Elna, the town that made the independence referendum possible

A small town near the border was the center of a clandestine operation to provide six million voting papers and thousands of ballot boxes for the October 1 vote

A street in Elna (by Gemma Tubert)
A street in Elna (by Gemma Tubert) / ACN

ACN | Elna

October 1, 2018 05:35 PM

While Catalonia remembers the events of a year ago on October 1, 2017, and the holding of a referendum on independence that was declared illegal by the Spanish authorities, how the vote came to happen is still shrouded in some secrecy.

At the heart of the story is the municipality of Elna (Elne in French), in Northern Catalonia, in the south of the French state. With a population of less than 9,000, Elna was the place from where six million voting papers and thousands of ballot boxes made their way south, making the referendum possible.

"It was easier to bring everything in from the outside than to do it from within," says one anonymous person involved in the operation. In fact, in Catalonia, Spanish police made numerous raids on official buildings and private firms, most notably on September 20, which led to the first arrests of the pro-independence leaders who are still in jail awaiting trial.

Many questions about the operation to bring in the ballot papers and boxes remain unanswered, but what is known is that private individuals were involved, hiding and then transporting the voting material over the border into Catalonia. What made Northern Catalonia the ideal place are its strong cultural and historical links with Catalonia.

A clandestine network

In the weeks leading up to the vote, a clandestine network of dozens of individuals, who often did not even know each other, worked with utmost discretion in preparing for the big day. No one had all the information and most of Elna's inhabitants did not even know their town was involved until it appeared later in the media.

"Perhaps one day we will know everything. Or perhaps not," says another person involved with the operation who preferred to remain anonymous. "Here, people just naturally got on with it," he says, adding that "the whole thing was structured in a way that, I wouldn't say was military, but was carried out with plenty of precautions."  

Six million ballot papers

What is known is that just outside Elna a small family printing shop produced six million ballot papers. The commission came a week before the referendum was due to be held, with "someone" coming to pick up the papers when they were ready. No one has revealed the identity of those involved, nor how much it cost.

Nor has anyone revealed any information about how exactly the ballot boxes got to Catalonia. The Ara newspaper reported that the Chinese company Smart Dragon Ballot Expert had sent 10,000 of the plastic boxes to the French port of Marseille, which were then hidden somewhere in Northern Catalonia.

Avoiding police checkpoints

While no one has confirmed the details of how the voting material got to Catalonia, it is known that individuals of all types in all sorts of private vehicles avoided police border checkpoints to bring the material into Catalonia. From here, a second phase of the operation began to distribute the ballot papers and boxes to polling places all over the country.

What is clear is that Elna and the people involved in the secret operation were instrumental in allowing the vote to go ahead. In Catalonia "there were Guardia Civil, crackdowns and investigations," says one anonymous individual, who adds, "the help from Northern Catalonia really facilitated the organization of the referendum."