Young thirtysomething joining ETA, a dying serpent

Article published on Oct. 20, 2010
Article published on Oct. 20, 2010
Half a century and 839 killings later, the Basque separatist organisation summons international mediators to ‘fix’ the conflict; its cocky tone towards Brussels almost makes it sound like as a global actor whining to be listened to. What does an armed group in 21st century Europe mean anyway?

Today, the Spanish political scene can only give ETA the cold shoulder. It's as if parties were saying: ‘ETA still remains a big problem, but we’ve seen so many failed ceasefires that we’ve no idea how to react anymore.’ They can only shrug their shoulders, because the situation is almost surreal. 

Brief history of ETA

Starting out as another resistance group in the sixties, ETA was a guevarist-style urban guerrilla. It got linked to attacks until it did away with the second most important man in Franco’s dictatorship – prime minister Admiral Luis Carrero Blanco, whose car was blown over a six-storey building in 1973. As far as the (exiled) opposition was concerned, this was like slamming Goliath right in the forehead.

‘The original and current ETA have nothing in common'

ETA did not wish to adapt to the democratic regime that followed soon after. ‘The original and current ETA have nothing in common,’ says Basque journalist Raúl González Zorrilla, editor-in-chief at online newspaper País Vasco Información. ‘The first group was made up of socialists who in my opinion had chosen the wrong type of battle, but were consciously fighting for democracy and freedom. The actual ETA was founded in 1974 under the name of Military ETA (ETAM) ; terrorists went on to fight for the independence of the Basque Country, an independence that the Basque have actually voted against ever since 1975.’ Plus, its counterparts are long since gone: sixties German group Baader Meinhof was officially dissolved in 1998, going seven years with no killings; the French Action Directe was banned after a series of convictions in the mid eightiess and the Italian Brigate Rosse (Red Brigade) have been no longer active for a while now. But ETA keeps on writhing.

Writhing in solitude 

According to the May 2010 euskobarometer, which is a biannual survey on Basque public opinion, 62% of Basques completely reject ETA, some 12% see ETA’s ends and not means justifiable, whilst only 0.2% fully support their actions. Police sources estimate a membership between 30 and 100, with 726 already imprisoned – a number which is constantly rising. The Spanish-French coalition has dismantled the ETA leadership six times in only two years. 

Speaking for BBC World in Spanish, Navarran journalist Florencio Dominguezstresses ETA’s internal organisation. ‘It’s constructed horizontally, as there is no open dialogue. As a result, there are no conditions that would favour an emergent ideology or a strategic evolution. Communication is always top-down, dominated by ETA’s ends.’ Unsurprisingly, this appears to be the rule; those who label themselves stalinists should watch their backs for everything. 

Zapatero helped nourish a 'permanent ceasefire' with the group in March 2006 - but it was called off in June 2007 after a bomb in Madrid's airport killed two men in DecemberThis is fanaticism, a bacteria thriving on simplicity and intensity, becoming almost indestructible in its early stages. It substitutes free will and daily life perception with a set of points simplifying life. Governments have tried it all to overcome this obstacle: force, dialogue, outlawing parties, all part of an unresolved, dirty war that marked former socialist prime minister Felipe Gonzales’ cabinet. However, all efforts were in vain. Terrorist ETA’s symbol - a snake curled around an axe – stands for the group’s murderous and deceiving character, displaying a treacherous strategy. To remix Winston Churchill’s famous quote, we could say: ‘Never have so few troubled so many.’ 

New generation 

According to Raúl González Zorrilla, ETA has somewhat changed over the last decade. ‘During the eighties and nineties, the ETA terrorist was a technically well-trained, sheer fanatic. The new millenium saw more youngsters becoming indoctrinated as a result of street terrorism, which stressed fundamentalist positions in favour of technique.’ What is a bunch of thriving Europe-born and bred thirtysomething doing leading a gang of murderers? At best, they enjoy digging hiding places in the mountains, tracking surveillance cameras and wearing detective story-like fake beards and glasses; maybe placing magnetic bombs while sweating buckets has seen them grow an addiction for danger that has them come back for more. Perhaps they relate to Che Guevara, as he saw himself in the image of Alberto Korda (the Cuban photographer who has immortalised Guevara): a heroic guerrilla fighter gazing towards the future…Everything in the name of an imaginary world with a scent of medieval and communist times, yet lacking ‘hamburgers, rock or internet’, as Arnaldo Otegi, the jailed chief of Batasuna, the banned political wing of ETA would suggest:

ETA has taken its toll on Spain: first came its victims, then the entire concept of citizenship and politics, with the latter infecting successive cabinets. Irrespective of their reasons – political pressure, justice or simply biological disasters - ETA’s gunmen killed almost forty civilians annually during the eighties. The media is unanimous: ETA is no longer a venomous snake, but a dying, harmless serpent. Let us hope that this was its last breath.

Images: iron pistol (cc) S†e's photostream/Flickr; Zapatero: ©European Parliament/ Pietro Naj-Oleari