Jon Nazca / Reuters
Marinaleda's Mayor and Izquierda Unida parliamentarian, Juan Manuel Sanchez Gordillo, 59, gestures as he speaks during a popular assembly in Marinaleda, southern Spain, Thursday.
A Spanish mayor who became a cult hero for staging supermarket robberies and giving stolen groceries to the poor on Thursday began a three-week march that looks set to embarrass the government and energize anti-austerity campaigners.
Juan Manuel Sanchez Gordillo, regional lawmaker and mayor of the town of Marinaleda -- population 2,645 -- in the southern region of Andalusia, said food stolen last week in the robberies went to families hit hardest by Spain's economic crisis.
About 1,000 marchers set out from the town of Jodar - the town with Andalusia's highest unemployment rate - intending to walk across the region in blistering summer heat to persuade other local leaders to refuse to comply with government reforms, deputy mayor Esperanze Saavedra told NBC News.
"We want the government to be sensitive to us and think more about those who are suffering than about the banks," Saavedra said.
He plans to tell mayors to skip debt payments, stop layoffs, cease home evictions and ignore central government demands for budget cuts, a message that infuriates Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy's government as it tries to convince investors in Spanish bonds that he can fix the battered economy.
Sanchez Gordillo and those working with him say they wants to draw attention to the human face of Spain's economic mess - poverty levels have risen by over 15 percent since 2007, a quarter of workers are jobless and tens of thousands have been evicted from their homes.
Media coverage of the supermarket stunt has made Sanchez Gordillo a national celebrity. While talking to Reuters he was approached by supporters who shook his hand and thanked him for his stand against the conservative government.
"There are people who don't have enough to eat. In the 21st century, this is an absolute disgrace," he told Reuters this week in an interview in the Atocha train station in Madrid, tugging on his graying Fidel Castro-style beard.
Seven people have already been arrested for participating in the two supermarket raids, in which labor unionists, cheered on by supporters, piled food into supermarket carts and walked out without paying while Sanchez Gordillo, 59, stood outside.
He has political immunity as an elected member of Andalusia's regional parliament, but says he would be happy to renounce it and be arrested himself.
Unemployment in Spain is the highest in at least 30 years, with almost one in four of the population out of work, with one worker in three in Andalusia being jobless. Over half of young people are out of work.
Meanwhile, Rajoy has sought a 100-billion-euro ($125 billion) bailout for the country's banking system. In mid-July, the government also unveiled a new round of cuts intended to trim 65 billion euros from the public deficit by 2014 and help Spain avoid seeking the kind of full-scale bailout that Greece, Ireland and Portugal have taken in the last two years.
Cristina Quicler / AFP - Getty Images
Juan Manuel Sanchez Gordillo (C), mayor of Marinaleda and member of the regional Andalusian parliament representing the United Left (IU) party, talks with activists on August 8.
The EU has demanded Spain shrink one of Europe's highest budget deficits to prevent the continent's debt crisis from spreading. Rajoy, in power since December, has ordered spending cuts and tax hikes. With poverty rising at one the fastest rates in Europe, protests have gained momentum.
Sanchez Gordillo's activities have garnered praise from some who in Spain, but prompted a storm of criticism from other quarters.
The conservative government says an official has no business flouting the law.
"You can't be Robin Hood and the Sheriff of Nottingham," said Alfonso Alonso, spokesman for the ruling People's Party (PP) in the national Parliament. "This man is just searching for publicity at the cost of everyone else."
Despite the small size of the town where he has been mayor for 30 years, Sanchez Gordillo has long been a fringe figure on the national stage, known for criticism of the mainstream political parties.
He has introduced a cooperative farming system in Marinaleda and has repeatedly tried to take over land for farming, the latest target being 1,200 hectares of land owned by the Ministry of Defense.
His message used to draw only a small following during Spain's boom years when many farm workers, especially in agricultural Andalusia, abandoned fields to work in the profitable construction sector.
But now he has won far more attention as the collapse of a housing bubble forced thousands of unskilled workers back onto farms, while the government sank billions of euros of taxpayer funds into weak banks.
"They say I'm dangerous. And the bankers who are let off for fraud? That's not dangerous? The banks which borrow from the ECB for 1 percent then resell that debt to Spaniards for 6 percent - they're not dangerous?" he said.
Reuters contributed to this report.
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