1981 Spanish coup d'état attempt

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1981 Spanish coup d'état
Part of the Spanish transition to democracy
Sesión Solemne en el Congreso de los Diputados.jpg
Plenary Hall of the Congress of Deputies (lower house of the Spanish legislature), in Madrid, where a group of Civil Guards, led by Antonio Tejero, burst in violently.
Date23-24 February 1981
LocationMadrid and Valencia

Coup failed


Spain Kingdom of Spain
European Union European Economic Community
 United States
  Vatican City

Francoist Spain Neo-Francoist Civil Guards and members of the Armed Forces

Commanders and leaders
King Juan Carlos I
Prime Minister Adolfo Suárez
Prime Minister Leopoldo Calvo-Sotelo
Leader of the Opposition Felipe González
Captain General Manuel Gutiérrez Mellado
Lieutenant General Guillermo Quintana Lacaci
Lieutenant Colonel Antonio Tejero
Lieutenant General Jaime Milans del Bosch
Divisional General Alfonso Armada
All of the Spanish military and police corps except for the rebels 1,800 men (in Valencia)
200 Civil Guards (in Madrid)
Dozens of tanks and other military vehicles
Casualties and losses
None None

The 1981 Spanish coup d'état attempt (Spanish: Intento de Golpe de Estado de España de 1981), known in Spain by the numeronym 23-F and also known as the Tejerazo was an attempted coup d'état in Spain on 23 February 1981. Lieutenant-Colonel Antonio Tejero led 200 armed Civil Guard officers into the Congress of Deputies during the vote to elect a Prime Minister. The officers held the parliamentarians and ministers hostage for 18 hours, during which King Juan Carlos I denounced the coup in a televised address, calling for the rule of law and the democratic government to continue. Though shots were fired, the hostage-takers surrendered the next morning without killing anyone.


The coup attempt was linked to the Spanish transition to democracy. Four factors generated tensions the governing Democratic Center Union coalition of conservative parties could not contain:

  • almost 20% unemployment, capital flight and 16% inflation[1] caused by an economic crisis.
  • difficulty devolving governance to Spanish regions,
  • increased violence by the Basque terrorist group ETA,
  • opposition to the fledgling democracy from within the Spanish Armed Forces.

The first signs of unease in the army appeared in April 1977. Admiral Pita da Veiga resigned as Navy minister and formed the Superior Council of the Army. This was a result of Da Veiga's disagreement with the legalisation of the Communist Party of Spain (PCE) on 9 April 1977, following the Atocha massacre by neo-fascist terrorists. In November 1978, the Operation Galaxia military putsch was put down. Its leader, Lieutenant-Colonel Antonio Tejero, was sentenced to seven months in prison.

While seditious sentiments grew in sectors of the military and extreme right, the government faced a serious crisis at the beginning of the decade, and its position became increasingly untenable in the course of 1980. Key events saw the resignation of the Minister of Culture, Manuel Clavero Arévalo on 15 January; the restructuring of the government on 3 May; the motion of no confidence against Adolfo Suarez moved by the Spanish Socialist Workers' Party (PSOE) between 28 May and 30 May; the resignation on 22 July of the vice-president, Fernando Abril Martorell, which produced a new reshuffle in September; and the election in October of Miguel Herrero Rodríguez de Miñón, alternative candidate of the official bid for president of the centrist parliamentary group promoted by Suárez.

The growing weakness of Suárez at the heart of his own party led to his televised resignation as prime minister and president of the UCD on 29 January 1981. On 1 February, the "Almendros Collective" published an openly insurgent article in the far-right newspaper El Alcázar, which was the mouthpiece of the Búnker hardliners, including Carlos Arias Navarro, Luis Carrero Blanco's successor as Prime minister, and the leader of the francoist party Fuerza Nueva, Blas Piñar. From 2 February to 4 February, the King and Queen traveled to Guernica, where the deputies of Basque separatist party Herri Batasuna received them with boos and hisses and various incidents. On 6 February, an engineer named Ryan from the Lemoiz nuclear project was found murdered, having been kidnapped a few days earlier. Meanwhile, there was no further news about industrialist Luis Suñer after his abduction.

In this tense climate, the process of choosing Suárez's successor commenced. Between 6 February and 9 February, the 2nd UCD congress was held in Majorca, where the party appeared to be in disarray and Agustín Rodríguez Sahagún was named acting prime minister. On 10 February, Leopoldo Calvo Sotelo was named candidate for prime minister.

