The heroic smugglers of the Atlantic Pyrenees

The proprietor of The Pyrenean Experience shares the story of the much-loved Basque bordermen.

It was a silent trade, carried out at the dead of moonless nights, and in complete secrecy, lest the mugalari (bordermen) and their families be silenced once and for all. Only now are the adventures of these Basque smugglers of the Pyrenees – sometimes heroic, sometimes terrifying, sometimes even comical – coming to light.

First, it should be said that the majority of Basque smugglers in the past century were considered local heroes and that their packets of clandestine goods were more likely to contain lace or ladies’ tights than drugs, coffee, radios, car tyres, copper, etc – those essential goods that helped breathe life into a starving and deprived Spain during Franco’s regime.

Other smugglers focused on moving livestock over the borders, often taking horses over the mountains from Spain into France, and bringing back large herds of calves, swimming back with them across the Bidasoa River when the waters were low (and when the Guardia Civil were nowhere to be seen).

Koikili Fagoaga Oiartzabel from Lesaka, who now describes himself as an ‘unemployed smuggler’, started his smuggling career when he was only 11 years old. He points out a certain white rock in the river, just south of Lesaka Bridge. If the rock jutted out of the water, he says, then the waters were low enough to allow a safe crossing: the time was then right to head out over the border to pick up the next herd of calves.

However, the mugalari with the most dangerous jobs of all were those who helped to move people over the borders. At different points in history, political refugees, soldiers or Jews escaping oppressive regimes all benefited from the smugglers’ activities.

Between 1941 and 1945 Basque smugglers offered an invaluable lifeline to the COMET network, a resistance network masterminded by Belgian woman Andrée de Jongh and running from Belgium and Holland down through Nazi-occupied France and out over the Basque Pyrenees into Spain, helping hundreds of Allied pilots and soldiers, who were stranded on French soil, to safety. Escorting them over the Bidasoa and Baztán rivers, Basque smugglers and their families were instrumental in their rescue.

There were many reasons why the Basque Pyrenees became a favoured crossing place into Spain. First, the Basque people have always viewed the border as a mere technicality, at times working to their advantage and at other times definitely not. The Basques have occupied these lands since the Stone Age (some theories even date their presence back to the time of Cro-Magnon man) and they have extended families on both sides of the ‘official’ French–Spanish border.

Their in-depth knowledge of these misty, mountainous landscapes, their inscrutable Basque language, their bravery and code of honour, enabled them to set up a formidable network over the border while their isolated farmhouses in hidden, heavily wooded valleys offered good (but not always infallible) hideaways for their charges.

The landscapes of the Atlantic Pyrenees themselves were almost co-conspirators, the hostile mountain passes and almost impenetrable labyrinth of shepherding paths providing the perfect stage for clandestine night-time crossings or gaulan (night work), as it was known in Basque.

With a twinkle in his eye, Koikili recounts some of the ruses of his former trade. His father bought his mother a Vespa and dressed her up in tight jeans, sending her off to the border to distract the eye of the Guardia Civil while he got on with his illegal business. Trucks were hidden in bracken stacks and tree trunks were hollowed out to accommodate smuggled vehicle tyres.

There was the priest who used to cycle backwards and forwards over the border, and although the Guardia Civil had a hunch that he was smuggling, whenever they stopped him and searched his bicycle, they could find nothing. In the end they gave up, while the man of the cloth continued to make a healthy trade … smuggling bicycles! Or the truck that passed over the border full of right shoes that were duly confiscated by the authorities, who auctioned them off as seemingly worthless at a ridiculously low price.

Naturally, as the smuggler bought back his lorry load of right shoes, his business partner was bringing in another lorry load of left shoes over a mountain pass further down the valley!

Basque ingenuity at its best.