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Last updated: August 17, 2012 6:50 pm
For Spain’s ruling politicians he is a criminal; for his supporters he is Robin Hood, stealing from supermarkets and redistributing the food to the poor.
Juan Manuel Sánchez Gordillo, the mayor of Marinaleda, a southern town with a population of 2,600, has been catapulted to cult hero status in Spain after setting out this week on an anti-austerity march across Andalucia – occupying banks and stealing food, and enraging the government of Mariano Rajoy.
Earlier this month Mr Sánchez Gordillo stood outside a supermarket with cheering supporters as trade unionists piled food into shopping trolleys and left without paying, later donating the items to food banks for the poor. The raid resulted in seven arrests.
The 59-year-old is also a member of the regional parliament, and enjoys immunity from prosecution. He says he will forgo this right on the march, which began this week with about 500 supporters.
“We are fighting a war for the poor ... going to jail is not important for me, it would be an honour,” Mr Sánchez Gordillo told the Financial Times.
“We are going to occupy all of the banks and supermarkets we are able to in Andalucia. The robbers who have caused this crisis must pay the consequences for what they have done.”
Mr Sánchez Gordillo, who wears a large beard and often sports a keffiyeh-style scarf, said he was attacking banks for repossessing the homes of people unable to pay their mortgages, and supermarkets for damaging local farmers.
“The euro is a fraud that enriches some and impoverishes the rest ... There are families going hungry, and small farmers who are ruined. We are asking for a change of the political model.”
His actions have infuriated Spain’s ruling Popular party, which has called for him to be stripped of his seat for the United Left party in Andalucia’s parliament.
“One can’t be Robin Hood and at the same time earning a salary as the sheriff of Nottingham,” said Alfonso Alonso, parliamentary spokesman for the ruling PP in Spain’s parliament.
“This man is looking for publicity at the cost of everyone else, and above all at the cost of the image of Spain,” he said.
During its first seven months in power, Mr Rajoy’s government has implemented swingeing austerity measures that have damaged his popularity and triggered waves of demonstrations by public workers.
Andalucia, Spain’s largest region by population, has 30 per cent unemployment – the highest of any region within the European Union. It has become a focal point for the government’s drive to rein in regional spending, and earlier this month Madrid clashed with the southern region over new budget cuts.
“This could close 19 hospitals, all of the Andalucian health service, or get rid of 60,000 public workers, one in four of the local governments workforce,” José Antonio Griñán, the region’s leader, said earlier this month.
On Friday, the marchers, who plan to sleep in the open or in parks, occupied a branch of Banco Santander in the town of Mancha Real in the province of Jaén before leaving later in the day.
Diego Canamero, head of the Andalucian Workers Union, was in the branch on Friday. He said critics of the protests were politicians protecting their own interests.
“These are symbolic actions against an unsustainable economic situation,” he said. “The bankers rob us, and take our money to tax havens, and the political parties are corrupt. We live in a culture of robbery.”
Mr Canamero said the marchers were under tight police surveillance, but they would try and “redistribute food for the most needy” if they could. Only staple items such as sugar, olive oil, milk and rice were being taken.
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