Political flashpoint[edit]

Tensions came to a head on 13 February, when news emerged of the torture and death in Carabanchel of Jose Ignacio Arregui, a member of the Basque terrorist movement ETA, who had been held incommunicado for 10 days in the General Security Directorate (Dirección General de Seguridad).[1] A general strike in the Basque region and an acrimonious debate between opposing parliamentary groups in the Congress followed. The government then dismissed various police chiefs, while in the Interior Ministry there were resignations in solidarity with the torturers. El Alcázar judged the government's actions a show of weakness that needed to be stopped.

Against this extraordinary backdrop, Calvo Sotelo introduced his government on 18 February, but in elections on the 20th he failed to obtain the necessary majority for confirmation as Prime Minister, so a new vote was scheduled for the 23rd. This was the day that the plotters had chosen for their coup attempt. It would be the result of a strong effort by Tejero and General Jaime Milans del Bosch, on the one hand, and a more subdued one by General Alfonso Armada, a confidant of the King, on the other.


One of the Spanish Army's M47 Patton tanks that was ordered onto the streets of Valencia by Captain General Jaime Milans del Bosch during the attempted coup of February 23, 1981.

Assault on the Congress of Deputies[edit]

Several TVE cameramen and technicians recorded almost half an hour of the event, providing the world with an audiovisual record of the attempt (which would be transmitted several hours after the coup ended). In addition, members of the private radio broadcaster SER continued reporting with open microphones from within the Congress of Deputies, with a significant portion of the population following on the radio. As such the date is sometimes remembered as "the Night of the Transistors."

At six o'clock PM in the Congress of Deputies, the roll call vote for the investiture of Leopoldo Calvo-Sotelo as Prime Minister began. At 6:23, as Socialist deputy Manuel Núñez Encabo was rising to cast his vote, 200 Guardia Civil led by Lieutenant-Colonel Antonio Tejero and armed with submachine guns, burst into the chamber as Tejero took the Speaker's platform and shouted "¡Quieto todo el mundo!" ("Hold it everybody!") and ordered everyone thrown to the ground.

As the highest-ranking military official present, Army General (and Deputy Prime Minister) Manuel Gutiérrez Mellado stood up, approached Tejero and ordered him to stand down and hand over the weapon.[2] Outgoing Prime Minister Adolfo Suarez made a move to join Gutiérrez Mellado. After Gutiérrez Mellado briefly scuffled with several civil guards, Tejero fired a shot into the air, followed by a burst of submachine guns from the assailants. (The shots wounded some of the visitors in the chamber's upper gallery). Undeterred, arms akimbo, the General remained standing. Tejero came down and attempted to wrestle 68-year-old Gutiérrez Mellado to the floor; unsuccessful, he returned to the rostrum and Gutiérrez Mellado returned to his seat.

After several minutes, the Deputies returned to their seats. The captain of the Guardia Civil, Jesús Muñecas Aguilar, took the Speaker's platform, demanded quiet, and announced that everyone was to wait for the arrival of "competent military authority."

At 7:35, President Suárez stood up and asked to speak to the commanders. Shouts were heard and a guard pointed a submachine gun into the deputies' seats, demanding quiet. One of the assailants said, "Mr. Suárez, stay in your seat." Suárez had begun speaking in response when someone shouted, "Se siente, coño!" ("Sit down, cunt!") (Traditionally this phrase is attributed to Lieutenant Colonel Tejero, although it was probably said by Lieutenant Ramos Rueda.) Finally, Tejero grabbed Suárez by the arm and led him out of the chamber to an ushers' room. Suárez asked Tejero to explain "this madness"; Tejero replied only that "todo por España" ("all for Spain"). When Suárez pressed the point, citing his authority as Prime Minister ("president of the government"), Tejero replied, "You are no longer president of anything!"

Shortly afterward, five of the parliament's deputies were separated from the rest: Prime Minister Suárez; the opposition leader, Felipe González Márquez and his deputy, Alfonso Guerra González; Communist Party leader Santiago Carrillo; and the Defense minister, Agustin Rodriguez Sahagun. The insurgents' hope, in taking both the executive and legislative authorities prisoner, was to create a power vacuum that would force a new political order.

