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The unusual hijacking of an ocean liner by the DRIL terrorists to overthrow Franco and Salazar




On June 28, 1960, just seven months before the attack carried out by the Iberian Revolutionary Liberation Directorate (DRIL) against the dictatorships of Francisco Franco and Antonio Salazar, the first victim of terrorism occurred in Spain. It was Begoña Urroz Ibarrola, a 22-month-old girl, who for decades remained ostracized, without recognition as such, without the support of the authorities and without receiving a single tribute. His murder, moreover, is the story of a confusion, because it was thought that it had been the first deadly attack by ETA until three years ago.

The mother had brought her baby with her aunt to the Amara station, where she worked at the consignment.

«I left my daughter with her while I went to a nearby store to buy her some shoes to go to Navarra. When I returned, there was a tremendous mess. A bomb had exploded! My daughter was burned and other people, including my aunt, were injured. It was horrible ”, Jesus Ibarrola told ‘El País’ in 2009. At the time, the Franco regime had no doubts about who was responsible for the attack: a member of DRIL had deposited the artifact at the Amara station. And the Caracas daily ‘El Nacional’ published an article claiming the attack by one of its members.

It was the time of the emergence of terrorist groups influenced by the Cuban Revolution, which in 1959 caused the fall of the Fulgencio Batista dictatorship and made Fidel Castro seize power. Hence both the DRIL and ETA arose. However, the crime of Begoña fell into oblivion and when it was recalled in the early 90s, the Basque independence activists were considered the authors, instead of this first movement formed by the Spanish and Portuguese with the aim of overthrowing Franco and Salazar. A confusion that lasted for almost three decades.

The DRIL was active for only five years and its first attacks were carried out with bombs such as the one that killed Begoña Urroz. The first were placed on February 18, 1960 in Madrid and exploded next to the Casa de la Villa – the former seat of the town hall – and in the premises of the National Movement in the same city. One of the terrorists died in one of the explosions and another was arrested, sentenced to death and executed on March 8, despite not causing any casualties on that occasion.

Galvão and Mosquera

The most famous action of DRIL, and the one that could have generated the most consequences for the history of the Iberian Peninsula, was ‘Operation Dulcinea’. It was almost a utopian adventure, but successful from the point of view of the publicity it obtained in the press of the time, occupying the front pages of the main newspapers in the world, despite being today one of the least known. In it, 13 Portuguese and 11 Spanish exiles and two Venezuelans participated, who hijacked no less than an ocean liner in the Atlantic Ocean and forced a dozen naval units from five countries, with their corresponding air cover, to mobilize to capture them.

Portrait of Antonio Salazar in the last years of his life

The conspiracy was hatched in Venezuela, a democracy that at that time was helping Spanish and Portuguese exiles who were fighting against their respective dictatorships. The brain of the operation was the general Humberto Delgado, a staunch enemy of Salazar, who had the support of such important figures as the future president of Brazil, Jânio Quadros, who also conspired in the shadows to end the two totalitarian regimes. Below were the two leaders of the plot: the Portuguese military Henrique Galvão, a former Salazarist and militant anti-communist, and the Galician independentista Xosé Velo Mosquera.

The only point they had in common between the two was the hatred they felt for Salazar and Franco, respectively, but they managed to keep the two dictatorships in suspense for 13 days, the other 20 DRIL kidnappers who got into that adventure and the 356 crew and 612 passengers, some of them American and Dutch. “It was the first hijacking for political purposes of a passenger ship in the history of the modern navy”, Marco Ferrari describes it in his book ‘The incredible story of Antonio Salazar, the dictator who died twice’ (Debate, 2022).

The Santa Maria

The ocean liner in question was called Santa María and was owned by the Colonial Navigation Company of Portugal. He had sailed from Lisbon on January 9, 1961 for a regular crossing through Central America. On January 20, he had arrived at the Venezuelan port of La Guaira. The 24 members of the DRIL had hidden among the passengers, including Galvão, a writer, playwright and ex-soldier stationed in Angola who had gone over to the opposition against Salazar. They called him ‘The Great Magician’. Two years earlier he had fled to Venezuela and requested political asylum. It was there that he founded the DRIL and where he meticulously prepared the assault, which was dubbed ‘Operation Dulcinea’.

