Should Clint Eastwood ever return to the parched Spanish landscapes where he made his name as the taciturn hero of spaghetti Westerns, he would find a real-life saga worthy of his attention. The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly all have a place in recent events in Almería, for the cast includes a fearless lawman, a crusading journalist, and a band of desperadoes dangerous enough to make even Clint swallow his cheroot.
Almería, poverty-stricken, neglected, virtually forgotten, was Spain’s Cinderella province, until tourism and the boom in cultivation under plastic brought a surge of new wealth. But, while farmers toiled in their greenhouses and the tourists innocently toasted themselves on the beaches, something more sinister than carnations and tomatoes has been flourishing under those desert-blue skies.
Finally, when the stench grew unbearable and there was just one body too many, a straight-shooter blew into town to clean it up. High Court Judge Balthasar Garzón, scourge of drug-traffickers and organised crime, presided over a Civil Guard operation that may finally have ended an astonishing period of lawlessness.
Among the detained: a chunky, balding 59-year-old man named Juan A. He was a wellknown figure in the city of Almería, where he owned 12 cinemas and the police chief himself said he was "respected" in the business community.
However, Almería newspaper editor Joaquín Abad thinks differently: "He is a mafioso responsible for innumerable crimes." The fact that Abad’s office is bullet-proof adds weight to his words.
On one point there is no doubt: until his arrest, Juan was a man to be feared. Even now, while he awaits trial in the Alcalá Meco high-security prison for allegedly murdering a Belgian club-owner, his shadow hangs over Almería, a Mediterrean port of 150,000 which to unaware outsiders can appear to be in permanent siesta.
For years, he had appeared untouchable as he amassed a fortune, estimated in the thousands of millions of pesetas. By day he moved in business circles; by night he inhabited a sleazy netherworld, frequented by prostitutes and men with criminal records. A world of bleak, garishly-lit establishments with obliging hostesses - known variously as bars de alterne and puti-clubs in Spanish - which cropped up like mushrooms along the main highway.
Many a chorizo (petty criminal) had his bail paid by Juan who then put them on his payroll. They bore nicknames like Rambo and El Loco. And those who fell out with him suffered nasty - sometimes fatal - accidents.
"Juan A. and his men have something to do with all the strange things that happen in Almería," said one unusually reliable witness, his son Antonio, after the brutal murder of his ex-wife.
Strange happenings are nothing new in this province, so far from Madrid, so close to Africa. A revenge killing near the town of Nijar in 1928 inspired García Lorca to write his play Blood Wedding. In 1981 three innocent young men were tortured and done to death by three Civil Guards, under the impression that they were ETA terrorists. Now, as though to prove that its Black Legend will not die, Almería has produced another Sicilian-style drama, dominated by the vengeful figure of a godfather.
Police records show that since 1954 Juan A. has been accused of a variety of offences, from beating up people to attempted murder, and arrested five times. His father apparently died in bizarre circumstances. An alcoholic, he collapsed in the street and was crushed by an ambulance, which - it is said - passed two times over his body.
On March 1, 1985, Asensio’s estranged wife was killed outside Almeria’s Imperial Cinema. A witness declared that a bald, corpulent man in a black leather jacket shot her several times, finishing her off on the ground, and then stamping on her head.
Juan was detained and La Crónica, a daily paper started in 1982 to compete with the long-established La Voz, published damning statements by two of his four (legally recognised) children.
Gelu, his daughter, was quoted as saying: "He had told my in-laws that rather than give a duro to help my mother he preferred to kill her and trample on her head. When I heard what had happened, I had not the least doubt that it was him."
But Asensio was not convicted, for witnesses showed a strange reluctance to speak against him. He was freed and those who had offended him soon knew about it.
Within a few days of La Crónica’s reports, a campaign of threats and violence began against the newspaper.
Five days after the murder, crime reporter Juan Ibarra was returning home when several individuals punched him. "We’re going to kill your wife and children," they declared. He managed to flee and seek refuge in a Civil Guard post.
On April 12, 1985, Crónica editor Joaquín Abad received a phone call from Juan. "He said he that he was going to kill me, that he would rip out my guts before everybody. It stunned me as it was the first time in 20 years in this profession that I have received that sort of menace," recalls Abad.
