This article was translated by John R. Bopp
Today, we’re talking about a research article published by journalist and filmmaker Unai Aranzadi about a Basque who had one of those lives that just leaves you in awe.
Pedro Baigorri was a person who lived his 33 years on this planet intensely, from his birth in rural Mañeru to his death in the Serranía del Perijá, in northern Colombia near the Venezuelan border. His was a life that was literally cut short by the burst of an army machine gun.
This is a can’t-miss story.
THE UNPUBLISHED STORY OF PEDRO BAIGORRI
A report by Unai Aranzadi
The first time I heard about a Basque who died in Colombia trying to open a guerrilla focal point was at the beginning of 2005, during a visit to a camp of the National Liberation Army (ELN, Ejército de Liberación Nacional). Year after year, I found out more, and what started out sounding like a legend ended up being a moving biography, unknown until today.
The most veteran soldiers of the ELN referred to him as Pedro Irragorri, or other times as just “the Basque cook.» In Cuba, in Colombia, and even in Europe, every time I met with soldiers in what is still today the oldest guerrilla force in the world, the references to this enigmatic figure about whom I could find no written information or data, or even proof of his existence, were so vague and diffuse as the stories that are often told by those who believe they’ve seen a ghost. Was he just a legend? And if he wasn’t, how much truth was there in all those episodes that made him an extraordinary figure, worthy of a novel? As the years went by, anxious for solid data and facing the oral stories that many told me, I started to fill in the body of the surprising biography of a real person, who was a cook, who knew the Castro brothers and Che in Cuba well, who died in 1972 at the hands of the Colombian army in the northeast part of that country, erasing, after his martyrdom, any trace that could prove his existence.
But it was not in one of those visits to the ELN soldiers in Colombia, nor in one of my encounters with the refugees of this guerrilla in Cuba where I finally found the key to solving the mystery; it was in San Sebastian, and thanks to Fermin Munarriz, a friend and journalist at Gara, where I could finally learn the truth. Using his wits and working with minimal data, Munarriz was able to definitively conclude that the person in question had the surname Baigorri, which is a common surname in Navarre, the land where he grew up and where his mother still lives. Neither slow nor lazy, he didn’t use any favors or search on Google, he simply grabbed a telephone book and started calling, one by one, all those homes in the Pamplona area with the Baigorri surname; they were more than a few. Luck, destiny, or just journalistic tenacity based on the art of trying, finally shone the light on the house of Pablo, the older brother of our fascinating protagonist, Pedro María Baigorri Apeztugia. A few weeks later, we met at 3:00 at the Pamplona Lagnak Mendi Taldea. It was the first time anyone had interviewed him to learn this amazing story.
The Baigorri Apezteguia family is originally from Mañeru, near Lizarra, a land rich in wine, but Pedro grew up in Etxarri-Aranatz, “because our father,” explains Pablo, “was sent there.» Among the tons of maps that speak volumes about the family’s interest in the mountains, he got more comfortable and began speaking. “After the Spanish Civil War, my father was in a bad place and couldn’t find work. Even though he had been in favor of the Republic, he went where he could find work, and joined the Civil Guard, and that’s why my brother, who was born at the end of the war, in 1939, grew up in Etxarri, where he played with the other kids, spoke Basque, and was happy, so much so that whenever he returned from abroad he went back to the town.”
In the long night that was the Basque-Navarrese post-war period, there were plenty of sorrows. In the case of his family, they were mostly economic. “We were three brothers, and my mother was a housewife. So, since he was the oldest, Pedro Mari had to start working early. His first steady job was at the age of sixteen in the Yoldi Hotel, which, in the middle of the fifties, was the nicest hotel in Pamplona.» But the fact that both inside and outside the home political discussions were conspicuous by their absence did not mean that they didn’t exist. “In the kitchen at the Yoldi Hotel, there was a man who was older than my brother who really got him interested in the world of cooking. This cook was from Gipuzkoa, and must have been on the political left. He was like a father to my brother, and his influence on Pedro Mari was decisive.»
In Pamplona, Pedro proved to have many concerns. He became a member of the city library, practiced judo, went to the cinema sometimes to see the same film twice in a row, and spent a lot of time with his friends enjoying festivals like San Fermin. “Although there were times he didn’t speak much, and he wasn’t one to drink much, he did like the fiestas, if not the running of the bulls. He didn’t think it was worth it to lose one’s life to the horns of a bull. He always said that dying that way was wasting a life,” recalls his brother. Quite quickly, the young Baigorri started showing signs of being skilled at the culinary arts.
