The Violent Nationalist Group Who Brought Terror To Spain

Last May, the violent nationalist group in Spain known as ETA was supposedly over after almost six decades of horror.

I grew up listening to news of Spain all day long. When my grandfather would visit us in Mexico, he would avidly watch them all day to know what was going on in his country, and when I visited him there it was the same programming. I remember constantly hearing about ETA without really knowing what it was, but soon I discovered that it was something that terrified people after so many attacks and horrors. When I first visited in Spain, I got a taste of that fear because news of the assassination of a high-ranking politician were everywhere, on the television, and people were talking about it on the street. The attack happened in Zaragoza, a place we were visiting the following week, and out of fear that something would happen again, we decided to stay at my grandfather's home in Barcelona.

As time went by, I got used to hearing news about ETA without feeling that fear, but I also became curious about the reasons why they were committing these crimes. These days, sadly, we’re more used to news about terrorism, but back then it wasn’t exactly an everyday word, and I was really intrigued. I learned that ETA had started out as a student group in the early 1950s wanting to subvert and protest the fascist regime of Spain’s dictator, Francisco Franco. So far, it sounded praiseworthy. I mean, my grandfather had been a communist, and his father an anarchist who actually exploded a monument during the Civil War to prevent more accidents in the main road of Valencia. So, where do we draw the line?

One of Franco’s strategies to control the entire country was based on a nationalist principle that forbids the different provinces from embracing their roots. In that way, Catalonians, Galicians, and of course the Basque couldn’t speak their own languages nor celebrate their holidays. This is mainly what sparked the creation of this student group who fought for the right to proudly promote their culture in the Basque Country. In 1959, they adopted the name Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (Basque Homeland and Freedom) and decided to do something more than just organizing meetings and protests. The Basque Nationalist Party had failed in its attempt to fight the dictatorship, so ETA thought they were the only ones capable of actually doing something for their country. They soon became an armed paramilitary group who not only wanted to celebrate their culture, but also wanted to separate officially from the Spanish government.

They held their first assembly in France in 1962, setting a “declaration of principles," according to which they developed the nature of what they later became. By the following year, they already had a program, written by Federico Krutwig, called Vasconia. In it, they clearly define their intentions with the movement, the main goal of which was gaining the independence of the Basque Country and the right to embrace their customs and language freely. Over the following couple of years, they adopted a Marxist philosophy and an anti-religious principle, which obviously clashed with Franco's values.

For some time, people believed that their first attack had happened in 1960 in a train station in Donostia-San Sebastian (Basque Country). However, many years later, it’s been proven that this bombing was actually planned by a Portuguese-Spanish leftist group called DRIL, while ETA was still planning and establishing their objectives and philosophy. It’s now known that their very first attack happened in 1968, when they shot a member of the Guardia Civil José Pardines Arcay after he tried to arrest Txabi Etxebarrieta (an ETA member) on the road. After this killing, they planned the assassination of Melitón Manzanas, chief of the secret police in San Sebastián, who was known for using torture methods on prisoners. He became ETA's first planned victim.

In 1970, they kidnapped the German consul to the Basque Country, Eugen Beilh, in an attempt to exchange him for the freedom of some of their members. He was released a few days later. These first attacks and plans showed them they were capable of obtaining their goals through violence and this became their signature strategy during the next decades. During his regime, Franco managed to change the constitution of the monarchy, and the royal family had to flee the country after pronouncing themselves against the dictatorship. Then, when Franco got older, he decided to name a successor for his regime. The spot went to Admiral Luis Carrero Blanco, a man who promised to maintain the fascist regime that Franco had enforced for almost four decades. But ETA wasn’t going to let this happen.

So far in the history of ETA, Operación Ogro has been one of the most shocking and significant schemes. In late 1973, they bombed the car where Carrero was traveling, killing him immediately. This assassination took them months to plan, and after their success, they managed to become one of the deadliest and most fearsome terrorist groups in the world at that time. Up to this moment, ETA somehow had the support of a lot of people throughout the country. Their attacks were targeted at really bad people who had hurt lots of people in their country. So, when Franco died in 1975, and Spain was transitioning towards a democratic monarchy, people wondered if the group was going to dissolve.

It did, but not that literally. ETA was divided into two different groups, a political one and military one. The military group is the one that prevailed for over three decades. Though the regime was over, they still fought for the independence of the Basque Country, but instead of just targeting high-ranking figures, they now started attacking public places where many civilians were injured or killed. I never really supported anarchism, but at least I can say that my great grandfather's actions never injured nor harmed anyone. That’s perhaps where the line is drawn, in my opinion, and ETA crossed it many times in the eighties and nineties.

After so many bombings and assassinations, in 2006, ETA sent a video in which they were announcing a “permanent ceasefire.” Several talks were held between ETA high-ranking members and the Spanish President at the time, José Rodríguez Zapatero. ETA promised the dissolution of their group and the handing over of all the weapons and ammunition, if the government agreed to give the Basque Country their independence. These talks were actually going somewhere when, in December 2006, ETA detonated a bomb in the airport of Madrid. Zapatero refused to continue the truce talks, and the plans of a ceasefire were over. 

In the last few years, ETA continued with minor attacks and a lot of public threats. But finally, in 2017, they announced that the official end of the group would happen this year. Officially, ETA was dissolved on May 2nd, 2018. But is it really over? Have decades of terror and a really bad strategy to achieve independence really come to an end? Let's hope it's true, and that if they're still looking forward to finally gaining their autonomy, they will resort to less violent means.


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