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How long can ETA ride on?

The Basque terrorist group has been severely weakened by a string of arrests and sustained judicial pressure on its sympathizers and supporters. But so long as it is able to recruit new members we might not see the end of ETA for some time yet.


Few pieces of news can have more effectively conveyed the notion that ETA is on its knees than the arrest in mid-February of an alleged member of the violent separatist group while he was cycling through Guipúzcoa with a handgun and false papers in his backpack.

Interior Minister Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba insisted that Ibai Beobide was on no innocent jaunt. “He wasn’t practicing sport, because nobody does sport with a gun and a pen-drive,” he said, adding that the detained man had “the worst intentions.”

With Spanish and French security forces making a seemingly never-ending string of arrests of ETA militants and leaders over recent years, often in stolen vehicles, this seemed to be an almost comical sign of desperation on the part of the terrorists. In the first month-and-a-half of this year, there were 25 arrests of suspected ETA members – an average of one every other day.

“We’re carrying out arrests and that’s how it will continue, again and again, until we end this nightmare,” said Rubalcaba.

But amid the recent flurry of detentions and weapons seizures was a more unexpected development: the discovery of an ETA base in Portugal. In a house in Óbidos, north of Lisbon, the organisation allegedly had 300 kilos of explosive ready to carry out a devastating attack coinciding with Spain’s tenure of the EU rotating presidency.

The interior minister himself presented this move to Portugal as further evidence of ETA’s weakness and its need to find an alternative refuge to the French Pyrenees, due to the successful cooperation between the Spanish police and their counterparts north of the border.  And yet, this was also an indication of ETA’s continuing ability – or at least determination – to kill, as were its murder of two civil guards in Mallorca with a car bomb in July 2009.

With four senior leaders arrested since early 2008, ETA is clearly under pressure and in disarray. But still young Basques heed the mantra “Euskadi Ta Askatasuna” (“Basque Homeland and Freedom”) and join the cause, hinting that there is still life in this particular nightmare.

Complex rituals

“Experience tells us that as long as ETA has the people to replace those arrested, ending it will be very difficult indeed,” Jesús Casquete, a professor at the Universidad del País Vasco and author of En el nombre de Euskal Herria. La religión política del nacionalismo vasco radical (In the name of Euskal Herria. The political religión of radical Basque nationalism), told Iberosphere. “ETA have always had their reproductive mechanisms, their complex rituals to gain new members – funerals, public rallies, monuments and so on. These mechanisms are weaker now due to police action and prohibitions, but they are still there.”

The pressure on those mechanisms has been cranked up by the new political landscape in the Basque Country, which last year saw the mainstream nationalists of the PNV unseated for the first time in the democratic era. They have been replaced by the Basque Socialists, who are governing in a rather awkward marriage of convenience with the conservative Popular Party. The new Basque government has clamped down on pro-ETA events, rallies and imagery, in a bid to undermine attempts to “glorify” the separatists’ bloody campaign that has claimed more than 800 lives since the 1960s. Meanwhile, under its tenure, the Ertzaintza local police force seems to have intensified its pursuit of ETA members; its arrest of five suspects in January being the first such detentions for almost 12 months.

Last year, the 50th anniversary of ETA’s founding as a response to the Franco regime’s repression of Basque culture, also saw a major setback for the group’s political base as all parties proven to have links with it were banned from elections.

With the security forces having infiltrated the organisation, its members going to jail in a steady stream and political and judicial developments giving it little oxygen, Europe’s last separatist terrorist group would appear to have nowhere to turn. And yet, as long as the authorities fail to deal with what Casquete calls “the socio-cultural” dimension of this issue – persuading all Basques of the futility and wrongness of the cause – it will be hard to ensure its demise. Indeed, for many observers, the banning of parties linked to ETA from elections merely fuels a sense of disenfranchisement and victimhood among radical Basque nationalists rather than bolstering democracy.

ETA’s political wing, the banned Batasuna, has shown signs of wanting to seek a political solution, as have some of the 700 or so members of the group who are in prison. And with its killings dropping in number dramatically in recent years, the separatist group itself seems perhaps less convinced about using violence. However, ETA’s unilateral closure of the 2006 peace process with the Socialist Spanish government by killing two people with a bomb at Madrid airport, put any further negotiations with the group off-limits for the foreseeable future.

“There can be no peace between good and evil, between truth and falsehood, between justice and oppression, between liberty and tyranny,” wrote José Antonio Etxebarrieta in 1961, in one of ETA’s earliest theoretical declarations.

Despite substantial victories in applying political and police pressure on ETA, demystifying the kind of dogma that leaves many seeing the issue in these black-and-white terms is now the major challenge for the Spanish authorities as they seek real peace in the Basque Country.

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Published: Feb 24 2010
Category: Politics
Republication: Creative Commons, non-commercial
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3 Comments for “How long can ETA ride on?”

  1. […] in Hugo Chávez’s government who has allegedly been the point man for the Basque terrorist group ETA in Venezuela. Arturo Cubillas Fontán, a Basque national who emigrated to Venezuela in 1989, put […]

  2. […] to resolving what it called “the last remaining conflict in Europe,” that of the violent Basque separatists of ETA with the Spanish state. Its main thrust was to call on the group to declare a “permanent, fully […]

  3. […] a nine-month ceasefire by detonating a massive bomb in Madrid airport car park, killing two people. As arrests of its members and leaders have continued, the organisation is as weak and desperate as …. But for many, that failed attempt to pursue a political path four years ago proved it is incapable […]

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