A definitive ceasefire?

Three years after its last attack in Spain, in which two Civil Guard officers died, ETA is seeking a deal for its prisoners under the political umbrella of the 'abertzale'

The aftermath of the ETA attack in Calvià in 2009, in which two civil guards were killed.
The aftermath of the ETA attack in Calvià in 2009, in which two civil guards were killed.D. Cardona (Reuters)

Three years ago, when ETA had already been in existence for half a century, the terrorist group used a car bomb to assassinate two civil guard officers in the tourist area of Palma Nova, in Calvià (Mallorca). It was their ninth attack of the year, and it came just 36 hours after a failed attempt at a massacre at the Civil Guard headquarters in Burgos.

That very same day, in the Basque Country, radical pro-sovereignty activists (known collectively as the abertzale ) said haughtily that "to think of the police ever defeating ETA is just a pipe dream."

Yet these days, Bildu - the political project recently devised by the abertzale to participate in Basque politics in a democratic way, rather than with guns - has just put up half the cost of rebuilding a monument to an ETA victim in Tolosa (Gipuzkoa). Juan María Jáuregui, a civil governor, was killed on July 29, 2000, and his memorial has been periodically vandalized ever since by local ETA sympathizers. His widow, Maixabel Lasa, directs a regional bureau that provides assistance to terrorism victims.

Three years have gone by since the last time ETA perpetrated an attack on Spanish soil - although it killed a Civil Guard and wounded another in France on March 16, 2010. Nine months have elapsed since it proclaimed an end to violence (albeit without a date for handing over its weapons and disbanding.)

As long as ETA exists, "uncertainty" over an end to terrorism remains

Since then, ETA's victims and the vast majority of Basque political parties have been waiting impatiently for the group to announce that it is making its final exit, but this is likely to take too long , since ETA's line of reasoning conditions its own dissolution to the future of its 634 members serving jail time in Spain and France.

Whether it kills or not, as long as ETA continues to exist the "uncertainty" over an effective end to terrorism will remain. The Catalan Association of Victims of Terrorist Organizations raised this point recently, on the day that authorities - including a Basque delegation - were observing the anniversary of the assassinations of the civil guards Carlos Sáenz de Tejada and Diego Salvá. At another tribute in Vitoria, Salvá's mother said that she hoped to "have the honor of being the last mother" of an ETA murder victim.

36 months without victims in Spain

  • July 30, 2009. ETA kills two civil guards in Calvià (Mallorca) using a car bomb.
  • September 26. The terrorist group ends a period of internal debate that began in the spring. The conclusion: "We reaffirm our commitment to armed action."
  • October 19. The group's political leadership is beheaded for the third time in five years. Police arrest a historical leader, Thierry , in France.
  • January 5, 2010. ETA tries to suppress dissidence among its 750 prisoners by publicly expelling five of them from the group for disobeying discipline.
  • February. Weapons caches are found and seized in Portugal and Ondarroa (Bizkaia). ETA was hiding 1.5 tons of explosives in the neighboring country.
  • March 1. ETA's chief and Beinat Aginagalde, a member of the terrorist group wanted for two murders, are arrested in Normandy, France.
  • March 16. For the first time, ETA kills a French police officer. Soon afterward, eight long-serving prisoners ask for reparations for ETA's victims.
  • May. ETA's new chief and his lieutenant are captured as they were planning new attacks. Two members accused of the attack on Barajas airport that killed two people in 2006 are sentenced to 1,040 years in prison.
  • July. The first ETA dissidents begin obtaining penitentiary benefits after showing remorse and apologizing to their victims.
  • September 5. First anniversary without an attack on Spanish soil and fourth since ETA announced its last ceasefire. ETA sends a press release to the BBC announcing its decision "not to carry out offensive armed actions."
  • January 10, 2011. A new press release to Gara , a radical Basque newspaper, confirms a ceasefire described as "permanent, general and verifiable." The terrorist group declares itself committed to "a process for a definitive solution and to the end of armed confrontation."
  • March 1. The Otazua comando , the largest of ETA's remaining operative cells, is broken up. The arrest of three members clears up nearly all of ETA's murders since June 2007, except the one in Mallorca.
  • April 9. A police officer is wounded at a road checkpoint in France. ETA announces an end to the revolutionary tax it extracts from Basque entrepreneurs.
  • October 20. The terrorist group releases another message announcing "the definitive end" of terrorist violence, after 43 years of killing and extortion. A few days previously, the San Sebastián Forum, a peace negotiation group including Bertie Ahern and Kofi Annan, had called on ETA to declare a "definitive end" to terrorist violence.
  • June 2012. ETA member Txelis writes a letter discussing the idea of making a public apology. Three convicts who express disagreement with ETA discipline are granted parole. ETA asks the European Union to pressurize Spain and France into negotiating while the Basque regional parliament draws up a peace plan.

In any case, the police, top echelons of the justice system, all mainstream parties - save for UPyD and a faction within the Popular Party (PP) - and even Interior Minister Jorge Fernández Díaz are already working on the basis that "this is over," to quote a seasoned antiterrorism expert when he was asked about ETA's real capabilities for action.

The very same organization that the abertzale believed could not be defeated by the police three years ago is now an easy target for raids. In June, for instance, it was enough for the Interior Ministry to send out a situation control message for six ETA members to be detained within the week in such diverse locations as London, France and the Basque region.

Also, since its end-of-violence announcement of October 20, ETA no longer decides its future alone. This is, without a doubt, the most significant difference with regard to the other 10 or so ceasefires of the past, which produced a growing sense of social disappointment and weariness. Ever since the radical world of Batasuna (the outlawed political branch of ETA) realized that it would never reach power and self-determination through violence, and created the Bildu coalition to run in regional elections last year (with excellent results), the terrorist group knows that its own future is now dependent on political issues.

