Written by Olivier Guiberteau
June 7th 1968 – a police checkpoint blocks the road just outside the small Spanish town of Aduna located in the heart of the Basque Country.
Just before 5.30 pm, a Seat 850 carrying two men appears on the road and eventually comes to a halt in front of the checkpoint. Jose Pardines, one of the policemen on duty, approaches the window and requests the circulation permit from the driver, a young man by the name of Iñaki Sarasketa.
Once handed over, the policeman immediately recognises that something isn’t right. Information in the permit does not match the car and he crouches down behind the vehicle to inspect its engine number suspecting that it may be stolen. In a flash, the passenger of the car, Txabi Etxebarrieta, leaps clear, pulls a handgun from beneath his coat and fires three shots into Pardines’ torso, with Sarasketa firing a further two.
The 25-year-old Pardines collapses to the floor and dies almost immediately. Quite remarkably, a man driving a truck from France down to Madrid witnesses the whole thing and attempts to intervene to prevent the two murderers from fleeing the scene. He grabs Etxebarrieta and tries to pull him out of the car, but the killer puts the gun to the man’s head and orders him to leave. The Seat 850 bursts into life, smashes through the roadblock and eventually disappears.
The two men take refuge in the house of a priest in nearby Tolosa before venturing out hours later. They are soon stopped by another group of civil guards and a shootout kills Etxebarrieta, but Sarasketa escapes before being apprehended the following day.
The 7th June 1968 marked the start of a bloody war that would eventually stretch across six decades, consuming Spain and introducing the world to an organisation that would both terrify and inspire – Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (Basque Homeland and Liberty) – known simply as ETA.
Six Decades of Conflict
What began on the quiet road outside Aduna quickly spiralled into one of Europe’s largest and deadliest terrorist campaigns – or freedom fighting campaigns, depending on your point of view.
Between 1968 and 2010, 829 deaths were attributed to the Basque organisation, ranging from high-ranking government officials and soldiers to innocent civilians, including children. The wave of terror that swept Spain was fierce and was only finally curtailed by governmental tactics that can only be described as well outside the rule of law.
The rise of ETA coincided neatly with the death of Spain’s long-time dictator General Franco, but even after the Basque region was granted autonomy, for many within the organisation, it simply wasn’t enough. The 1980s was a bloody, painful period as both sides of the conflict did whatever was necessary to gain the upper hand. Slowly ETA began to splinter and its fledgling support gradually ebbed away, but it would be almost forty years until there was finally a lasting peace in Spain.
The Basque Country
Nowadays, when we think about independence movements in Spain, we generally think of the Catalans. Catalonia’s failed bid for independence in 2017 made headlines around the world, but for decades before, it was another region in Spain where notions of independence burned even brighter.
The Basque Country is a complicated and at times mysterious story. Straddling both Spain and France, the Basque homeland is a rugged, mountainous place that has been fiercely independent for as long as anybody can remember, fighting off would-be invaders for thousands of years.
Not quite Spanish, not quite French, the origins of the Basques is far from clear. Their language is thought to be one of the oldest in Europe but does not have any known relation to other languages. It’s not Latin or Germanic or even a distant Slavic cousin and has stumped experts for years.
DNA research seems to suggest a link with other hunt-gatherer groups on the continent that stretches back 7,000 years or so, but that the Basques experienced a distinct period of isolation, possibly for millennia, which allowed their unique culture to endure and indeed thrive.
When Spain erupted into civil war in 1933, the Basque Country easily repelled the initial nationalist attack and soon formed a fearsome component of the Republican cause. It’s probably fair to say that if everybody else on the left had fought like the Basques, things might have been a little different, but eventually, the region fell to Franco’s troops in 1937, shortly before the remainder of the ever-shrinking Republican zone to the south.
This was after one of the darkest and most infamous events of the entire war, the vicious air attack on the Basque’s spiritual home of Guernica. The assault, immortalised in Picasso’s oil painting simply named Guernica, was carried out primarily using German fighters and pilots, said to be one of Hitler’s training runs for what would happen the following decade as the rest of Europe collapsed into war. While the death toll that day is still heavily disputed, ranging from a few hundred to over 1,500, it became a symbol of genocide and repression that stayed with the Basques long after the drone of Hitler’s Condor Legion faded away.
As in other areas that had fought for the Republican cause, Franco’s reprisals in the Basque Country were severe. Between 50,000 and 100,000 people were executed by the Nationalists after the war across Spain – how many of those were Basques we can’t be sure, but it was almost certainly a high figure.
Yet it wasn’t simply the executions that cut into the heart of the Basque culture. Franco ordered that the language, flag, institutions and political organisations be banned across the region. These were dark days but which would eventually light the spark of conflict that would rock Spain to its very core.
