Who tipped off the ETA go-between?

As Zapatero government prepared the peace process, someone warned of arrests

The so-called "Faisán case," an alleged tip-off that ruined a major police raid against ETA's extortion network in 2006, is providing new fodder for the opposition in its criticism of government antiterrorist policies. The Popular Party (PP) is demanding that Deputy Prime Minister Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba - who is also the interior minister - explain who provided the terrorists with that sensitive piece of information.

At the time, the Socialist government was getting ready to announce the beginning of official negotiations with ETA (talks that ultimately broke down the following year), and - or so the logic behind the accusations dictates - it was intent on demonstrating to public opinion that the ceasefire was legitimate and that ETA had ceased all its activities.

The voice on the phone said "there are people who want to stop the talks"
In the end, the three men met in a bar in France and a large envelope changed hands
More information
PP flinging "ETA's filth" at Socialists, deputy PM says
Court drops ETA-tipoff case indictments over lack of evidence

From day one, the investigation was plagued by a remarkable series of unknowns. On May 4, 2006 somebody - presumably a police chief - warned Joseba Elosua, an ETA sympathizer and owner of Bar Faisán, that there would be a raid against the terrorist group if he went ahead and met with an ETA activist in the Basque border town of Irún as planned (Elosua's role was to pick up an amount of money obtained through extortion, and hand it to another ETA member back at his establishment). This unknown source also expressed fear that the dragnet would ruin imminent talks between the government and ETA, which had declared a ceasefire two months earlier. The tip-off was successful: the police raid was aborted.

Elosua, who was arrested during another raid later that year, told the judge that a man walked into his bar and handed him a cellphone. A voice on the other end of the line warned him about the imminent police operation.

Now, it transpires that the man who handed him the cellphone was Police Inspector José María Ballesteros, who shows up in a video recording made by police that day. Investigating Judge Pablo Ruz ordered an anthropometric analysis of the surveillance video to try to identify the individual seen walking into Bar Faisán. Experts pointed at Ballesteros, one of three people on trial in connection with this case. The inspector shows up on three occasions that day: between 11:14.05 and 11:14.10; between 11:30.03 and 11:30.08, and again between 11:46.15 and 11:46.25 (with a time lag of three minutes). Ballesteros admitted to being in the bar, which is not to say he admitted to being the person who actually handed Elosua the cellphone.

Meanwhile, the High Court has reached a decision regarding an appeal by Víctor García Hidalgo, who was director general of the national police and Civil Guard at the time and the main suspect in the case (he was subsequently removed from his post). If the ruling is favorable to Hidalgo, the case would revert to a lower court in Irún (Guipúzcoa). Before his appointment as police chief in 2004, García Hidalgo had held several positions within the Basque Socialist Party (PSE).

Recent documents seized from ETA with the minutes of its secret meetings with the government show a Socialist complaining that "as a result of warning about Faisán, a high-ranking police chief has been indicted, and almost the head of security for the Socialist Party as well."

Ever since the court investigation began, one of the main unresolved issues was whether the mysterious informer acted on his own initiative, or whether he was executing a political order from the Interior Ministry. If the latter proves true, the Faisán case would take on much greater political meaning and personally affect Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba. The opposition is pressing this angle to its advantage, as Rubalcaba seems the most likely candidate to replace José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero as the Socialist candidate in next year's general elections, if the prime minister announces he is not running for a third term.

Part of the reason why the Faisán tip-off was so surprising is the fact that the bar had been under police surveillance for years because it was regularly used as a drop-off point for the extortion money paid by Basque businesspeople under ETA threat. Elosua's own telephones were tapped and police had also wired his car to hear the conversations inside. This last fact is essential to the investigation, as the only reason the police know what the mysterious voice told Elosua on the (untapped) cellphone is that Elosua then got into his car with his brother-in-law, and told him all about it during the car ride.

