The People of Gibraltar
1950s - Las Matuteras - Contrabando de Hormigas

 R. Povedano, Jorge Russo and Alfred J Vasquez - y Maria Mendez

Smuggling in all its forms has always been more or less a constant in Gibraltar, with British and Gibraltarian merchants acting as suppliers and the Spaniards themselves employed as carriers and distributors. For the former it was a risk-free gold mine. For the latter it was a dangerous if economically worthwhile business.

Matuteras in the Neutral ground, getting ready to cross the frontier ( Unknown )

After the end of the Spanish Civil War - and later that of World War II - the economy of the Campo de Gibraltar suffered a severe and prolonged decline. Under such extreme conditions to become a smuggler was no longer a matter of choice. To put it bluntly smuggling was sometimes the only way to avoid starvation.

So who were these people? The word  matutero translates into English as  a contrabandist or smuggler.  In Gibraltar and its hinterland the word is never used for male smugglers who were and still are referred to as estraperlistas with the goods they smuggled identified as estraperlo.

The female of the species, if not necessarily more dangerous than the male, is, however, immediately recognisable to any Gibraltarian as a stereotypical Spanish lady of a certain age, invariably dressed in black and a resident of any of the nearby towns of the Campo de Gibraltar. 

The stereotypical matutera ( 1960s - E.G. Chipulina )

For many years and right back to the beginnings of the nineteenth century lady matuteras were a commonplace. So much so that this specific type of smuggling became known as contrabando de hormigas. It was a good metaphor - there were lots of them and they travelled through the frontier in long black lines.

1928 - The Frontier - Contrabando de Hormigas

In 1850 for example, Robert Gardiner, Governor of Gibraltar at the time gave a good description in a report to Lord Palmerston. According to him, they entered 'the Garrison in their normal sizes but quit it swelled out with our cotton manfactures.’ On the other hand, ‘the carriages' which they arrived in 'come light and springy into the place, quit it scarcely able to drag their burdens.’

Gardiner also complained that the Spanish authorities accepted bribes from every individual passing through the frontier and that ‘their persons and their purposes were thoroughly known to them.’ He was right then and the same general state of affairs remained in force for the next hundred or so years - although cotton goods were to be replaced mostly by tobacco and coffee.

Smuggling into Spain ( 1893 - The Graphic Magazine )

Sixty years later, the then Governor Sir Archibald Hunter, took it upon himself to order that Spanish workers returning to Spain at night should not be allowed to do so through Main Street - much to the dismay of Gibraltar's shop keepers who made a daily killing selling goods for the workers to take back home - the excuse he gave was that the street was becoming dangerously overcrowded at night.

The main culprits, he said, were the huge number of women engaged in smuggling across the frontier, concealing their contraband under their 'baggy clothes', blocking the street as they 'waddled' towards the border.

Sir Archibald Hunter ( Spy )

And even in Gardiner's day almost everybody involved in petty land smuggling was almost certain to be a women. She may or may not have had a job as a cleaner or a maid to one of the local families on the Rock but one can be sure that her life really revolved around the business of petty smuggling. 

One way or another she would have managed to obtain a permit that allowed her to enter and leave Gibraltar on a daily basis.  These ladies were often the widows of working class men and invariably heads of large families of children of non-earning age. Although often stereotyped as old and fat they were not invariably either one or the other.

Most were probably young or middle aged women, prepared to do whatever was necessary to keep their families clothed, fed and with a roof over their heads. In the final analyses, petty smuggling was the most dignified way to do this - despite having to put up with the ridicule, insults, and the petty Napoleonic attitudes of the various officials with whom they always had to confront on a daily basis - on both sides of the frontier.

They were perhaps far more to be admired than criticised as many of them took to their profession because they refused to succumb to the temptation of earning quick and easy money either via prostitution or by allowing themselves to become mistresses of some obnoxious  local big-wig.

In  other words matuteras were people of character who were prepared to confront their difficulties head-on, always well aware of the risks involved, be it through the loss of income when they were caught out by frontier guards or by so called lechuzos who after identifying them as matuteras would lie in wait for them on their way home at night and steal their merchandise.

One cannot call their work a profession, although there was a certain art in doing the thing properly. It required both courage and perseverance. It was the kind of job that never guaranteed a steady income but was almost certain to ensure  many an unpleasant moment in front of an unsympathetic representative of the law.

The kind of goods that these women smuggled had to be of necessity both small and easily concealable on their persons. By the 1950s it was a common sight in Gibraltar to see literally hundreds of these woman at any time of the day in doorways and elsewhere, expertly distributing their cargo over their clothing. But despite Sir Archibald's complaints forty years earlier, I personally cannot remember any sign of dangerous overcrowding in Main Street.