Shortly afterward, the Captain General of the Third Military Region, Jaime Milans del Bosch, rose up in Valencia, put tanks on the streets, declared a state of emergency and tried to convince other senior military figures to support the coup. At nine o'clock that night, a communication from the Interior Ministry announced the formation of a provisional government with the undersecretaries of different ministries, under the instructions of the King, to ensure governance of the state and a tight contact with the Assembly of Military Chiefs of Staff (Junta de Jefes del Estado Mayor).

The coup was strongly condemned by member countries of the EEC, particularly as Spain was in preparatory negotiations on membership (it eventually joined in 1986). Margaret Thatcher, prime minister of the UK, called the coup a "terrorist act."

Meanwhile, another insurgent general, Torres Rojas, failed in his intent to supplant General Juste in the Brunete division of the military, giving up the intention to occupy strategic points in the capital, among them the seat of radio and television operations, and the proliferation of communiques about the success of the coup.

Armada's soft coup[edit]

Armada, one of the planners of the coup, had advocated a "softer" course of action, which he put into action. Armada went to Zarzuela Palace, the King's residence, to offer a compromise: He would head a new "salvation government" that would replace the elected government, in hopes of appeasing Tejero and his forces without the full restoration of dictatorship that they advocated.

However, the King refused to see Armada, who then presented himself shortly before midnight at the Congress of Deputies on pretense that the King had ordered him to assume the leadership of the government. But Armada was not the awaited "competent military authority" and Tejero replied angrily, "My general, I have not assaulted Congress for this," and ignored him.

Military occupation of Valencia[edit]

Shortly after Tejero took the Congress, Jaime Milans del Bosch, Captain General of the III Military Region, executed a revolt in Valencia. His Motorized Division deployed 2,000 men and fifty tanks into the streets. The troops were deployed from the port of Valencia to the city center, where they targeted institutional buildings such as the Town Hall and the Valencian Courts. The occupation, which was called Operation Turia, was key to incorporating the other military regions into the coup.

By seven o'clock, Valencian Radio stations began broadcasting a statement of Milans del Bosch in which he declared a state of emergency. Milans tried to convince others to endorse his military action.

That night, the city was surrounded by armored military trucks and other army troops that had left the Bétera and Paterna military bases. An armored column went to the Manises airbase to convince the commander there to support the coup; however, he not only refused, but threatened to deploy two fighters equipped with air-to-ground missiles against the tanks.

Juan Carlos's repudiation[edit]

Juan Carlos refused to endorse the coup. The monarch, after personal discussions with colleagues, was convinced of the loyalty of his military leaders. He also noted the attitude of the President of the autonomous government of Catalonia, Jordi Pujol, who just before 10 p.m. that evening made a short speech via national broadcasting stations, to all of Spain and the exterior, calling for peace. Until 1:00 in the morning, negotiations took place around the Congress, with the participation of the acting government as well as General Armada, who would later be relieved of duty over suspicion that he participated in the coup.

At 1:14 on 24 February, the king interceded on television, in uniform as the Captain General of the Armed Forces (Capitán General de los Ejércitos), the highest Spanish military rank, to position himself against the insurgents, defend the Spanish Constitution and undermine the authority of Milans del Bosch. He declared:

At that very moment, the coup was taken to be a failure. Deputy Javier Solana has described how when he saw Tejero reading a special edition of the El País newspaper brought in by General Sáenz de Santamaría, which strongly condemned the hostage-taking, he knew that the coup had failed.[3] For his part, Milans del Bosch, isolated, cancelled his plans at 5:00 that morning and was arrested, while Tejero resisted until midday of the 24th and was arrested outside the Congress building. The deputies were freed that morning.


Parliamentary deputies and government officials who were taken hostage during the failed coup commemorate its 30th anniversary on February 23, 2011.

The most immediate consequence was that the monarchy emerged powerfully reinforced in the eyes of the public and the political classes. Over the longer-term, the coup's failure may be seen to have marked the final occasion on which Spain's democratic future was at all seriously in danger at the hands of Francoist survivors.

In the judgment of the Supreme Court of Military Justice, known as the Campamento trial (juicio de Campamento), Miláns del Bosch, Alfonso Armada and Antonio Tejero Molina were condemned as principally responsible for the coup d'état and were sentenced to thirty years in prison. Thirty people were eventually convicted for the attempted coup, out of an initial 300 who were involved.[3]

The extent of any civilian plot behind the coup was never investigated rigorously[citation needed]. Juan García Carrés, ex-leader of the Sindicato Vertical (the only legal trade union organisation in Francoist Spain), was the only civilian to be convicted.