As retold by Elosua, an unidentified voice warned him that his own lines were tapped and the bar under surveillance, that the police knew about the extortion money about to change hands, and that if the ETA member came to see him as planned, they would both be arrested. The voice added, significantly, that this would be a fatal blow to the imminent government-ETA negotiations. The bar owner commented that a member of the police had tipped him off so as "not to screw up theprocess" because "there are people who want to break it up."

The story took on an even stranger turn when police followed the car to France, where Elosua had resolved to meet with the ETA contact instead of in Irún, thinking it would be safer there. Spanish officers followed the car to Bayonne, where Elosua, his brother-in-law and the ETA man met at Bar Talotegui, and a large envelope changed hands. They quickly informed their superiors, who called France, but the police there refused to step in without court authorization. There was a flurry of calls between both nations' law-enforcement officials.

Meanwhile, Elosua and his associate calmly had lunch in Bayonne and returned to Irún. Just a month and a half after these events, on June 20, a police raid did take place, and 12 people were arrested, including Elosua and his brother-in-law. A week before that, Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero had already announced in public that his government would sit down at talks with ETA in the summer.

Judge Grande-Marlaska (third from the left) after inspecting Bar Faisán in June 2006.
Judge Grande-Marlaska (third from the left) after inspecting Bar Faisán in June 2006.J. HERNÁNDEZ

Negotiators under investigation

The three individuals representing the government in meetings with ETA during 2006 told a judge that the negotiations were "like a chess game" filled with "lies and half-truths." Jesús Eguiguren (president of the Basque Socialist Party), Javier Moscoso and José Manuel Gómez Benítez testified between January 31 and March 22 of this year in the trial over the Faisán case, but their statements and those of a dozen law-enforcement officials were kept secret until this week.

Many of the questions for the government representatives aimed to establish whether the executive gave orders to reduce the intensity of the anti-terrorist fight as part of a deal with the Basque terrorists to get them to lay down their weapons.

The meetings took place in June and September 2006. According to the court testimonies, the ETA representatives complained to the government delegation that the executive was not stopping the arrests of ETA members, and was also not allowing ETA's political ally Batasuna to hold meetings, all of which was allegedly in breach of their agreement prior to the March ceasefire. For their part, the government spokesmen noted that ETA had not ceased sending extortion letters to businesspeople, nor had it stopped rearming or encouraging street violence.

Documents seized from ETA, including minutes of its meetings with government delegates prior to the ceasefire announcement, said that "the government is committed to reducing the police presence at road checks" once the ceasefire is declared "and to accept Batasuna [outlawed by the Supreme Court in 2002] back into the political arena." ETA for its part promised "a general cessation of armed action."

The three government negotiators told High Court Judge Pablo Ruz that each side was trying to convince the other by using all types of tricks and even outright lies. They also stated that both sides insisted on making a distinction between intentional breaches of the agreement and accidents outside their control. For instance, ETA said it had no control over street violence, which the government negotiators did not believe.

Tu suscripción se está usando en otro dispositivo

¿Quieres añadir otro usuario a tu suscripción?

Si continúas leyendo en este dispositivo, no se podrá leer en el otro.

¿Por qué estás viendo esto?


Tu suscripción se está usando en otro dispositivo y solo puedes acceder a EL PAÍS desde un dispositivo a la vez.

Si quieres compartir tu cuenta, cambia tu suscripción a la modalidad Premium, así podrás añadir otro usuario. Cada uno accederá con su propia cuenta de email, lo que os permitirá personalizar vuestra experiencia en EL PAÍS.

En el caso de no saber quién está usando tu cuenta, te recomendamos cambiar tu contraseña aquí.

Si decides continuar compartiendo tu cuenta, este mensaje se mostrará en tu dispositivo y en el de la otra persona que está usando tu cuenta de forma indefinida, afectando a tu experiencia de lectura. Puedes consultar aquí los términos y condiciones de la suscripción digital.

Recomendaciones EL PAÍS
Recomendaciones EL PAÍS