Last week, in the small town of Cambo-les-Bains in the Basque region of France — just across the border from the Spain’s Basque Country — the Basque separatist organization Euskadi Ta Askatasuna, best known as ETA, announced it was disbanding. The last terrorist group in Western Europe came to its end almost 20 years after the Good Friday agreement in Northern Ireland.
It is almost impossible to describe the joy and relief I feel. My whole life has been lived under the shadow of ETA, both on a personal level and as a journalist. I was only 3 years old when the group was formed in 1959. Since then the burden of violence has engulfed not just my own Basque community in Spain but the whole of the country.
In the ’70s and ’80s ETA enjoyed strong support and was nearly as violent as the Irish Republican Army and groups such as the Palestine Liberation Organization and the Montoneros in Argentina. But its decay has been swift over the past few years.
Security efforts might have played a key role in the organization’s defeat. But none was more significant than the role played by the Basques themselves, who were tired of years of bloodshed.
I have not experienced my country without demonstrations, torture, detentions, killings and bombs. A big part of my job was to report on all those tragic events.
What began as a revolutionary movement under the dictatorial regime of Gen. Francisco Franco soon became a nightmare of social fracture and violence.
The brutality of General Franco’s dictatorship was unquestionable. Any sign of a separate national identity within Spain was crushed. ETA made people proud of their Basque identity and culture, and soon it became popular among students and a wide section of the middle class.
When the militants blew up General Franco’s car and killed his right-hand man, Luis Carrero Blanco, in Madrid, people celebrated on the streets of Basque Country. The assassination proved that the regime was not untouchable. In 1975 General Franco died in his bed. Spanish democracy was about to come back after four decades under a fascist regime and a ferocious civil war.
ETA went on as if nothing had changed. The killings, mainly of the police and security members, were more and more frequent, and so was the action-repression mechanism. At home, my mother, a Basque refugee who had witnessed the horrors of the civil war, once said: “Violence won’t work. Sooner or later people will turn their backs on them.”
In its mad blindness, ETA lost a large part of the support it had enjoyed in the preceding years of Francoism. It never regained this support, not even when years later, in the mid-1980s, 26 people, many of them members of the group, were killed in the south of France by an obscure organization called Anti-Terrorist Groups of Liberation, or GAL, funded by Spain’s Ministry of the Interior. The minister and a high-ranking politician ended up in prison, but with lenient sentences.
In the 1990s, ETA toughened its terror campaign: Judges, politicians and journalists became “legitimate targets” for kidnapping or execution. At the same time hundreds of people were arrested and accused of helping the organization. Reports of torture at the hands of the security forces were rife. Amnesty International and the United Nations showed their concern for the treatment of those arrested. Two daily newspapers were closed for their unproven connections with the separatists. The director of one of them claimed he had been tortured.
By then, those who were formerly considered freedom fighters became simply terrorists, even more so after the attacks of Sept. 11 in the United States. Some years before, the Popular Party government of José María Aznar, a conservative who had narrowly escaped death in an ETA attack, had engaged in futile talks with the separatists.
In the rest of Spain, ETA did not gain any sympathy, not even in Catalonia, a region with its own language and identity. Some of the most brutal attacks were carried out in Barcelona and Madrid.
With growing dissatisfaction within its ranks, more than 300 prisoners scattered among Spanish and French prisons, and no political achievements, ETA has opted for what most people have longed for it to do for decades: to give up violence.
Now that this struggle has ceased, we need a lasting peace.
Understanding and political wisdom will be required. Some fear that a vengeful reaction from the Spanish government could help create a more radical splinter group. A brutal past with a legacy of 854 dead cannot be repeated.
Two important issues are still pending. First, the prosecution of many crimes, most of them committed by ETA but some carried out by security forces and paramilitary groups. Second, bringing the prisoners closer to home in the Basque Country, which would be considered an act of strength rather than weakness. All these require strong leadership — and Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy might not have it.
Despite the difficulties, I am hopeful for the future.
Alberto Letona is a journalist and teaches journalism at the University of the Basque Country.