Retrospect
Journal.

EDINBURGH UNIVERSITY'S HISTORY, CLASSICS AND ARCHAEOLOGY MAGAZINE

The Rise and Fall of ETA: The Spanish Terrorist Groups’ Bloodiest Years 

The Basque separatist group Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (ETA), although having formally announced a ceasefire in 2011, and a conclusive dissolution in April 2017, have nonetheless left a permanent scar in the minds of Spaniards across the country. ETA was responsible for some of the bloodiest assassinations Spain has experienced, killing over 800 people in attempts to achieve an independent Basque state. 

Founded in 1959, ETA, meaning ‘Basque Homeland and Liberty’ was formed with the aim of achieving an independent Basque state, utilising violence as their primary method. Formed under the rule of the fascist dictator, General Francisco Franco, ETA’s ideology clashed bitterly with Franco’s regime, fuelling their apparent necessity for violence. Under Franco, political opponents were suppressed, and minority cultures, traditions, and languages were banned, including that spoken by the Basques. However, Franco’s death in 1975 failed to halt the terrorist group’s violent activities, despite the gradual democratisation of Spain. ETA continued to plant roadside bombs and fire rockets, targeting a plethora of citizens, from Spanish politicians to newspaper publishers. After the death of Franco, the Madrid central government made efforts to grant the Basque region some autonomy, partially in order to appease the demands and threats of ETA, yet the group remained determined to achieve full independence. This narrow-minded view held by ETA members, however, became increasingly incompatible with modern Spanish democratic principles, causing the group’s support base to decline after Franco’s death. Nevertheless, the group did not fail to carry out hundreds of further assassinations. As a 2015 report commissioned by the Basque government found, ‘ETA committed most of its violent acts not under Franco, but during the consolidation of democracy.’ Arguably, the most notorious assassination by ETA was that of Miguel Ángel Blanco in 1997, which was seen as a crucial turning point in public attitudes towards the terrorist group.  

On 14th July 1997, Spain experienced the largest and most widespread national protests in their history, with two million people across the country uniting against the terror group. The trigger event, which caused this historic demonstration, was the kidnapping and assassination of Miguel Ángel Blanco. An ordinary young man of 29, Blanco was a councillor for the Partido Popular, or Popular Party, from the town of Ermua, Vizcaya. On 10th July 1997, on his way home from work, Blanco was forced into a car, kidnapped, and taken into hiding by ETA members. On the same day, ETA announced their conditions for Blanco’s release: the transfer of all ETA prisoners across Spain to jails in the Basque Country within forty-eight hours. This was a virtually impossible demand, considering the geographical obstacles and the great number of ETA prisoners across Spain. Shortly after the expiration of the forty-eight hours, the kidnappers took Blanco to an area of wasteland near their hiding place, shot him twice in the back of the head, and left him there. Blanco was found that same day near Bilbao, his hands tied and close to death. Despite being rushed to hospital, Blanco died in the early hours of 13th July 1997. The mayor of Ermua, surrounded by hundreds of demonstrating citizens, announced the news of Blanco’s death from the balcony of the town hall, where he stood alongside Blanco’s family members.  

Announcement of Miguel Ángel Blanco’s death on the balcony of Ermua, with Blanco’s family members.

Unlike most ETA’s previous victims, Blanco was not an elite politician, policeman or businessman. Rather, Blanco was an ordinary and impartial member of the public, becoming a symbol the public could relate to, and consequently a figure of united rebellion against ETA. The march that took place on 12th July in Bilbao, was ‘the largest anti-ETA protest in Spanish history,’ with over 500,000 taking part. Even Basque county citizens, who once refrained from voicing their opposition to the group, now joined the rest of Spain in a united and undeniable front against the bloodshed caused by ETA. From these protests, the slogan “Yes to Basques, no to ETA” was born, alongside civil groups such as ‘Foro de Ermua’ and ‘Basta Ya’ (‘Enough is Enough’). Similarly, legislators passed the “Solidarity with Victims of Terrorism Act” of 1999, as well as the ‘Political Act’ of 2003, which ‘outlawed parties that openly supported acts of terrorism’.  

Demonstration in the aftermath of Blanco’s death. Source: https://www.cronicavasca.com/sociedad/13-julio-1997-asesinato-miguel-angel-blanco-el-gatopardo-de-la-lucha-social-contra-eta_509571_102.html

Despite the ceasefire announced by ETA in 2011, and the groups’ eventual dissolution in 2018, the weight of bloodshed caused still lingers throughout Spain. Not only did the terrorist group cause widespread grief and outrage, but it also exposed the weaknesses of the Spanish government, an unwieldy judicial system, and lack of effective repercussions for the group. After the announcement of Blanco’s death, citizens heckled the Spanish Prime Minister, Aznar, accusing him of murder, with the view that the government did not act correctly in response to ETA’s demands, and therefore also had Blanco’s blood on their hands. George Kassimeris suggests that the group may have been contained more effectively  

‘Had the Spanish governing elites and the security authorities acted in a more balanced way, combing security pressure to destroy ETA infrastructures and reforms intending to remedy grievances across the Basque country.’ 

While the violent acts of ETA seem to have quelled after the disbandment of the group, the legacies of the victims of the group remain permanent, serving as a constant reminder to Spain, and indeed the world, of the bloodshed and damage caused by the group. Simultaneously, as like all historical events, ETAs legacy also plays a role in encouraging governments to learn from their previous misjudgements, in attempts to effectively tackle the on-going threat of terrorist groups, without further lives being lost.  

Written by Sally Dolphin 

Bibliography: 

“Chronology for Basques in Spain”, 2004. 

https://www.refworld.org/docid/469f38dec.html

“What is ETA?”, April, 2017. 

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-11183574

“ETA, Basque organization” 

https://www.britannica.com/topic/ETA

“Two million protest against Basque terrorist murder”, July 2017. 

https://www.surinenglish.com/national/201707/14/million-protest-against-basque-20170714140640.html

“The day that Baque terror group ETA lost the support of the street”, July 2017. 

https://english.elpais.com/elpais/2017/07/12/inenglish/1499853524_605938.html

“ETA ten years on: the key moments that led to the end of the Spanish terror group”, 2021. 

https://www.euronews.com/2021/10/20/eta-ten-years-on-the-key-moments-that-led-to-the-end-of-the-spanish-terror-group

“Eta: Basque group disbands but leaves deep wounds for Spain”, May 2018. 

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-43961987

“ETA’s bloody history: 853 killings in 60 years of violence”, October 2020. 

https://www.independent.co.uk/news/etas-bloody-history-853-killings-in-60-years-of-violence-eta-spain-francisco-franco-timeline-basque-b1151939.html

“A brief history of Eta”, September 2010. 

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2010/sep/05/eta-history-in-dates

“History will judge ETA as a failed terrorist group, but there are lessons to be learned”, May 2018.  

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