"[Historic Batasuna leader Arnaldo] Otegi and many others worked too hard to get here to allow everything to go up in the air," admitted a representative of Bildu.

But what if ETA gets tired of waiting for a satisfactory answer to its demands for its prisoners (ideally, a general amnesty) and goes back to killing? This fear still exists, but nobody wants to bring it up - not the relatives of ETA prisoners, because it would show weakness on their part; not the abertzale, because it would question the validity of its recent political moves; not the central or the Basque governments, because it would blow up the peace process; and not ETA's victims, because it would prove that their misgivings were well-founded and that this was just another phony ceasefire like all the others.

Maybe that is why, periodically, one hears very similar messages to the one recently voiced by Jesús Loza, the Basque official in charge of Coexistence and Memory: "We are working to ensure that there are no more victims."

But who is working and in what way, exactly? Not Madrid, not the Basque government, nor the Catholic Church have rejected the new scenario of peace unfolding before them, but each institution is working according to its own ideas and capacity.

"The interior minister knows that ETA is not going to kill again, so he is playing with that and trying to win time to put his personal brand on the whole prisoner issue," said a source in the Basque government, adding that they are worried about the effects of "working on person-oriented solutions rather than on a global vision of the situation."

And yet nothing is the same as it was during all the previous, sterile ceasefires. Back then, the terrorists were emboldened more than once by the promise of a political victory that was practically guaranteed by the other side during talks - until they eventually understood that their prisoner demands could never truly be granted by a state based on the rule of law.

Everything is different now: this time there will be no political negotiation, and ETA accepts this just as it accepts the legal impossibility of a general amnesty for its prisoners.

The abertzale, however, will be forced to provide internal explanations to those who voted for them in the regional elections of 2011, believing Bildu (and its associate Amaiur) when they said that joining democratic politics was the right channel for "the pending demands of our people."

And so, a weakened ETA is tasking others with finding a solution to the end of its own agony, in the midst of a general sense of social rejection now that the average man on the street has assimilated that peace is here to stay. Still, until its definitive disappearance, ETA will continue to provide fodder to those who stress that none of its previous ceasefires were ever truly definitive.

The symbolic Basque vote

A recently released report drafted by 20 experts, and which could be the basis for a reform of the Electoral Law, recommends voting rights for Basque and Navarrese citizens who can prove that they lived in the region for five years following the elections of 1977, and who swear under oath that they fled their homes because of terrorist pressure.

Basque nationalist parties are mortally opposed to this idea, while the Socialist Party, now in opposition, says it would require a broad political consensus.

Several experts agree on the great symbolic value of such a move, on its scant real impact on voting results, and on the need to build consensus.

- Pablo Santolaya . Professor of constitutional law and member of the expert committee.

"It is a very old demand by victims of terrorism, and it is appropriate to address it now, during the final stretch of ETA's existence and the normalization of Basque society. But electoral law is very sensitive, and even though reform, which requires an absolute majority, can only be effected by the PP, it is essential to garner support from all the main parties. Constitutionally, the reform is viable albeit exceptional, in that it awards voting rights outside the Basque Country and Navarre to people who left because of terrorist pressure. The expert report proposed a middle-of-the-road formula between two extremes [a case-by-case analysis of the applicants, which was very complicated to implement, or a blanket approval for anyone who states they are victims of terrorist pressure]. An intermediate position has prevailed: a sworn statement by the applicant, whose request may be rejected by judicial authorities or the electoral board."

- Javier Tajadura . Professor of constitutional law and member of the expert committee

"This is not some random idea somebody came up with. It addresses a real problem, which the ararteko already mentioned back in 2009. There were a lot of people, I don't know whether it was 500 or 1,000 families, who left the Basque Country and Navarre because of ETA threats; this affected their right to vote and altered the rolls in their home towns. What we're talking about, then, is a fair measure of redress. It is an exceptional measure that affects the principle of equality, but it is constitutionally justifiable. Legally it is viable, and the middle-of-the-road formula is reasonable: a sworn statement, five years of proven residency, and control by judicial and electoral authorities. This is a symbolic form of redress without any electoral effect. Many people with the right to apply will not be doing so."

- José Luis Zubizarreta. Political analyst.

"This country has experienced the anomaly of having some of its people leave because of terrorist pressure, and this deserves recognition. Then again, so do many other people also under threat who stayed behind. The initiative seems inopportune to me, and I suspect electoral intentions behind it. Besides, the procedure was not right. Before publishing anything about it, it should have been addressed and agreed to by the parties. I am also concerned about the weakness of its legal safeguards. I feel that the system of a sworn statement is insufficient. Very few people are going to exercise this right."

- José María Ruiz Soroa. Lawyer.

"I don't think [the response] will be massive. But it does have enormous symbolic relevance: it's about whether Basque politics must be conducted as though ETA had existed or had not existed. And ETA has existed. Legally it is viable. But above all, there must be a political will. There are juridical guarantees. I don't think anyone is going to bother going through all these steps if they are not a victim of ETA. There is a presumption of veracity working in their favor."

- Francisco Llera. Director of the Basque opinion survey Euskobarómetro.

"It is a matter of justice and normalization to acknowledge the silent, less dramatic victims of ETA, who left because of the latter's ethnic cleansing. It is not possible to draw up a census. It could be thousands of people. But they did not wish to make their situation public, and now they don't want to stir up the past. It makes no sense to open up a debate on electoral numbers. It would be absurd for the friends of terrorists to get their [voting] rights recognized, but not their victims."

Recomendaciones EL PAÍS
Recomendaciones EL PAÍS