The idea was to carry - visibly - just enough merchandise to allay suspicion. A pound of coffee, or a couple of packets of picadura could be always be found by any guardia who decided to inspect somebody's handbag. It was more psychological than anything else. The guard knew he was wasting his time of course. The bulk of the goods were wrapped around the body of the matutera, inside specially made pockets attached to her petticoatspantaloons and general underwear.

The contraband merchandise was always of little value and less profit. The important thing was that it should be cheap to buy in Gibraltar and easily sold on the other side of the border. As mentioned previously, favourite choices were tobacco and coffee, both of them extraordinarily aromatic. Anybody from Gibraltar travelling to or from La Línea on the buses that plied their trade along the Neutral Ground between the two frontiers will recall the unmistakeable and overpowering smell of these two commodities. It permeated the coaches and clung to its fittings.

Buses at the Spanish end of the Neutral Ground ( Early 20th C - Unknown )

The wonder really was just how on earth the matuteras ever managed to hoodwink the Spanish guards. The answer, of course, was that they bribed them. The standard 'tip' to avoid a humiliating hand search by the carabineros was five pesetas.

On the whole tobacco took precedence over coffee not just for matuteras but on a much larger scale by professional esptraperlistas. In those days just about every male on either side of the border smoked.  Coffee one could do without - smoking was addictive.

Tiene la molinera
En su molino,
La perdición del hombre
Tabaco y vino.

No shortage of wine in Spain but tobacco was a problem. The stuff produced in those days by the Spanish Government run La Tabacalera was dreadful not just because of the quality of the leaf but because of the way it was processed.

To give a modern reader a flavour of what it was like, the top of the range rolled cigarettes which was marketed as Extrafino, were known locally as mataquintos - soldier killers! It was rare indeed to find a cigarette that didn't have a tronco - that useless midsection of the tobacco leaf that was as proof to lighting as asbestos. The tobacco sold for rolling one's own - Picadura Selecta - was almost entirely made of dust and troncos.

Picadura Selecta

The British American stuff - known as tabaco rubio with Craven A and Players Navy Cut being good examples - was the kind of gold dust that the matuteras usually left to the professionals as it was far too expensive to buy.

A stall in La Línea selling the local delicacy - grilled dry octopus - and perhaps the odd packet of 'imported' Players Navy Cut.

But even the cheaper Gibraltarian produced picadura - which was what they really concentrated on - was considered top quality in comparison to anything that La Tabacalera could produce - and there was a wide choice of both cigarettes and picadura to choose from all of them produced in factories owned by local Gibraltarian families - from the smooth aromatic El Cubanito right through to the very strong Aquila Imperial as well as other classics such as Monte Carlo.

El Cubanito - Produced by R. Povedano - Main Street, Gibraltar

El Aquila Imperial - Produced by Jorge Russo, Tras los Cuartos, and 8 Main Street, Gibraltar

Monte Carlo - Produced by Alfred J. Vasquez, Gibraltar.

Occasionally other types of merchandise were also smuggled into Spain - as suggested by the following post-war ditty;

Tres cosas no hay en España
Azúcar café y jabón
El que tenga alguna de ellas
Es que lo trae del Peñón.

Even some which did not seem to lend themselves to contraband made their way across the border.  As a boy I remember watching a certain Maria Mendez preparing to smuggle some butter over the frontier. Maria was our very own 'washer woman', in many ways a symbol of the huge economic difference that existed between the British Colony and its post Spanish Civil War neighbour. My family were poor by Gibraltarian standards but we were still able to afford employing women like Maria to wash our clothes.

That day I watched enthralled as Maria carefully cut several bread rolls in half, hollowed out the middle section and stuffed the space with butter. The result looked quite innocent. In fact it was quite innocent. Maria was simply taking home a commodity that was either scarce or unavailable across the border.

Some of the more enterprising matuteras sometimes came to an arrangement with lorry drivers who would take them into Gibraltar and bring them back. It was a dangerous business for the drivers. If they were stopped by a guardia they ran the risk of being considered as accomplices and were dealt with accordingly.

For the outsider there was always a sense of unease when one caught a glimpse of small groups of ladies huddled together inside the dark rooms of the Spanish frontier buildings, some with anguished looks on their faces, some of them in tears, others with furious looks, all essentially resigned to taking a heavy loss as goods were confiscated and fines levied.

Today - at least in my case - that sense of unease has been replaced by a different kind of emotion as I have come to realise that those heavily laden matuteras were brave women coping with hard times in the best way they could.

Gibraltarians tended to treat them as some sort of a joke. Perhaps some of us may unthinkingly still do so even now.  If so, we should think again. Those woman, mothers and grandmothers to so many of our neighbours in the Campo area, deserve both our admiration and our respect.

Photograph titled 'A group of female smugglers parade their wares in the Spanish town of La Línea de la Concepción which acts as a trade centre for the British dependency of Gibraltar  ( 1934 - Fox Photos )