Throughout its long history, the Sanfermines has been interrupted on only a few occasions, and always for political reasons. In 1937 and 1938 it was because of the Civil War, La Guerra Civil (17 July 1936-1 April 1939) and as recently as 1997, when there was a partial suspension of the fiesta following the kidnapping of a young city council member from the village of Emua in Vizcaya, Miguel Ángel Blancol, who was subsequently murdered by members of ETA, the Basque separatist group, two days later. The word of his death reached us on a Saturday afternoon and brought about an immediate halt to the bullfights. Thousands of Pamplonicas, dressed in the traditional festival costume of white and red, began to fill the Plaza del Ayuntamiento, the town hall square, demanding a suspension of the fiesta. The angry protest continued throughout the night with thousands more filling the Plaza del Castillo demanding an end to ETA. The fiesta finally resumed later Sunday morning, but the anger remained, with several clashes in the streets on the 14th between ETA supports and those who rejected the terrorist group. 1997 was also the year that President Clinton was rumored to come, but that is another story.
The political tensions prior to the start of Sanfermines 1978 were clear. Generalissimo Francisco Franco was still dead (November 1975). Navarra was claimed by the Basque nationalists as part of the Basque Country during a debate on the Constitution. The pro-amnesty week of 8-15 May 1977 had ended with two dead in the streets. In November the same year, ETA had assassinated the commander of the Guardia Civil, La Policía Armada, in Pamplona, only to have him replaced by a more hard-line commander to teach the rebellious Pamplonicas a lesson. This climate of violence during the first months of 1978 continued with actions in the streets by members of the extreme right and by nationalists. In May, the second in command of the Civil Guard was killed while walking in the street. Several Spanish flags placed by the City Council around the city were burned, including some ikurriñas, the Basque flag. On the afternoon of July 3, a group of eight people locked themselves in the City Hall, demanding amnesty for political prisoners and requesting freedom for the 5 detainees who have been rounded up in May after the death of the Guardia Civil commander. Tensions were beginning to boil over and after the death of Germán Rodríguez on July 8, and the subsequent death of another young man in a demonstration of solidarity in San Sebastián, it became difficult for the fiesta to continue.
At the end of the bullfights on the 8th, to the loud applause, whistles and shouts of San Fermín! San Fermin!, a few dozen young people from one of the local Peñas jumped into the bullring unfolding a banner demanding the release of the prisoners who have been rounded up by the Guardia Civil, drawing an immediate altercation between supporters of and those opposed to politicization of the Peñas. A few minutes went by before members of the Guardia Civil, dressed in riot gear and armed, entered the Plaza de Toros and attacked the Peñas. There were about 200 Guardia Civil surrounding the Plaza at the time, all armed. The tension exploded as the Guardia Civil began their attack, first firing rubber bullets and tossing smoke grenades and teargas canisters, and finally using live ammunition, firing wildly into the crowds in the stands. Seven Peña members were wounded by the resulting gunfire. Of the nearly 20,000 people attending the bullfights, many scrambled for their lives out of the Plaza de Toros, scattering through the streets, while others faced the Guardia Civil, throwing anything they could get their hands on, before the mayhem finally spread to the streets surrounding the bullring.
At the intersection of Calle Roncesvalles and Carlos III, at around 10:15 pm, Germán Rodríguez, a young man from Pamplona, was struct in the forehead, according to some by a burst of deadly machine gun fire. 40 years later it is still unknown who fired the fatal shot and the type of weapon used. Germán, a member of the Revolutionary Communist League (LKI) and the son of a well-known local family, died hours later at the hospital.
The riot turned into a full-on revolt, the battle lasting until dawn as demonstrators tried to attack the Civil Government and the palace of the Provincial Council. On the morning of the 9th, the center of the city was a sobering sight with banks, shops and bars destroyed. Dozens of cars, used as barricades, were still burning, more destroyed in the riot. Thousands of tourists fled the city as fast as they could, terrified. In the end, there was one dead and eleven wounded by gunfire, another 200 suffering different injuries during the long night. Protests spread throughout Navarra and into the Basque Country. In San Sebastián, another young man, José Barandiaran, died in a demonstration.
After two days of mourning, on July 11, Pamplona’s mayor announced from the balcony in the Ayuntamiento that the festivities were permanently suspended. As a result of the cancellation, the Sanfermines pequeños (small Sanfermines) were celebrated in September. Interesting enough, many Pamplonicas remember them as one of the best fiestas, without foreigners, a real family atmosphere, having finally recovered the feeling of a local celebration that had been missing since the late 1920s, which, in large part thanks to Ernest Hemingway, had been transformed in a universal party.
In 2005 the documentary Sanfermines 78, directed by Juan Gautier and José Ángel Jiménez, was presented at the Malaga Spanish Film Festival. The documentary provided unpublished images of both the clashes in the streets and the entrance of the Guardia Civil in the Plaza de Toros in coverage that had not been seen since the news on July 9, 1978. This year, 40 years later, we remember those events and say, never again!