There was a time in the early 1990s when ETA prisoners actually demanded their right to serve out their whole sentence. A time of crass domination of the inmates’ collective, when individual solutions were treason. A time when they still believed in victory, and ETA prisoners dreamed of a triumphal amnesty for everyone all at once.
The organization’s lawyers told the prisoners to refuse to accept the state’s conditions (good behavior, repentance) for shortening their sentences, which might have allowed them to go free. The fear that ETA sowed throughout Spain through murder also cowed the dissident prisoners, who did not dare leave the herd for fear of being killed — as happened to some — or for fear of ostracism in their native village, a social unit perfectly suited for revolutionary purity.
If an ETA member had said back then that the prisoners had to admit the harm they had done, accept the penitentiary law of a state they termed an oppressor, had broken with the prisoner collective and had taken the petit-bourgeois road to freedom, as they now have done, they would have been murdered.
The history of the terrorist organization ETA is that of a group that spent its life killing, and arriving late. It also killed members of its own group — Pertur, for example — who arrived too soon at the conclusion now being reached by those who have long made murder a way of life.
Kepa Pikabea — 24 murders, two kidnappings, 30 years of prison on his CV, and expelled from ETA — admits that the strategy of murder has been “inhumane and cruel,” and that “we have committed many acts against human dignity.” He admits all this in Eterio Ortega’s documentary The Light at the End of the Tunnel. After all, 40 years of killing, kidnapping, extortion, hatred and fear have served for nothing.
The balance, political and personal, is grim. After killing 10, 15, 20 people, after spending half a life in jail, you reach the conclusion that all this has served for nothing, that Euskadi might be at the same political level as it is today without almost a thousand corpses.
ETA has gone, in a few years, from refusing to accept peace in return for prisoners, because it demanded independence and thought it could bend the state to its will, to accepting peace without freedom for prisoners. Some 500 ETA terrorists remain in prison, while ETA has not attained one of its objectives. Not a single one.
What used to be called the “armed struggle,” which generations of ETA killers claimed was necessary, urgent and revolutionary, is now referred to briefly as “method,” a term that, while not admitting the scale of the destruction, at least shuns the rhetoric of liberation, and implicitly accepts failure.
What ETA’s political-military branch did in the 1980s — negotiate the return of its members to Spain, organize a surrender, join the political system by renouncing the use of violence; all this without having attained even one of its objectives — is what ETA’s military arm is now doing after 30 years of delay. With 30 years of delay, and a long string of murders. This is the net result of its achievement. It is not without significance that Arnaldo Otegi, who belonged to ETA’s political-military branch, is now proposing an end to violence from his prison cell.
We are a short step away from ETA laying down its weapons, a gesture that will have a symbolic effect, and will mean a further closure of the business of killing. It will be another certificate that, like the prisoners’ communiqué, will attest to the fact that ETA has surrendered, without having achieved a single one of the objectives for which it began killing more than 40 years ago. It will be another gesture to certify the end of violence, one further step in an organization that, after four decades of murders, has only produced death, terror and suffering.
José María Calleja is a journalist.