In the early 1950s, a student organisation named Ekin emerged in the Basque Country, which published a magazine and carried out direct action in opposition to Franco’s policies. By the end of the decade, with many disappointed by what they saw as the Basque Nationalist Party’s rather limp opposition to the Spanish government, a new organisation emerged, the Euskadi Ta Askatasuna, or simply ETA.
In these early days, ETA’s focus was on the self-determination of the Basque people and eventually full independence, but its stance lurched left in the 1960s and took on a much firmer Marxist and third-worldist identity. Its first assembly took place in the French town of Bayonne in 1962, with two more in 1964 and 1965 as ETA sought to solidify its anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist position.
Despite their growing size and scope of ambition, armed struggle was still a few years away, but violence was already bubbling away in Spain. On 27th July 1960, five bombs were detonated around the country, with one, at the Amara station in Donostia-San Sebastian, killing a 22-month old child. In years to come, many would come back to these bombings as the first time ETA killed, but these attacks were almost certainly carried out by another liberation movement in its infancy, the Iberian Revolutionary Liberation Directorate (DRIL), composed of communists, anarchists and Guevarist militants.
While ETA wouldn’t officially let blood until 1968, Spain was already experiencing a bloody backlash against Franco’s rule.
The Murder of Melitón Manzanas
ETA’s murderous path began on the quiet road outside of Aduna, with the murder of José Antonio Pardines, but things escalated quickly from there. In response to the murder of Txabi Etxebarrieta, ETA sanctioned its first official hit and the hated police chief of San Sebastian Melitón Manzanas was a blockbuster assassination.
On 2nd August 1968, just short of two months after the gunfight that saw ETA make headlines, Manzanas, who was widely despised for his use of torture, arrived home in Irun where he was shot five times in front of his wife and daughter by an ETA assassin who quickly fled the scene.
The response of Franco’s government was predictably brutal and a large number of people associated with ETA were rounded up. In 1970, sixteen of those arrested were placed on trial in what came to be known as the Burgos Trials.
Shortly before the trial commenced, the German consul in San Sebastian, Eugen Beilh, was kidnapped by ETA in an attempt to exchange him for the Burgos defendants – but he was later released without harm. Six were eventually sentenced to death, but the international outcry was such that the sentences were later commuted to life in prison.
The Burgos trials may have supplied the government with the convictions it needed, but it was a debacle. A small organisation with little to no international standing before suddenly had supporters around the world. The name ETA had well and truly emerged as had the details of their struggle. In a world buzzing with revolutionary fever, ETA’s fight against Spain’s right-wing dictatorship was, for many, a justified and worthy war.
Killing Franco’s Successor
Three years later, ETA carried out its most dramatic assassination. Admiral Luis Carrero Blanco, a Spanish Navy officer and politician who was the serving Prime Minister at the time had long been one of Franco’s closest confidants. So much so that the man was earmarked as the great dictator’s successor, and with Franco’s health waning, Blanco became Prime Minister on 9th June 1973.
A little more than six months later, he was dead, and Spain plunged further into chaos. It was a meticulously planned and orchestrated attack, with a tunnel dug beneath the street that Blanco always returned along on his way back from church every Sunday.
For five months, members of ETA stuffed the tunnel with 80 kg (180 lb) of explosives, and on 20th June 1973, as the man who many assumed would soon lead Spain, passed above, a massive explosion sent his Dodge Dart hurtling over the nearby church and landed on a second-floor terrace on the opposite side. Miraculously, Blanco survived the initial blast but died shortly after arriving at hospital. ETA’s fight had just dramatically escalated.
The Darkest Days & the Dirty War
The death of General Franco in 1975 and the country’s transition to democracy two years later should have been a defining moment for ETA. The hated man who had long throttled their aspirations with a delicately placed boot to the throat was dead, but as the country looked towards better times, ETA saw that full independence was further away than ever.
Any hope that the signing of the country’s new constitution in 1978 would herald a modern unified Spain was cruelly misplaced. The years between 1978 and 1980 were the bloodiest in ETA history, culminating in nearly 100 murders during the first year of the 1980s.
Considering that Spain’s new government was moving towards regional autonomy for the Basque Country, this was a dramatic and perhaps unexpected escalation. The increase in violence led to the factionalism that began to pull ETA apart, as different groups from within the organisation aligned themselves with either violent or political means.
The Spanish government’s response was to dig deep into the darkness of acceptability. In 1975, in response to the assassination of Luis Carrero Blanco, the government-sanctioned the formation of the Spanish Basque Battalion, a neo-fascist parapolice organisation that began striking back at ETA by any means necessary. The battalion, along with its like-minded cousins Triple-A (Alianza Apostólica Anticomunista) and Guerrilleros de Cristo Rey killed scores of people across Spain and even in France that were either believed to be ETA members or who had aided them in some way.
