No I am not talking about the mayors, elected officials and their cronies who currently (March 2016) languish in various penal institutions in Andalucia. They will never achieve the popularity, respect and notoriety accorded to the bandoleros of the Serrania de Ronda.
Andalucia has been home to bandits of one sort or another since Roman times, the rugged, inhospitable terrain, hidden valleys and innumerable caves of the areas inland from the coast offered ideal refuges to fugitives, but it was during the early 19th century that the romanticised bandoleros first appeared.
In Andalucia in particular there was a large gap between the few very rich families that owned the land, and the many, very poor families that worked it and lived in the towns and villages. The whole province depended on agriculture and, on the coast, fishing. There was no industry to speak of beyond the agriculturally based occupations such as weaving, meat processing, cheese production, wine making, olive oil refining and so on. Communications by land were difficult, the roads being no more than mule tracks, so there was little opportunity for expanding trade and the very landscape that proved a refuge for outlaws was also a barrier to the edicts and governance of a centralised government.
Alongside this geographical environment an almost continuous succession of wars since the re-conquest in 1492 had drained the wealth from the land despite that arriving from the Spanish colonies that enriched the monarchy, church and a few noble families but never percolated through to the vast majority of the population. The final straw seems to have been the Napoleonic wars. French troops occupying Spain were encouraged to forage, indeed they were often not paid at all so took whatever they wanted from an already impoverished agrarian population
Against this background was the realistic attitude of a few men who, for whatever reason; to escape justice following a crime, to set up as guerrillas against a foreign invader or simply as a last resort to help themselves and their families to survive, took to the hills and started to prey on whomsoever passed through their ‘territories’ in particular the mail and gold coaches that traversed the tracks across the Serrania de Ronda, the Sierra Morena and the La Alpujarra regions on their way from the coast to Madrid. They realised that they could not exist without the support of the villagers and rural people so they took a leaf from the legends of Robin Hood and gave a portion of their ill gotten gains back to the resident population in return for food, shelter and their silence.
A handful of men such as the famous El Tempranillo gained a reputation for not only being gallant towards the ladies and gentlemen they robbed but generous towards the peasants amongst whom they lived. In 1828, El Tempranillo, who had taken to the bandit life at the age of thirteen to escape justice following the murder of a man who had insulted his family, announced ‘The King rules in Spain but I rule in the Sierra’. Such was his popularity in the Grazalema area that he and a good number of his fellow bandits attended the christening of his child in Grazalema on the 10th January 1832. The mayor of Grazalema decided not to inform the ‘Holy Brotherhood’ the body then responsible for law enforcement, itself corrupt, and ignored the event.
El Tempranillo eventually became so popular that King Ferdinand VII granted him a pardon and gave him a state position. Not all the bandits were so fortunate, Luis Candelas, operating in the Madrid area, equally respected by the population, was caught, imprisoned and garrotted for his crimes in 1837. He was just 33 years of age.
The romantic reputations of the few spread internationally to such an extent that the bandoleros of Andalucia became a tourist attraction, travellers from Europe expected to be confronted by an outlaw band and there are accounts of ladies being disappointed if they were not.
During the first half of the 19th century the outlaw bands in Andalucia expanded in size. Penny novels and cigarette cards were produced extolling their gallant feats. It seemed to the authorities in Madrid that the entire population was involved with the bandits and that law and order had totally broken down. They were not far wrong. By the late 19th century the character of the bandits was changing. No longer were they the romantic figures portrayed by the pulp fiction. Increasing numbers became bandits to escape justice. They were murderers, robbers and thieves intent only on enriching themselves. The silence of the rural population was ensured through fear rather than generosity.
In 1844 the Guardia Civil was established specifically to eradicate the bandits. It took them ninety years. The last bandoleros was Juan Jose Mingolla Gallardo, nicknamed ‘Pasos Largos’. Juan had been born in El Burgo near Ronda in 1874. He took to banditry at the age of fourteen years and died in a shoot out with the Guardia Civil in a cave near Ronda on the 18th March 1934.
The Bandoleros Museum at Ronda has a full history of the bandits and is well worth a visit.