Basque separatist group ETA lowered its weapons 10 years ago. Has reconciliation truly happened?

Screenshot of YouTube/BBC video depicting footage of ETA members putting ‘arms beyond use’ in October 2011.

Ten years ago, on October 20, 2011, the Basque armed group ETA (Euskadi Ta Askatasuna, “Basque Country and Freedom”) finally declared “a definitive cessation of its armed activity.” This was what Basque and Spanish societies had long been waiting for.

It would take them until 2018 to formalise their dissolution, but October 20 is marked in the calendar as a day of liberation, especially for those whose lives were at risk. The Basque Country was finally going to have the chance to become a free and “normal” society like any other.

Jesús Eguiguren, one of the tallest figures in Basque politics in recent decades, was also relieved. Days after ETA’s much-awaited declaration, when asked what normality would mean to him, he said: “For me, it means the freedom to eat pintxos in the Old Town” of Donostia-San Sebastian, my hometown. Because of being directly threatened by ETA for his political opposition to Basque independence, the old town had been a no-go area for Eguiguren, but also for thousands more.

ETA was formed in 1959, during the Franco era, with the goal of seeking self-determination and independence for the Basque Country. Since the late 1960s, ETA was responsible for more than 850 deaths in the Basque Country and other parts of Spain. This figure underestimates the pervasive sense of fear caused by ETA and its supporters. In the last 15 years of their existence, ETA, through extortion and threats, specifically targeted politicians, academics, police officers, journalists, and civil servants who disagreed with their totalitarian agenda. Approximately 3,300 men and women were forced to live with police escorts.

The Basque Country is a region with a strong national identity divided between the north of Spain and the southwest of France. With fewer than three million inhabitants, it’s hard not to have known someone who paid a high price for being who they were, sometimes the highest of all prices—their life. In my case, this included a primary schoolmate, whose father—a police officer—was killed by the armed group; a teacher in the same primary school whose husband, a journalist, was murdered; a sport's teammate’s father, who reluctantly moved to Madrid after receiving serious threats; one of my university professors, and my friend and former boss, the Basque parliament’s high commissioner for human rights between 2004 and 2014, Iñigo Lamarca, whose name appeared in one of ETA’s hit lists.

A lot has changed in the Basque Country in the past 10 years. Nobody’s life is at risk as a result of their politics, and that is no mean feat. My nephew and nieces, who are 11 years old, are blissfully unaware of the environment of low-intensity violence that permeated society up to a decade ago.

Basque society is still working out a public memory about that time. Victims of ETA’s violence have received recognition from public institutions, but social recognition has been much slower, and more timid. In towns and communities where Basque independence was the preferred political choice, ETA suspects were often treated like heroes. At the same time, credible reports of police torture were systematically dismissed by the Spanish government, tarnishing the public image of the State and its institutions. Despite multiple reports from independent investigators and international human rights bodies, the official line was, and largely remains, that the torture allegations against the police were simply lies spread by terrorists—ETA members.

Spanish public authorities and a sizeable majority in Spanish society have a long way to go to recognise that torture and ill-treatment were an obnoxious part of the anti-terrorist strategy in the 1980s, 90s and 2000s. As I explain in my new book Spain and its Achilles’ Heels: The Strong Foundations of a Country’s Weaknesses, these practices harmed the credibility of the police as a fully democratic institution and made life even more difficult for the officers who respected the rule of law.

In the 2000s, ETA was being cornered by the police, but the decline in popular support was a key reason why the group stopped their violence for good in 2011. In previous decades, ETA benefited from long periods of silence of large parts of Basque society who believed their discretion would keep them away from the attention of ETA and their informers. Outstanding exceptions must be noted, including the case of “Gesto Por la Paz” (“Gesture for Peace”), an organisation that convened silent rallies the day after each murder and on a weekly basis for 25 years, starting in 1986. It was a modest gesture that, nonetheless, required a large dose of bravery.

Over time, Basque society empowered itself to make it clear that ETA did not represent them. The sociological statistical survey of the Basque Country shows that fewer than 25 per cent of people totally rejected ETA in 1981, but that number went up to 60 per cent by 2000 and remained at that level for 10 more years, while ideological support for ETA was minimal in the 2000s (around 1-3 per cent).

The Basque Country has changed substantially for the better in a new spirit of calm, peace and rediscovered freedom. More time will be needed, however, to strengthen bridges and walk decisively towards reconciliation. Police officers, bodyguards, journalists and politicians were unjustly killed, and for too long the Basque society remained petrified.

In shifting public perception in Spain, a new film can potentially make a difference: Maixabel dramatizes the true story of Maixabel Lasa, a brave activist for peace, memory and reconciliation, whose husband was killed by ETA in 2000. A few years ago, Maixabel met face-to-face with the man who killed her husband. The killer had distanced himself from ETA in a difficult process of atonement.

Maixabel Lasa’s testimony is one of a handful of conversations during the last decade between ETA victims and repentant ETA members. Most of these meetings were held in private, but some of the participants are talking about their experience in schools, and conveying their emotions at other public events.

Other events have brought together victims of ETA, victims of GAL (state-sponsored terrorism of the 1980s), as well as victims of police torture. Also, pro-independence politicians have apologised for the damage they caused through their decades-long complicit silence.

Working out the past in a plural, inclusive and respectful way will take time, and the Basque Country only recently got rid of ETA’s yoke. Historical memory is a powerful reminder that freedom should not be taken for granted.

As my mum once said to me when talking about Basque peace and reconciliation, it’s shocking how quickly one gets used to normality, when people are not killed for their ideas.

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