On September 29 the paper’s printing press went up in flames. Somebody had forced the door and sprinkled petrol about the building. For four months La Crónica had to be printed in Málaga.
The Crónica continued investigating Asensio’s activities and publishing its findings and on August 21, 1987, a quarter kilo of explosives went off under the car of José Manuel Bretones, acting editor of the paper.
Abad took precautions, but twice he has come under fire. He narrowly escaped death on July 3, 1989. Returning to his home in the country, he was chased by a car. A fusillade of bullets struck his vehicle, but he was unharmed.
Further attacks came on Abad and his newspaper and Miguel Angel Battles, the lawyer who represents La Crónica and had acted on behalf of Juan's children, has also suffered. In 1989 hooded attackers beat him up, and on July 23, 1991, as he left a bar he was stabbed, twice in the stomach and once in the back.
A strange aspect of the case has been the apparent reluctance of other media to burrow too deeply.
Abad has no doubt that there has been corruption at a high level.
"Almería has always been dominated by the typical caciques and I believe the caciques used Juan A. He had the image of a good businessman, but it was not so. He used the fact that society was cowardly and did not dare confront him. Businessmen sold out to him for two reales under threat of death. This province has been like Sicily.
"Was I afraid? I’ve felt fear - and anger and impotence."
Bullet-proof glass protects the Crónica office and the entrance door is only unlocked after visitors are checked. More locked doors and thick glass protect Abad’s sanctum.
Security precautions are less in evidence at National Police headquarters where the Police Chief downplayed the cinema-owner’s activities.
"He was never in drugs," he said. "It has not been possible to demonstrate his involvement in prostitution nor in clubs. Apart from the present case, there is no proof that he tried to kill anybody.
"He had interests in property, in bingo and cinemas. He was a big businessman and respected by other Almería businessmen for his business acumen."
He stressed: "Almería is relatively tranquil. We have few grave crimes."
Members of his own force disagree. Police union officials have expressed their alarm at the high crime rate and this year police numbers are being increased from 280 to 334. A series of important unsolved cases testify to the slow process of justice, to put it kindly, in the province.
Angel Martínez, a butcher, made the mistake of having relations with Angeles, Juan’s wife. Now, he wrily notes: "I have six bullet wounds in my body from attempts on my life." A 47-year-old German vagabond nicknamed Rambo did odd jobs for the cinema-owner. When they fell out, he set fire to Juan’s car. Early next morning, on July 16, 1987, his body was found in an Almería street with a bullet in the head.
This year two men were found guilty of the 1989 attack on the Crónica editor and another on Juan Emeterio Martínez, former mayor of Roquetas del Mar. In June Torres was sentenced to 40 years in gaol and Cámara to 42.
The Roquetas mayor survived by luck when a cyanide-coated dart fired from a crossbow struck him in the back as he left his home. He had fallen foul of Juan after refusing a licence for a cinema and trying to block an open-air disco, billed as the biggest in Andalusia.
It was the death of Christian Poulain, a Belgian club-owner, that finally put the handcuffs on Juan. Among Poulain’s belongings was found a letter in the form of a last testament addressed to Judge Garzón. In it, he revealed that, on Juan’s instructions, he had travelled to Rotterdam to buy explosives and hire killers to place them in Abad’s home.
On the night of April 30 last year Juan had a furious argument with Poulain outside his Club 21, near the town of Nijar. Mention was made of millions of pesetas owed by the Belgian. Poulain fell dead, shot three times at close range.
Under interrogation, two associates named the cinema-owner as the murderer and, after three days isolated in a cell, Juan confessed. He claimed he acted in self-defence.
Until his arrest by the Civil Guard, in a carefully-planned operation directed from Madrid, he had appeared invulnerable. Neither the National Police Chief nor the Civil Governor responsible for law and order in the province, were notified in advance.
His arrest was celebrated with a champagne party in the Crónica office and an editorial headlined: "At last we can breathe again."
But. even now, Joaquín Abad is not ready to relax. He comments:"Asensio may be behind bars, but there is still danger. There are many people who have benefitted from this man. You can’t lower your guard."
First published in Lookout Magazine, Málaga.
Copyright © 2002 David Baird
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