With a recommendation from his mentor, he made the jump to San Sebastian, where he became part of the team of cooks at the luxurious María Cristina Hotel. “There he made friends, went out dancing, and went to the beach at La Concha,” states Pablo, showing a photograph of a group of young people, wherein one can see a robust and smiling Pedro. “He was responsible. We needed help at home, and he sent us part of his earnings. Always, always. He never stopped.” By then, Pedro’s political concerns were well developed, but, either he didn’t want to, or he never saw the right time, or he simply never found the strength to let them be known at home. “He never told us anything, although I believe he had already decided to get in with something on the left, but this was in the fifties, and there wasn’t much happening, or at least he didn’t know how to knock on doors.» One day, just as Pablo was getting started with his day, a leader in Franco’s guard came to give him some unexpected news: “The Generalissimo is coming to the hotel and you have to make his lunch.» A few hours later, the dictator enjoyed a menu by the same Navarrese who would, a few years later, cook innumerable times for Fidel Castro, his brother Raúl, and Che Guevara.
Working for over forty years as a text composer at the presses for the Diario de Navarra have made Pablo Baigorri a man who pays attention to the detail. “One day, he told us that he was going to Paris. At the end of the fifties, especially for someone so young, there were reasons behind that.» “Do you think he went looking for the revolution abroad so as to avoid facing his father at home?” I ask. “Yes, I have thought that at times,” he responds loud and clear. But the trip to the City of Lights was justified professionally. After a stint at a Spanish restaurant in the Latin Quarter, he started working at a prestigious 5-star hotel: The Prince of Wales.
As happened to so many of his compatriots, in Paris, Pedro felt freer than ever. He bought a bicycle which he used to cross the city from end to end, he had snacks with some cousins who lived in the city, and he signed up for French classes at the Nouvelle Université. It was there that he fell in love with a young Mexican girl who, after many international tours as a folkloric dancer, had decided to take a sabbatical and learn French in the French capital. Her name was Colombia Moya, and she was the daughter of a well known scenographer who had moved from Medellín to Mexico City in the 1930s. Together these two became regulars among the leftist refugees, who, because of the United States’ Monroe Doctrine, where slowly pouring in from Latin America. The bars and restaurants of the Latin Quarter were their natural habitat, and that shared idealism grew even stronger upon hearing the news from Cuba that the July 26 Movement had just triumphed. The sixties were just getting started, taking over was possible, and what had until then seemed like a utopia was now a consolidated government with a seat in the United Nations. More than fifty years later, at a restaurant on Mexico City’s Avenue of the Insurgents, Colombia Moya broke her half century of silence to talk about that time in Paris as a comrade and sentimental partner to Pedro Baigorri. “Yes, I met him at the Nouvelle Université of the Sorbonne. I remember him with large shoes, and as an exotic character because of his work as a well-known chef. We had some friends in common, and we both fought the fight together doing those things that people did back then.» In the small movie clubs of France, the youth were outraged by films about the situation in Algeria, Vietnam, and other world conflicts. “Irregular war was on the rise,” and however it was, the Mexican dancer dropped hints about how they moved around “with false names, in clandestine cells,” distributing tasks she prefers to not remember. “It was a long time ago and that life is over, not that that means that I’ve had a change of heart or that I regret anything. When I see that worm speaking ill of Cuba…Never that.» The lady, wary and elegant, gives no specific names, nor speaks of initialisms or organizations. Nor does she want to let this first date drag on, or be photographed at all. “It’s just that, in the end, I believe that after two years, in ‘62 or ‘63, he told me he wanted me to come with him to Cuba, and we went. I had already been to that island thanks to my tours, and I loved it,” she says coquettishly.
