The final truce: why and how we at last got to this point

ETA's end was brought on by the police and judicial crackdown, and a refusal to negotiate

There is a moment in Steven Speilberg's holocaust movie Schindler's List in which somebody says to the main character: "Let me understand. They put up all the money. I do all the work. What, if you don't mind my asking, would you do?"

The question is prompted by the clear fact that Schindler has not invested anything in the factory of which he is now the boss. Replying, Liam Neeson, the actor who plays the savior of so many Jewish lives, opens his arms out wide and says: "Not the work, not the work [...] the presentation."

Brian Currin and the personalities that he recruited to facilitate the end of ETA have done just that: the presentation. A way of presenting things in the most favorable light possible for the organization, providing them with a pretext to accept what they were being asked to do. Or, if you prefer, to make it difficult for them to reject what everybody hoped they would do: disappear once and for all.

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There are no instruction books on how to disband a terrorist organization. The Baader-Meinhof gang did so through a statement sent by fax to a news agency six years after its last attack; the Red Brigades fell apart after lengthy and bitter in-fighting; ETA's political-military units disbanded by removing their hoods at a press conference in France. The IRA announced its intention to lay down its arms several times before finally doing so through an agreement with the British authorities. But in each case there was something in common: a long-standing and successful police campaign to arrest activists. Disbandment is a decision that the organization itself has to take, but the organization's leaders make that decision on the basis of the continual arrest of its members, which often leads to suspicion, or paranoia that the organization has been infiltrated by the security forces.

Another common characteristic that these dissolution processes have in common is that the reasons for doing so tend to be technical, or for reasons of political expediency, rather than any rejection of violence and terrorism on ethical or moral grounds. The first splits within ETA during the 1960s were explained in the context of the incompatibility of the armed struggle and the politics of the masses that the recently adopted Marxist doctrine demanded. The separation of the military wing in 1974 was for organizational and security reasons.

Even after laying down their weapons, it is also always necessary to justify the violence of the past. It is very unusual that disbandment comes with a critique of the strategy of violence. In this sense, both ETA itself, along with much of the Basque nationalist left, continue in the tradition of their old rivals: "We regret nothing," chorused ETA's political military activists when they disbanded in 1982, replying to accusations from the military wing that they were "repentant."

Thus, the role of the facilitators, or specialists in presentation, is useful in the final stages of the process, but before that, the realization by at least one section of the terror group that it is no longer viable to continue using violence has to take place, and that depends on the courts and the police. In the case of ETA, the process of decline that has led us to where we are now dates back a decade. In 2000, the first year after the Lizarra ceasefire was broken, there were 23 murders, followed by 15 in 2001, the year that the World Trade Center was attacked. The next year there were five deaths, and three in 2003, the year that Batasuna, ETA's political wing, was banned.

This decline was the result of the police's success in arresting activists and discovering arms caches. This last factor was particularly important in demoralizing those who would carry out the armed struggle: ETA's military wing only agreed to disbandment after the discovery of a huge arms cache hidden underground in a field in the countryside outside Bilbao. The disparity between arrests and attacks, or between prisoners and victims, was used by a small group of prisoners led by former ETA leader Francisco Múgica Garmendia, also known as Pakito, to back up his call to end the violence in late 2004.

By that time, Batasuna had been made illegal, another decisive blow to the organization, which has led us to where we are now.

The decision to ban Batasuna was not only legal, as the Constitutional Court would rule, and later the European Court of Human Rights, but was also justified in terms of defending Spain's democracy. It came after ETA changed its strategy. Of the 623 people murdered by ETA between 1978, the year that the Constitution was approved by referendum, and 1995, only 10 were politicians or holders of public office.

Of the 85 people murdered in the following 10 years, around a third was involved in politics: mayors, party leaders, local councilors, and members of civic organizations. This was the result of a decision taken at that time in parallel with the decision to move toward what might be called street terrorism: attacks against public buildings and property belonging to political parties. In September 2002, an ETA communiqué declared all offices of the Socialist and Popular parties as "military targets." It was simply not possible to allow a party, Batasuna, to take part in the political process that was closely linked to an organization that was prepared to kill or threaten politicians. It is worth noting that Brian Currin recently wrote in Le Monde Diplomatique that banning Batasuna was "a vain and worrying approach," and that he was scandalized that the Spanish government continued to portray ETA as a "band of criminals and terrorists."

