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In 710 a hermit’s vision of the Virgin Mary that appointed him savior of Spain and gave him the command to raise an army of holy warriors, the Garduna, was later transformed into a thriving criminal organization that still exists today.
According to tradition, around 710 C.E. a holy man named Apollinario, who lived a hermitlike existence in the hills above Cordova, had a vision in which the Blessed Virgin Mary appointed him to be the savior of Spain and drive the Moors out of the land. At first the holy man was stunned by the very suggestion, but when the Holy Mother presented him with a button that she said had been taken from the robe of Christ, Apollinario knew that he had been given the power to raise a band of holy warriors.
The hermit was blessed with a charisma that caused the common people to flock to his leadership. He told them that those who followed him in the Garduna, his sacred army, would be licensed by God and the Holy Virgin to destroy the invading heathens. There would be open warfare, of course, but they would also be free to plot murders and practice any kind of secret treachery. Those who joined the Garduna would be absolved of all wrongdoing as long as their violence was committed only against non-Christians. Thousands joined the holy man in his crusade against the Moors, and his ragtag army of peasants, beggars, and bandits fought so fiercely under the standard of the Holy Virgin of Cordova that no Moorish force could repel them.
While the Garduna may have harassed the powerful Muslim armies and conducted a guerrilla-type warfare against them, by no means did they drive the invaders from Spain, as legend tells. After about 714, the Gothic monarchy of Spain had been replaced by the conquering Arabs, and a short time after Spain had fallen to the Moors, it became the most prosperous and civilized country in the West. Within a few more years, the Arabs had extended their European empire north of the Pyrenees Mountains into the south of France and from the mouth of the Garonne to that of the Rhone. What remained of Gothic Spain had fallen into decay, deteriorating into a patchwork of petty princedoms, woefully ineffectual against the powerful Moors who had conquered most of the land and established their royal seat in Cordova.
In 732 Charles Martel of France stemmed the Muslim tide of conquest at the battle of Tours, and the Arabs retreated back to Spain, where they retained a peaceful possession of the country for many centuries. Cordova became a highly respected seat of art and learning, and the Arab philosophers became the sages of the West.
With the passage of time, the Garduna degenerated into a loosely knit criminal network controlled by the descendants of the mountain bandits who had followed Apollinario in his crusade against the Moors. Deception and murder were still practiced on a large scale by the Garduna, and they maintained the old dictum that only the blood of non-Christians was to be shed. Perhaps the Garduna would have vanished completely into legend if fifteenth-century Spain had not become a Christian nation and King Ferdinand V (1452–1516) and Queen Isabella I (1451–1504) had not so avidly supported the mission of the Inquisition and that of its chief heretic hunter in Spain, Tomás de Torquemada (1420–1498).
Until the Inquisition, Moors, Jews, and Christians had for centuries lived quite peacefully in Spain. But Ferdinand reasoned that the Moors and the Jews had grown too powerful and too rich. He wondered how much farther he could extend the Spanish Empire if he were to acquire their wealth. Ferdinand recalled the stories of the Garduna, who killed only non-Christians, and he summoned their leaders to meet with high officers of church and state. These officials told the bandit chiefs that they must once again become holy warriors and a weapon of terror against all heretics. All their sins would be forgiven. All their crimes would be pardoned. They were to become a secret society of murderers with the full approval of church and state.
For over a hundred years, the Garduna murdered, raped, and looted on the orders of the Inquisition. Their victims were always non-Christians or those suspected of being heretics. By 1670 the Inquisition withdrew its support from the Garduna, but the holy warriors became a secret cult within the church and continued their attacks against all those who held beliefs contrary to the teachings of Christianity. When the church itself withdrew its recognition of the Garduna, they became a secret society, maintaining always that everything they did was an expression of God’s will and any alleged crime they might commit was free of any taint of sin.
During the eighteenth century the Garduna expanded its profile of potential victims to include Christians, as well as unbelievers, and they began selling their services of murder, kidnapping, robbery, and so forth to anyone who could afford them. They became so powerful and daring that if any member of the society should be caught and imprisoned, the others thought nothing of attacking the prison and freeing him.
At the height of its powers in the eighteenth century, the Garduna instituted ranks within the society which could only be attained by acts of merit. At the head of the Garduna was the “Great Brother” or “Grand Master,” who ruled the society from its headquarters in Seville. Following his orders were the commanders, the district chiefs, and the chiefs, the leaders of individual bands. Under the chiefs came the swordsmen, well-trained men who were responsible for planning the criminal operations of the Garduna. The true fighting men of the society were called the “athletes,” tough and ruthless individuals who were very often escaped convicts, galley slaves, and vicious criminals. Below the athletes in rank were the “bellows,” elderly men who were regarded by their cities and villages as men of good character and who could serve as the disposers of stolen goods for the society. The lowest rank in the Garduna was held by the “goats,” new recruits who had yet to prove their abilities. There were also two female ranks: the “sirens,” young, beautiful women whose task it was to seduce state officials, and the “covers,” whose assignment lay in luring unsuspecting victims into ambushes where they could be robbed or murdered.
In 1822, in a era of social reform in Spain, police entered the home of the Grand Master in Seville, arrested him, and confiscated all his documents. Remarkably, the Garduna had kept meticulous records of all of their various criminal activities from 1520 to that date. The Grand Master and sixteen district chiefs were publicly hanged in the main square of the city. Members of the other ranks of the Garduna scattered and resumed a life of banditry in the mountains.
The Garduna gave evidence of their survival as a secret society throughout the Spanish Civil War (1936–39) when their battle cry of “Remember the Virgin of Cordova!” was heard. Some historians say that the Garduna established their own church, blending their concept of unorthodox Catholicism with a kind of “holy socialism.” With branches allegedly in Portugal and South America, as well as Spain, the Garduna continues to flourish as a criminal secret society nearly thirteen centuries after its conception by the hermit Apollinario.
The legend of the Garduna’s origins resembles that of El Cid (c. 1040–1099), the heroic knight who defended northern Spain from the invading Moors in the eleventh century. No longer legend, the secret society continues to this day in a criminal organization not dissimilar to the Mafia.