Local nationalists have asserted that the LOAPA law limiting the devolution to the autonomous communities was passed to placate the military.

Alternative theories[edit]

The uncanny, bloodless yet apparently chaotic unravelling of the coup, the plethora of unanswered questions on its alleged proceedings, the staunch Monarchist allegiance of two main conspirators (Armada and Milans del Bosch) and the King's lengthy absence before he finally made a late-night public stand are some of the backing arguments for several conspiracy theories emerging during the Campamento trial and active ever since.[4][5][6][7]

These theories cast doubt on the King's role and characterize the coup as an example of coercive realpolitik taken to the next level. The gist of the usual version is that the coup itself was orchestrated by the Secret Services with the complicity of the Royal House and representatives of the main political parties and the mainstream media, among others. The plot's centerpiece and apparent motivation was the so-called Operation Armada, a "soft" coup modeled after Operation De Gaulle and aimed at a national-unity government headed by Armada himself and comprising an array of ministers from all the main parties. A first goal was to oust Prime Minister Suárez, who had been hounded relentlessly by the media and the rest of the political elite for months and even lost the King's good graces, partly on account of an ambitious reformist agenda which had gone off-script.[8] The next goal was a consequence of the former: to rush the country's organic credentials into fulfilling the actual convergence criteria it was being groomed for, namely NATO and EU membership and the consolidation of an effectively bipartisan parliamentary monarchy.[4] According to the rationale provided by the theory, this goal required both purging the armed forces of its most reactionary elements and scaring the common voter into accepting the monarchy and the two-party system as an institutional default.[4][7]

Another, more specific, goal would have been to neutralize an impending "serious" coup due to take place later that year, probably during 2 May.[6][7][9] A major clique among the planners of this coup was the so-called Colonels' group, headed by former SECED chief José Ignacio San Martín; the fact it is colonels and lieutenant colonels, rather than generals, who have direct control over the troops has been mentioned as the reason why this plot was particularly dangerous.[5][7]

According to these theories, Suárez foresaw Operation Armada long in advance. This might explain his unexpected resignation, since the coup was meant to take place during the motion of no confidence due to take place weeks later. The plan went forward in spite of the prime minister's resignation but Tejero's failure to understand its ramifications, his belief it was actually a hardline coup plot, the media debacle prompted by his abrupt entrance in Congress (including his crass, uncouth demeanor captured by microphones and cameras and later ridiculed by the press) and his adamant refusal to accept the multi-partisan government proposed by Armada, aborted the "hard" and the "soft" coup plots at the same time.[7]

Former CESID Special Operations chief José Luis Cortina Prieto, one of the three military officers acquitted during the trial, plays an ubiquitous role in these theories, some of which[5][10][11] place him as a major power player within the conspiracy as well as the man responsible for coalescing all coup plots into one and neutralizing them simultaneously. Cortina, who graduated from the Zaragoza Academy in the same cohort as the King,[10] had been appointed to the Joint Chiefs of Staff intelligence services during the Carrero administration [12] and would later organize the Gabinete de Orientación y Documentación S. A. (GODSA (es)) think tank with his brother. It has been alleged [11][13][14][15][16] that during a lunch break in the 23-F trial, and after being subjected to a particularly intense grilling on behalf of the prosecutor, Cortina grabbed a phone and was heard saying: "Como siga este tío así, saco a relucir lo de Carrero" ("if this guy keeps on like this, I'll spill the beans on [what happened to] Carrero"). The prosecutor's questioning allegedly experienced a dramatic change after the lunch break, and Cortina was finally acquitted.