The Spanish Basque Battalion was formally disbanded in 1981 but spawned yet another incarnation in exactly the same vein, the Grupos Antiterroristas de Liberación (GAL) who were composed mostly of foreign mercenaries.
Between 1983 and 1987, in what came to be known as the dirty war, GAL and other paramilitary death squads began systematically picking off anybody with known connections to ETA. And make no mistake about it, these squads had been sanctioned by the Spanish government, though how high up things went we’ll probably never know.
To make things worse for ETA, their neighbour to the north, France, who had long turned a blind eye to the organisation began to closely align themselves with the Spanish government and their methods during the 1980s. ETA attacks on French soil and their use of the country to store weapons and direct attacks meant that the French government could no longer look the other way as they had when Franco was at the helm.
The dirty war being waged against them was met with equally murderous intent. The Plaza República Dominicana bombing in Madrid on 14th July 1986 killed 12 police officers, the Hipercor bombing in Barcelona on 19th June 1987 killed 21 civilians and the Zaragoza barracks bombing, which took place on 11th December 1987, killed a further 11.
Yet these attacks began to work against ETA. In response, many organisations signed pacts against them and public support began to wane. Large demonstrations after ETA attacks became common across the country and opinions were hardening.
The Long Road to Peace
In 1989 formal peace talks were held between ETA and the Spanish government. These were tentative discussions, with both sides wary and mistrustful of the other following the chaotic dirty war period. Despite some promise, no accord could be reached, and ETA resumed its campaign.
In the build-up to the Summer Olympics in Barcelona in 1992, ETA had planned a series of attacks around Catalonia, but its leadership was decimated after a tip-off led to the capture of numerous high-ranking members in the town of Bidart in France.
The Olympics passed without incident, but in 1995, only the armoured car of José María Aznar, a fast-rising politician who would go on to become Prime Minister of Spain, prevented his assassination thanks to yet another ETA bomb. But the organisation was clearly ailing. Several attempts on their part to broker peace were rejected by the Spanish government as they sought to tighten the screw.
In 1997, Miguel Ángel Blanco, a young politician within the People’s Party was kidnapped while on his way to see a client. ETA demanded the release of its prisoners in exchange for Blanco, but as the clock ticked down towards the deadline, it was clear that the Spanish government had no intention of negotiating. Soon after, he was shot in the back of the head and was found lying in a ditch outside San Sebastian slowly dying.
Considering how many had died and how many years of carnage that the country had already been through, this murder was different. Across Spain, and even in the Basque Country, massive demonstrations took place against ETA. Even members of the organisation itself condemned the murder that would prove fatal for the Basque organisation.
The next fifteen years saw the situation lurch back and forth as ceasefires came and went, as did the murders. The Spanish government almost tripped over themselves in their haste to blame the horrific 2004 Madrid train attack on ETA, even as significant doubts had already appeared.
Whether or not the attack carried about by Islamic extremists had anything to do with slowly unifying the country it’s difficult to say, but in 2011, after more arrests that began to strangle ETA’s leaderships structure once again, an international peace conference was held in Donostia-San Sebastián, attended by leaders of various Basque organisations as well as numerous high-profile foreign dignitaries, such as Kofi Annan, former US President Jimmy Carter and members of Ireland’s own revolutionary group, Sien Fien.
While there was nothing binding in the agreement, three days later ETA announced a “definitive cessation of its armed activity” and called on the respective governments of Spain and France to join further peace talks.
In May 2017, a civilian group of volunteers known as the Artisans of Peace acted as go-betweens by passing on the coordinates of several ETA arms caches in southwestern France that were quickly raided by police. The find included 120 firearms, about 3 tonnes of explosives and several thousand rounds of ammunition.
On 3rd May 2018, with the conflict now into its 6th decade, it finally came to an end when a statement was read out at the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue in Geneva, Switzerland, stating unequivocally that ETA was completely disbanding.
There were not the joyous scenes that one might have expected. In reality, ETA had long ceased being a significant threat, but for many who were old enough, the dark days of the 1980s remained alive in the memory. Officially 829 died at the hands of ETA during 3,000 separate attacks, while 368 members of the organisation were said to have been killed.
At least 250 ETA members are thought to still be in jail, often housed in prisons in distant parts of Spain or France, a final indignity to keep them as far away from their homeland as possible.
In many ways, ETA’s struggles mirrored many left-wing uprisings around the world during the 20th Century. What began as a noble cause with plenty of public opinion behind it, eventually degenerated into senseless violence often funded through extortion, kidnap and theft. Spain may have torn itself apart during its bloody three-year Civil War, but what came next was destructive in its own right. Today, there is calm in the Basque Country, but while ETA may have been defeated, the Basque People remain as fiercely independent as ever.