It was precisely the banning of Batasuna, along with the 305 arrests of ETA activists and sympathizers between 2008 and 2010, that paved the way for the disbandment of the organization on Thursday.

Banning Batasuna highlighted the contradiction, which had been latent since the ceasefire of 2006, between the political and military wings of ETA. The political wing, led by Arnaldo Otegi, believed that the Basque nationalist left would not be legalized as long as ETA remained active, while some prisoners, such as Txema Matanzas, understood that the government would never agree to talks while it was in existence.

These two very different perspectives led to a debate within the Basque nationalist left which in turn led to a resolution supported by the grassroots of the different parties that it was possible, contrary to what ETA believed, to achieve political objectives, for instance, independence for the Basque Country, without the need for violence (although with the caveat, repeated throughout Thursday's statement, that this was also made possible due to the "struggle of many long years.") That is to say, the armed struggle.

Since the debate began there has been a stand-off between ETA and those in the Basque nationalist left. Recently seized documents indicate that ETA's leadership resisted accepting a definitive ceasefire unless the government gave political concession in return.

This is where Currin and company enter the scenario with their so-called International Peace Conference, and a declaration that ETA could not fail to adhere to. The organization has done so without including political negotiations, excepting a vague reference to "a just and democratic solution to the conflict," made in last Monday's declaration. Basically this was a proposal for a unilateral laying down of arms, which also calls for talks to take place on ETA prisoners held in Spanish jails.

This is now the main problem. ETA has rejected a disbandment that does not include channels for discussing the issue of its 700 prisoners and indefinite number of retired activists. It must be thinking that its latent presence is a guarantee that the question will be addressed. But what would actually speed up the process of moving prisoners to the Basque Country, which, according to most surveys, the majority of Spaniards are opposed to, would be for ETA to definitively disband.

To avoid it killing again, its latent presence would be interpreted as a conditioning factor in bringing about talks and even as a way of pressuring for "the recognition of the Basque Country and popular will," a euphemism for a self-determination that is now no longer demanded, but rather seen as a desire or political aspiration.

A woman walks past an ETA mural in Eibar on Friday.
A woman walks past an ETA mural in Eibar on Friday.AP

"A clear, firm and definitive commitment"

The following is the text of the statement issued by ETA announcing its definitive ceasefire:

Euskadi Ta Askatasuna, the Basque socialist revolutionary organization of national liberation, wishes through this declaration to make its decision known:

ETA considers that the International Conference recently held in the Basque Country is an initiative of great political transcendence. The resolution agreed brings together the ingredients for an overall solution to the conflict and is supported by large sections of Basque society and the international community.

A new political age is dawning in the Basque Country. We face a historic opportunity to provide a just and democratic solution to the political conflict. Instead of violence and repression, dialogue and agreement should characterize this new phase. The recognition of the Basque Country and the respect for the wishes of the people should prevail over imposition. This is the wish of the majority of the Basque electorate.

Long years of struggle have created this opportunity. It has not been an easy path. The fight has taken away many companions forever. Others are suffering in prison or in exile. We recognize their sacrifice, and pay them homage.

From now on, the path will be easier. In the face of the imposition that still remains, each step, each achievement, will be the result of the efforts and struggle of the Basque people. Over the years, the Basque Country has accumulated the experience and strength needed to take this path and it has the determination to do so.

It is now time to look to the future with hope. It is time also to act responsibly and with courage.

For this reason, ETA has decided to definitively end its armed activity. ETA is calling on the governments of Spain and France to open a process of direct dialogue with the aim of resolving the consequences of the conflict, and thus overcome the armed confrontation. ETA, through this historic declaration is showing a clear, firm and definitive commitment.

Finally, ETA is calling on Basque society to involve itself in this process of finding solutions until a new scenario is built, based on peace and freedom.

Gora Euskal Herria askatuta! Gora Euskal Herria sozialista! Jo ta ke independtzia eta sozialismoa lortu arte!

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