Arguably up until the work by Jesús Palacios and the book La gran desmemoria (es) by Pilar Urbano, these theses had never found an explicit incarnation in the mainstream, although innuendos and subtle implications were not unusual therein.[17] Some of these implications may be involuntary. The King's authorized biography by José Luis de Vilallonga contains the following interview excerpt: "If I were to carry out an operation in the King's name, but without his consent, my first move would have been to isolate him from the rest of the world and prevent him from communicating with the exterior. Well far from it: that night I could have entered and left my residence at will; and concerning phone lines, I received more calls in a few hours than I had received in a whole month! From my father, who stayed in Estoril -- and was also very surprised to be able to contact me --, from my two sisters in Madrid and from friendly heads of State who encouraged me to resist." Sabino Fernández Campo, chief of the Royal House, expunged this from the Spanish edition.[4]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b El Gobierno nombra Comisario Provincial de Tenerife a un convicto por torturas Archived 30 September 2007 at the Wayback Machine., Armando Quiñones in elzapatazo.com, 29 March 2005 (in Spanish)
  2. ^ És el que hi ha. (11 December 2013). "23F los pinchazos del golpe". YouTube. Retrieved 5 October 2017. 
  3. ^ a b McLaren, Lauren (2008). Constructing democracy in Southern Europe: a comparative analysis of Italy, Spain, and Turkey. Routledge. p. 210. ISBN 978-0-415-43819-3.
  4. ^ a b c d "Wayback Machine" (PDF). Web.archive.org. 13 May 2013. Retrieved 5 October 2017. 
  5. ^ a b c "ULTRAMEMORIAS - Biografía de Ernesto Milá - Página 4". Ernestomila.wordpress.com. Retrieved 24 February 2016. 
  6. ^ a b "Coronel Martínez Inglés: "El golpe del 23-F lo dirigió el rey Juan Carlos"". Alertadigital.com. Retrieved 24 February 2016. 
  7. ^ a b c d e "La Gran Desmemoria". Amazon.es. Retrieved 24 February 2016. 
  8. ^ "Palacios: "Felipe González y el PSOE fueron quienes más avalaron al general Armada"". Libertad Digital. Retrieved 24 February 2016. 
  9. ^ Amadeo Martinez Ingles. 23-F: El Golpe Que Nunca Existio. Amazon.co.uk. ISBN 9788495440136. Retrieved 24 February 2016. 
  10. ^ a b "Los que quedan del golpe". Elpais.com. Retrieved 24 February 2016. 
  11. ^ a b Yolanda Capitán. "José Luís Cortina Prieto". Elespiadigital.com. Retrieved 24 February 2016. 
  12. ^ "El padre del comandante Cortina muere en un incendio ocurrido en uno de los pisos donde, según Tejero, se preparó el 23F". EL PAÍS. Retrieved 24 February 2016. 
  13. ^ "Cortina, en el juicio del 23-F: "Como me jodan, saco hasta lo de Carrero Blanco" : Crónicas del TEDAX-NRBQ del C.N.P." Barbagris-tedax.blogspot.co.uk. Retrieved 24 February 2016. 
  14. ^ "La verdad sobre el magnicidio de Carrero, al descubierto: Peculiaridades posteriores al atentado (5 de 7) – Alerta Digital". Alertadigital.com. Retrieved 24 February 2016. 
  15. ^ "Arbil, nº114 Claves para entender la España actual: El Asesinato de Carrero". Arbil.org. Retrieved 24 February 2016. 
  16. ^ "Archived copy" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 4 March 2016. Retrieved 2 July 2015. 
  17. ^ Manuel Vazquez Montalban. Mis almuerzos con gente inquietante / My lunch with disturbing people (Ensayo-Cronica). Amazon.co.uk. ISBN 9788497934596. Retrieved 24 February 2016. 



  • 23-F, the King and His Secret (23-F, el Rey y su secreto) by Jesús Palacios, 2010 - ISBN 978-84-92654-47-5
  • 23-F: The Coup That Never Existed (23-F: El Golpe Que Nunca Existio) by Amadeo Martinez Ingles, 2001 - ISBN 84-95440-13-X
  • The Business of Liberty (El negocio de la libertad) by Jesús Cacho, 1999 - ISBN 84-930481-9-4
  • The Coup: Anatomy and Keystones of the Assault on Congress (El Golpe: Anatomía y Claves Del Asalto Al Congreso) by Busquets, Julio, Miguel A. Aguilar, and Ignacio Puche, 1981 (written a few days after the coup)
  • Anatomy of a Moment (Anatomía de un Instante) by Javier Cercas (Spanish, Mondadori, 2009, ISBN 978-84-397-2213-7), (English, Bloomsbury, 2011, ISBN 978-1-60819-491-9)
  • Diecisiete horas y media. El enigma del 23-F by Javier Fernández López (Spanish) editorial:TAURUS EDICIONES, 2000 ISBN 978-84-306-0412-8

External links[edit]