The narrative of freedom

When you detonate a bomb, you don’t know who is going to die. But you do know who you want to hurt. 

Text: Guillermo Loaiza Torres, Archaeology Bachelor 
Photo: 2006 Madrid–Barajas Airport bombing aftermath. Picture credit: Enrique Dans, Wikipedia creative commons

The very mention of the term ‘terrorism’ can arouse mixed feelings in people. Maybe these mixed feelings can be traced back to figures such as Nelson Mandela who, despite being classified as a terrorist by many countries at the time, was also a Nobel Peace Laureate. Perhaps the romanticisation of terrorism as a just fight for freedom by oppressed peoples has influenced our understanding of the term. This article, however, aims to present the harsh reality that may lie behind a ‘just cause’, and give a voice to those who have lost their lives to the ideals of others. 

Terrorism is defined as “the use of violence to achieve political aims” by the Collins dictionary. With this in mind, this article will thus categorise as terrorism any act that fits this definition, irrespective of religious, social or other motivations. This clarification is necessary when considering the country of Spain, which sadly has a rich history of acts of terrorism during the second half of the last century. This fact alone is unsurprising: many other European countries had highly active terrorist groups at that time. However, amongst these groups, two organisations stand out: the IRA (Irish Republican Army) and ETA. 

Data provided by the National Institute of Statistics (INE) and the Collective of Victims of Terrorism (COVITE)

ETA ¬ or Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (Basque Homeland and Liberty in Basque) was founded in 1959 with the intention of achieving full independence for the Basque people based upon their unique language and culture. The group had its roots in the anti-fascist and nationalist conflict of the later years of the Francoist Regime, which ruled the country between 1936 and 1975. Along with many other terrorist groups that opposed the regime, ETA’s primary targets were the state military and others associated with the state, such as collaborators. Although their early activities are shrouded in mystery, ETA’s first official act of terrorism occurred in 1968 when they killed an officer of the Guardia Civil, one of Spain’s national law enforcement agencies. From this moment on, they were to kill, kidnap or torture more than 800 people, and injure several thousand more on both Spanish and French soil. 

As Franco’s health steadily declined, so too did the stability of his dictatorship. The late sixties and the early seventies saw a change in Spain as the regime began a tentative opening to the rest of the Western world. However, after each terrorist attack, the state used all its power to suppress what they designated ‘armed insurgency’. The small liberties granted to the population in the last years of the dictatorship were reversed in the regions in which ETA attacked, reducing popular support for their activities. Despite this, ETA still enjoyed the support of most of the Basque people. Such was their support that when officers of the Guardia Civil were being assassinated, the surrounding people cheered the attacks, even when the families of the victims were present. This situation would not change until the late nineties. 

For 35 years, ETA would carry out a terrorist attack at a rate of one every four days and kill a person at a rate of one every fourteen days

In the rest of Spain, the situation was different. The primary targets of ETA were members of law enforcement agencies who were of Basque origin, but as most of these agencies’ members were non-Basque, the majority of Spaniards had an unfavourable opinion of the group. After the bombings in Madrid in 1974 when a cafeteria was blown up because officers of the Guardia Civil frequented it, many Spaniards realised that anyone could be a target or collateral damage of ETA’s operations. 

Ironically enough, the bloodiest years of ETA’s activities would come during the democracy that replaced Franco’s dictatorship. Tragically, the early years of the newly established democracy were known as the ‘Years of Lead’. This was a time of social and political turmoil that sparked the creation of terrorist groups who waged war on other terrorist groups. There was even a failed coup d’etat in 1981. During this period, ETA split into two different groups: The first group, ETA- (pm or political-military), understood that the political struggle should be their main priority, and that politics should dictate military activity. The second group, ETA-(m or military), pursued military action exclusively. The period from 1975 to 2010, ETA’s most active years, saw the group carry out at least one attack every four days, and kill someone at least once every two weeks. 

Shockingly, the history of terrorist activity in Spain is not restricted to non-state actors. In the mid-eighties, the state itself engaged in illegal terrorist activities under the guise of ‘counter-terrorism’. This happened when the government under the Spanish Socialist Workers Party funded a paramilitary group called GAL (Antiterrorist Liberation Group) whose objective was to fight ETA outside of the state’s legal remit. Felipe González, Prime Minister of Spain during the operative years of the GAL, would later state that, “if the state decides to play dirty, it outnumbers its enemies twenty to one. So, I don’t think that the GAL venture could be called state terrorism.” 

The eighties saw the most brutal and vicious terrorist attacks ever seen in Spain until the bombings of Madrid in 2004. At this point, ETA realised that targeting law enforcement officers was not a practical means to their ends as, in the words of the Chief of Counter-terrorism, the Spanish state considered them to be “cheap and expendable”. 

In June 1987, the supermarket Hipercor, the Spanish Walmart, suffered a blast caused by a new type of bomb inspired by napalm. In this bomb, the explosives were mixed with gasoline, soap and glue, so that the burning gasoline stuck to the victims. Most of the twenty-one casualties were burnt to death when temperatures inside the building rose to 2,500°C. And, although the three instigators of the attack were sentenced to a combined 794 years in prison, they walk free today. 

In the end, the terrorist attack that united all of Spain against ETA, including most of the Basque population, happened in 1997. The Guardia Civil had just liberated a hostage who had been imprisoned for more than 550 days in a zulo, a Basque word for a tiny, hidden chamber deliberately made for holding hostages. In retaliation, ETA kidnapped a young town councillor, Miguel Ángel Blanco, in the northern town of Ermua. Blanco would later become a martyr for peace and political freedom. ETA gave the Spanish state a 48-hour ultimatum, demanding that all 700 convicted ETA members be moved to the Basque Country in exchange for Blanco’s life. This kidnapping sparked a movement that would later be known as the ‘Spirit of Ermua’. During the two days that Blanco remained a hostage, demonstrations all over the country gathered together millions of Spaniards, who for the first time in thirty years stood united and cried for peace. Blanco was executed. He died twelve hours after being shot twice in the head. 

This is an account of the stories of those who can no longer talk. It is also the account of a series of governments that did not know how to properly deal with nationalism. But for the most part, it is a memoir of the Spanish people that suffered from indiscriminate terrorism, both from radical groups and from the very state that was supposed to protect them. Sadly, these stories have been forgotten by many. Most of the younger generation have little knowledge of this chapter of Spain’s history. This is the story of a people who, divided by their ideologies, believed in their own definitions of freedom and decided that the end justified the means. ■

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