A good part of the Parisian Left, especially among Latin Americans, orbited around the new Cuban delegation. According to witnesses at the time, it seems plausible that Pedro Baigorri came into the good graces of Ambassador Rosa Elena Simeón, both for his revolutionary determination and for sharing Navarrese roots with him. “In Paris, Antonio Núñez Jiménez met Pedro, and offered him to take over a project to grow mushrooms in Cuba, which I myself took by plane, leaving Europe weeks after Pedro had done so,” recalls Colombia Moya, making it seem like she’s really struggling to remember. Núñez Jiménez, like his friend, the ambassador in Paris, Rosa Simeón, was a man of science. He also had a beard, and had been a part of the revolution with Fidel since their days in the Sierra Maestra. Founder of the Cuban Speleology Society and then-director of the National Institute for Agrarian Reform, he saw in Pedro the qualities necessary to be invited as one of the so-called “technicians”, a kind of cooperative militia, in which experts from diverse areas contributed to strengthening the Cuban revolution. Many of them, including Pedro himself, stayed at the now mythical Habana Libre Hotel, which they left every morning for the caves where they were trying to grow the mushrooms to feed the generations of children left malnourished by the Fulgencio Batista dictatorship. “Yes, but more than that, Pedro Mari also dedicated himself to bringing wine to the island. I know this because once, when I was in the mountains, a girl from the Sarriá Wineries surprised me by saying that my brother had placed a huge order with them in the mid-sixties,” recalls Pablo, his eyes still wide with surprise.
When Colombia Moya reached Havana, the couple moved into a small chalet in Miramar, just next to the home of Núñez Jiménez. The dancer, today an internationally prestigious choreographer, rescues stories from parts of her memory she’d believed locked up forever. “In Cuba, Pedro began rubbing shoulders with the elite. They all trusted him. Fidel appreciated him, as did Raúl. I remember the day I met Che at a dinner among our circle. Fidel was very expressive and talkative, but Che observed in silence from his corner. He was very beautiful and very pleasant. He seemed like an angel.» It was now the mid-sixties, and in Pamplona, the Baigorri Apezteguia family received letters from Pedro. They contained photographs showing him hunting with Raúl Castro. In others, he’s with Fidel. And in others, he’s dressed in olive drab with a pistol on his hip. “But it’s a shame, because my mother burned almost all of them,” Pablo rues. “Those were the days of Francoism, and having a son into something like that, so deeply, so high up, was scary.» As time went by, reaching 1965, the relationship between Pedro and Colombia deteriorated, and one day the dancer decided to return to Mexico. “From that day on, I never saw him again.» Nor was the experiment with the mushrooms the Cuban institutions had placed in his hands going well. Without a love to anchor him, and far from his roots, the young Navarrese deepened his determination to give his all to the most combative internationalism. The decision was made. He’d take the guerrilla war course the Cubans offered some revolutionary groups in the Americas. Aware of the dangers facing someone who made such a decision, Fidel expressed his displeasure with the idea of his predictable departure. He wanted him close. He was his trusted chef.
Among the many and diverse Latin American leftist political groups that passed through Havana, Pedro met a doctor who caught people’s attention wherever he went, since he was over 2m (6’6”) tall, talked non-stop, and even after having gotten his degree at Harvard, had opted to leave behind a promising professional career to dive into the people’s war. His name was Tulio Bayer, a man with romantic inclinations who, in 1961, participated, alongside other idealists, in an ephemeral but glorious guerrilla fight in the department of Vichada, in the east of his native Colombia. After a series of small victories, his guerrilla was choked out by the army, but those fights, as modest as they were, gave him a great reputation and certain international street cred, as this was, according to some, the only guerrilla that gained any notoriety in South America soon after the success of the Cuban revolution.
In Cuba, alongside Tulio Bayer, there was a young sociology student named William Ramírez Tobón. In less than a year, Pedro, William, and Tulio became a unique guerrilla of three. Sitting on a couch in his Bogotá apartment, William Ramírez Tobón, now a university professor, remembers it all so: “We did the guerrilla course together. Really good and intensive, about three months or more. We learned things like how to use explosives, guns, and communications. Upon finishing, when it came time to travel to Colombia to start our insurrection, we did it via Paris, as a distraction so that they wouldn’t see that we were coming from Cuba.» Making the most of his stay in Europe, William traveled with Pedro to Navarre. It would be the last time his parents would hug their child. “I was in the Baigorri’s town with his family. I remember that Pedro deeply respected his father, who was very tall and looked like a farmer,” says William, who, like Colombia, had rather vague memories.