The plan was to attack the port of Fernando Poo, a Spanish possession in the Gulf of Guinea, and then head to Luanda with the support of local rebels. The first thing the revolutionaries did was change the name of the ship, which was renamed ‘Santa Libertade’. Then they headed to Santa Lucia to disembark three wounded and the body of a third officer who had died during the shooting that took place at the seizure of the command bridge and the ship’s radiotelegraph station.

From that moment on, ABC published numerous news about how the negotiations with the kidnappers were going. ‘El bulletinesco Galvão’, titled an editorial of January 28, 1961, which said: “For twenty years his true profession was that of a conspirator; A man of feverish imagination, he kept her in eupptic activity, forging plots, hand blows and daring operations such as the kidnapping of Salazar, which he was never able to carry out. He was leaving prison to re-enter shortly thereafter. From so much racking his brains in gruesome inventions and fantasies, he suffered an acute nervous breakdown, with reflections of paranoia.

Salázar’s reaction

Although an intense search by sea and air was deployed, the ocean liner was not located until January 23 off Castries, the capital of Saint Lucia. A day later, Salazar ordered the mobilization of the Portuguese Navy and requested the intervention of Great Britain and the United States, which were later joined by the Netherlands. The DRIL then insisted that the kidnapping be considered political and not to touch the 40,000 dollars that was in the safe of the ship so as not to be accused of piracy.

The Santa María, in the 60's
The Santa María, in the 60’s

On the 26th it disappeared again and, a day later, it was located again 700 miles from the mouth of the Amazon, in the direction of Africa. A US fleet asked to negotiate by radio with the leaders of ‘Operation Dulcinea’. Galvão accepted and the ship headed northeast of Brazil. Delgado, for his part, asked the embassies of Great Britain and the United States. in Brazil, as well as the State Department in Washington, that their respective countries did not interfere in this rebellion, since it had nothing to do with a simple act of piracy, as the world was trying to make believe.

On January 31, 35 miles from Recife, Admiral Allen Smith, wearing a life jacket, met Galvão for three hours on board the ocean liner. Delgado, as the leader of the Portuguese opposition, was not on board. That same day, ABC published the following information: “If an agreement is reached between Galvão and Smith, the passengers of the Santa María will leave the ship today.” “The hijacking of the ship has taken on an intense political turn, it is unknown what will happen after the evacuation of the passage,” the news pointed out.

Political asylum

On February 2, the ship anchored in Recife, where Galvão gave a press conference with Delgado, who had come on board in the last hours. The passengers and crew finally disembarked amid a large crowd and the command agreed to stay in Brazil, where they obtained political asylum. “It’s about time1 What a nightmare!” One of the victims told ABC. «I thought I was not going to be able to tell. They were a few days of terror that I will never forget. A 19-year-old son of mine who accompanies me lost six kilos of weight on board. And for refusing to leave the deck he was about to be shot. Another poor man showed signs of having lost his mind, and it was not for less, “added another.

The ocean liner was delivered to the Colonial Navigation Company. Days later, the press reported the alleged USSR connection to the kidnapping, even pointing to the Soviet ambassador in Morocco and some African politicians. «It is symptomatic that the Marxists of this continent present Galvão’s odious adventure as a symbol of protest and liberation. The Kremlin, the Soviet bloc and the communist forces of the world overturn their propaganda describing the agitators as friends of the African nations hostile to colonialism. In order to saturate the poisoned atmosphere of confusion around this mad and criminal aggression, Moscow has affirmed that ‘Galvão is supported by Africans’ ”, could be read in the newspaper ‘El Día’, February 3, 1961.

The ‘Operation Dulcinea’ did not achieve its objective. Franco remained in power until his death in 1975 and Salazar until 1968, two years before his death. What the members of the DRIL achieved with the Santa María crisis was to draw attention to the Spanish dictatorship and, above all, the Portuguese dictatorship. The latter “thanks to an open letter written by Galvão to Salazar in which he denounced state corruption,” says Ferrari.

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