MADRID (Reuters) - A Spanish mayor who became a cult hero for staging robberies at supermarkets and giving stolen groceries to the poor sets off this week on a three-week march that could 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.
Seven people have been arrested for participating in the two 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.
"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.
Sanchez Gordillo says he 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.
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."
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.
His home province of Andalusia is one of the parts of Spain worst hit by its crisis: one worker in three is jobless.
On Thursday he begins his trek from Jodar, the town with Andalusia's highest unemployment rate, planning to march across the region in blistering summer heat to persuade other local leaders to refuse to comply with government reforms.
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.
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.
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.
Additional reporting By Sarah White