Following the focalism theories set out by Ernesto Guevara and Régis Debray (theories that encouraged armed action even if the subjective conditions weren’t yet right), Tulio, William, and Pedro moved to Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta to put them into practice. Poorly armed, with no communications systems, and with a trusted person who supplied them with provisions every fortnight as their only ally, their precariousness was notable. However, they were warmly welcomed by the inhabitants of the mountains. The fact that Tulio was a doctor played in their favor, as the lack of medical care in that area was total. “But as the weeks went by, Tulio began drinking too much. He spent the whole time getting drunk, writing, and smoking, until one day I told Pedro that he needed a good talking-to. We did, but Tulio denied everything, and from then on he knew that I was his opponent there.» One day when food was getting scarce, Tulio proposed going hunting. “‘You go ahead and I’ll follow you,’ Tulio told me. And just then,” remembers William, “I see him turn, aim at me, and fire. Fortunately, he didn’t hit me and I got away, but the madman almost killed me.» Back at camp, William told Pedro they needed to have a trial and kill Tulio. “But when I told Pedro that, his eyes went wide with panic, and he told me, ‘How can you think such a thing?’ I think Pedro was a softie at heart. So, totally pissed off, I told him that we didn’t have to kill him, but that we should leave him behind, and that’s what we did. We left without telling him.» Tulio Bayer would end up exiled in Paris, translating for Le Monde, trying to get back into his vocation as a writer, claiming that Pedro and William and betrayed him. A version of events that almost no historian takes seriously.
Back in Bogotá, Pedro and other partners created an urban militia while at the same time asking for a meeting with several heads of the ELN to weigh in their entry. Meanwhile, Pedro worked in some of the most emblematic kitchens in the city, such as the now-closed Hotel Presidente, where William was a helper. Time went by and the ELN never received them to discuss their possible incorporation into the armed group, and Pedro was getting impatient, although his companions remember him as disciplined and humble. “Notice how he was someone who was backed by Fidel himself, but he never spoke of it and he never used it in his favor,” points out William. Pedro’s usual silences grew deeper, and overnight he up and left Bogotá to go live in Santa Marta. He was getting something ready. “He was a very mysterious person, and therefore very attractive. Mysterious because he came from the old clandestine school of the fifties, but was very clear about his ethic principles, which were set in stone.» Alfredo Molano, sociologist, journalist, and one of the writers who best knows the story of the guerrillas, was perhaps the last person who saw Pedro before he traveled on his own to the Department of Cesar to promote, with a handful of poorly-equipped farmers, a new guerrilla focal point. Molano, who, like Pedro and William, was one of those young people who had contacted the ELN, remembers the cook as “a rebel Basque who really understood our country, because I believe that there are many similarities in the broken landscape and in the mettle of the people.» But that new insurrection at the base of the Serranía del Perijá wouldn’t last long. Close to Media Luna lane, as Molano recounts, the soldiers from the La Popa Battalion that had been deployed to Valledupar set up an ambush in which Pedro Baigorri died, presumably machine gunned down, alongside two other insurgents. He was about to turn 33, the age of Christ. “The body was practically cut in two by the machine gun blast,” states Molano. A few days later, William heard of his death. “It hit me really, really hard, but I wasn’t surprised. It seemed logical.”
That October 11, 1972, Pablo Baigorri Apezteguia was working at the Diario de Navarra newspaper. As was usual, before putting together story to be printed, first he read the contents, or at least tried to, because, upon reading, “Navarrese guerrilla dead in Colombia”, all he could do was throw the note to the ground and shout at the shift manager, “Do you know you just gave me the news of my brother’s death?” At home, the definitive blow would be confirmed via letter. “Something bad has happened to Pedro Mari,” said his mother after just seeing the envelope. The whole neighborhood of Txantrea attended the funeral, and the parish priest, also a progressive, gave an honorable eulogy, highlighting Pedro’s commitment in the same way that other priests back then defended the “preferential option for the poor” in Latin America. The Spanish police did not waste time calling in the father to be interrogated at the station. “It really helped us that he was a retired Civil Guard; otherwise, the pressure would have been a lot worse,” Pablo points out. Even so, they were put under surveillance. “We could feel them lurking,” he remembers, still overwhelmed. Today, the Baigorri family wants to commemorate the heroism of their brother and uncle, with all the dignity and pride that they were not allowed to have in the dark night of Francoism. And to make it so that this homage culminates in Pedro’s return to his homeland, last year, in the name of the family, I solicited the Colombian Attorney General to find his remains. Thus, a biography that had until now been a legend now enters the annals of history.