabilizing the Spanish banks, and thus the regime.
The Noble Bandit
Urtubia’s life has been the subject of various biographies, a graphic novel and the brilliant 2007 documentary Lucio. He was dubbed “the last anarchist” — a figure from a bygone era imbued with an unwavering certainty in the righteousness of his cause. As he would tell the Spanish edition of Vice: “I regret nothing. If I had to start my life again, I would return to do the same as I have done. It is one thing to be an anarchist on some minor committee and quite something else to be in front of judge on charges of terrorism telling him: Yes, your honour, I’m an anarchist, because I believe in anarchy.”
After his arrest over the Citibank plot, his case became a cause célèbre on the French left — not least because subsequent legal investigations confirmed the money earned from the counterfeiting was being sent to movements in Latin America and elsewhere.
In court, he was represented by Roland Dumas, “Picasso’s lawyer” and later foreign minister under François Mitterrand. Dumas also defended him on charges related to the kidnapping of Francoist banker Angel Baltasar Suárez in 1974. The kidnapping was a response to the execution of the anarchist Salvador Puig Antich — with Suárez later released unharmed. After an outcry over the trial of anti-fascist activists, the court absolved the nine defendants of all charges at the 1981 trial.
Hobsbawm wrote of Sabaté that “Considerations of high politics, strategy and tactics, hardly affected men of his kind.” He could quite easily have been speaking of Urtubia, whose “propaganda of the deed” practiced anti-capitalism day-to-day, as an expropriator. Still at age eighty-four Urtubia claimed that he had not given up such work — though he would not be drawn on his exact activities. “Nobody has the solution,” he insisted to Évole, “and for that reason, we must all struggle.”