Not a victim, not a hero, not a martyr

Read the story of ‘Joseba,’ who received death threats for refusing to pay ETA’s extortion demands

Luz Sánchez-Mellado

Joseba would rather start the interview by not talking. “I’d like you to listen to this, then you can ask me whatever you want,” he suggests, putting on a song by the Basque-born songwriter Tontxu on the car radio, before driving off to an undisclosed location. The song title is En el medio (In the middle), and Joseba says that the lyrics capture the way he feels about the story he wants to tell the world today.

Joseba with one of the extortion letters from ETA.
Joseba with one of the extortion letters from ETA.Javier Hernández Juantegui

And he had been wanting to tell his story. To start letting go. To pay his dues to himself. Recently, when he heard about a new study about Basque business people who suffered extortion from ETA for years (Misivas del terror, or Letters of terror), Joseba decided that it was now or never.

By the time the song ends, this sturdy-looking 50-year-old man has tears in his eyes and a lump in his throat. “That’s how I feel: in the middle. I didn’t pay, but I have come to understand, which is not the same as to justify, those who did, both the victims [of extortion] and even those who pulled the trigger,” he reveals. “You have to go through it in order to understand it.”

The police didn’t protect you if you didn’t pay. And if you paid, you were a criminal

The first letter from ETA that he remembers arrived at his parents’ house when he was a child. Yet it was not the first one that his family had received. The first letters had been addressed to his grandfather back in the 1970s.

The family patriarch had been a Basque fighter on the Republican side, and he had gone on to create a business that employed around 10 people. This made him a “capitalist” in the eyes of ETA, which asked him for “a contribution to the armed struggle in the Basque Country.” The sum: 10 million pesetas, the equivalent of over €60,000. In 1981, Joseba’s grandfather received one last written warning, telling him that if he did not pay up within 20 days, he would be “executed.”

But Grandpa didn’t pay.

And so, when Joseba’s father received a letter of his own demanding payment of €36,000, “that is when I began to get weighed down by my own baggage.” Joseba sees it as the “inheritance” that he received from his elders.

But his aita (Basque for father) didn’t pay, either. And one day, when he was already married with children and a business of his own, Joseba went out to lunch with his widowed mother. The latter handed him an envelope with his name on the front and his dead father’s name scrawled on the back. Joseba knew that his time had come.

He felt surprised, “even though you always know that as a middle-class entrepreneur, you are a target. They didn’t dare go after the big fish. But you still wonder ‘why me?’ You think: my family are good people, I’ve been flying the ikurriña [Basque flag] ever since I was a child, I went to school without speaking a word of Spanish, I am Basque down to the marrow of my bones, I don’t deserve this.”

In 2011, ETA announced a permanent end to its decades of violence.
In 2011, ETA announced a permanent end to its decades of violence.

—And the others did deserve it?

—I’m not saying that, but when they put you into a game of Russian roulette, you don’t feel empathy. You just hope that you won’t get the bullet when it’s your turn.

Joseba, clearly, is not one to beat about the bush. And as soon as he opened up the letter demanding €41,675, which he assumed was his “inherited debt” plus interest, he made a decision.

“I wasn’t going to pay, ever. It was a matter of principle. I suppose that the fact that neither my father or grandfather paid also had an influence. We didn’t talk about it. We’re not the type to give our children explanations. We act, and that’s all,” he explains.

“I did not hesitate when I started getting more letters, either. Once you make a decision, that’s it. A Basque never retreats.”

And there were more letters indeed. The last one arrived in 2005 and in it, Joseba was officially declared “an operational target of ETA.” In other words: he was in their crosshairs. And that is when Joseba became “lame.”

“Living under a death threat is like being lame. It happens to you, and you learn to live with it,” he says.

You can’t be scared shitless for all of eternity

From that moment on, besides always looking under the car and changing his routes – a practice that he eventually abandoned because “you can’t be scared shitless for all of eternity” – Joseba began building up his emotional shield and loading his baggage with more rocks.

Back then, everyone in the Basque Country knew what was going on, and everyone knew that everyone knew, but everyone kept quiet and pretended that nothing was happening.

“You can’t go around crying on people’s shoulders,” says Joseba. “It’s just not a topic of conversation. Of course I know people who paid: the father of a friend of mine paid, not once but several times, because once you entered the circle, ETA never let you go. It was between €6,000 and €18,000 every time. Either that, or they told you to go to a travel agency and pay for the bus that would take relatives of ETA prisoners to the penitentiary for a visit.”

Joseba told his wife at the time, and his children, about his situation. Later, when the marriage broke up, he told his other partners. It was practical information so they could take whatever precautions they deemed necessary. After that, though, the matter was no longer discussed.

He certainly never told the national police about it: “They didn’t protect you if you didn’t pay. And if you paid, you were a criminal.” Instead, he told the regional police force, the Ertzaintza, who “at least gave you options” and did not force you to file a complaint. Joseba did not want to do that, precisely because of that complicated overlapping web of family, friends and acquaintances who made him feel trapped “in the middle” of two sides. Traitor to one side, collaborator to the other.

The abandoned nuclear power plant at Lemoniz.
The abandoned nuclear power plant at Lemoniz.El Pais

“I know cases of people who were victims of reprisals by the Civil Guard. I am not justifying it, but I understand the fact that some people became radicalized. That is why I have even come to understand the [ETA commandos] who pulled the trigger. Their crimes, like their extortion, were nothing personal, the victims were just viewed as symbols. ETA, for instance, did not kill women.”

—There were female Civil Guards who were murdered. They also killed [former ETA leader] Yoyes.

—They didn’t see them as women, but as Civil Guards. And they viewed Yoyes as a traitor within their own home. I am not justifying it, I am explaining it.

An act of contrition

Joseba remembers that every day there was an ETA attack was a gloomy day for him, even if it was sunny out. Just like the day when the young Popular Party councilor Miguel Ángel Blanco was laid to rest, after being kidnapped and executed on July 13, 1997. That was the day that the Basque people began to “show some balls” in the fight against ETA’s terror, says Joseba.

—They didn’t show any before that?

—Maybe they didn’t. Or maybe that was just the last straw.

In 2011, when ETA announced a permanent end to violence, Joseba should theoretically have felt the target on his forehead melting away. But it was then that he really began paying some of his old dues: to begin with, he paid €8,000 in psychologist fees to try to get rid of years’ worth of accumulated tension.

“It’s been a lot more expensive than if I’d paid up [to ETA],” he jokes. Then he gets serious again.

“I am neither proud nor ashamed. I am not a victim, not a hero, not a martyr. It’s just something that happened to me; but I do think that I’m a decent, average guy.”

The car trip ends. Joseba stops in Armintza, in the province of Biscay. From the top of a hill, we see the waves crashing against the walls of the old Lemoniz nuclear power plant, where construction ended 32 years ago after ETA murdered two of its directors. It is a good symbol for the uselessness of 50 years of terrorism.

Joseba, whose real name is not Joseba, believes that in order to start healing wounds in Basque society, what’s required is a collective act of contrition. He feels that he has done his part. “They’re not kicking me out of my land.”

English version by Susana Urra.

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