Hero’s Welcome for ETA Terrorists Reopens Old Spanish Wounds

This week marked 10 years since ETA, Spain’s most infamous terror group, carried out its last fatal attack. At a small ceremony in the Mallorcan town of Palmanova, politicians gathered with members of Spain’s Civil Guard to remember the two officers killed that day. Both men were in their 20s and had spent barely a year in service when their patrol car was blown up in an act of utterly random brutality.

With a decade now passed, Spain should finally be able to move on. To stop talking about ETA and be thankful that its reign of violence is over. But two other acts of homage, thousands of miles away from Mallorca, have ensured that the group is once again front and center of the national consciousness.

Just days before the ceremony in Mallorca, two former ETA members returned home to the Basque country after being released from prison. José Javier Zabaleta, once described as the organization’s second-in-command, headed back to the coastal town of Hernani on Saturday after 29 years’ incarceration. The following day, henchman Xabier Ugarte returned to his tierra natal in Oñati for the first time since 1997.

Both men committed horrific crimes. Zabaleta, known as Baldo, was sentenced to over 250 years in prison for various atrocities, notably a machine gun attack which killed four Civil Guard officers as well as a local barber. Ugarte was convicted for staging a separate attack which left two officers dead, as well as staging the longest kidnapping in ETA’s history, lasting over 500 days.

After so much violence, one might expect the men to receive muted receptions, at best. Yet in both cases they were greeted with a guard of honor in the street, accompanied by flares, banners and raucous cheering. Viewed out of context, it looked like the sort of street party which is staged in hundreds of Spanish towns at this time of year.

Footage of the two receptions has gone viral and sparked furious debate in the national media, with calls for the well-wishers to be punished for accepting the terrorists back into the fold so enthusiastically. For the Spanish nation, it’s a grim reminder of how much influence ETA still has in its local communities and how the group’s legacy lives on, even though it dissolved more than a year ago.

Lingering suspicion

When ETA publicly announced its dispansion in a video last May, the media coverage inevitably focused on the trail of bloodshed left behind. Commentators bemoaned the fact that the group had killed 850 people in its 60-year campaign of violence, many of the victims nothing more than innocent by-standers who had done nothing to provoke their fate.

For many Basques, however, the narrative is more complicated. A study released in the wake of ETA’s dissolution found that over one in four Basque respondents still viewed them as a resistance movement, rather than a terror gang. This rather eye-catching finding reflects a lingering suspicion towards Madrid in the region, caused by years of antagonism from both sides.

Franco may have been dead for nearly half a century, yet many in the Basque Country and its annex, Navarra, still remember the crimes his regime committed. The bombing of Guernica, the torturing of Basque intellectuals, the failed attempts to eliminate the Basque language. 

Younger people take umbrage at the Spanish authorities’ often clumsy attempts to control the region. In one notorious incident, a group of youths in the Navarra town of Altsasu were jailed for up to 13 years for brawling with off-duty Civil Guard officers in a local bar. To the surrounding populace, it felt like a deliberate attempt to punish them.

Critics in Spain’s conservative circles will tell you that this sentiment has been gleefully whipped up by Euskal Herria Bildu (Basque Country Unite), a hard-left political coalition which vehemently supports independence and has defended ETA several times in the past. Some even claim that Bildu is the modern manifestation of ETA, their relationship akin to that between Sinn Fein and the IRA in Northern Ireland.

In light of the weekend’s footage, Bildu’s leaders have pleaded for the gatherings to be treated with a sense of “normality.” They insist that those who lined the streets for Baldo and Ugarte were were not paying homage, as many in the media claim. They were simply family and friends, greeting a loved one they’d not seen for decades.

A spokesman for the group told InsideOver: “Let’s be clear about this. What we saw this weekend was not an act of homage, an applause for what anyone did. 

“It was simply an act of reception in this person’s town after many years in prison, in exile. It’s an act of welcome, as you could see by the signs – they were even using the Basque words for ‘welcome’.

“We know that some people will interpret this as an act of homage, but we don’t think that’s the right interpretation.”

‘Glorification of serial killers’

But for those who suffered at the hands of ETA, and their families, this doesn’t wash. One of the fiercest critics of the recent gatherings has been Consuelo Ordoñez, whose brother was killed by ETA in 1995. Ordoñez now heads Spain’s Terrorism Victims Collective and has played a key role in sharing the video of Baldo’s return to Hernani.

“There are 50,000 prisoners in Spain,” Ordoñez tells InsideOver. “Would it seem okay if a murderer was released onto the street, and their friends and families closed off a town square to hold an event like the one we saw this weekend? What about the jihadists who committed those attacks in Barcelona a couple of years ago? What if they were honored when they left the prison?

“People might say that Baldo and Ugarte are well known in their communities, but why are they well-known? Because they have been sent to prison for kidnap and murder. For some people this is laudable, admirable, an act for which they deserve gratitude. 

“What we saw was nothing more than bragging, glorifying and taking pride in serial killers.”

The view was echoed by another victims’ association leader, Carmen Ladrón de Guevara, who helps families get over the trauma of their loss.

“We have to ring psychologists to prepare the relatives whenever a member of ETA is freed,” Ladrón told us. “The idea that these people will get a hero’s welcome is usually their biggest fear, and it’s just an extra pain. A humiliation, in fact.”

Ladrón has no time for the idea that the weekend’s events were simply family gatherings. She says this is simply an attempt to get around Spanish law, which forbids the “exaltation” of terrorist groups. The law has been used to impose jail terms in the past, but it relies on clear and obvious evidence that suspects are cheering extremist activity, and not simply those who perpetrate it.

“If they want to hold a family gathering,” she asked us, “why do it in the street? They can do it at home or in a restaurant – which is typical in the Basque Country. But don’t do it in the street, in an ostentatious way like you’ve seen with the posters and the flares.”

Taking a stand

Now, after so much media fall-out, the authorities in Madrid are getting involved. The government, led by Pedro Sánchez, reeling from his failure to form a stable coalition after months of trying, has said it will instruct Spain’s public prosecutor to investigate the gatherings in Hernani and Oñati, calling them “an insult to the victims of terrorism and to society.”

It’s easy to see why the government is so keen to take a stand. Sánchez has long been accused by right-wing critics of being too soft on separatists, too willing to deal with groups such as Bildu. But the Basque authorities have already refused to open a case, believing it was too difficult to establish the well-wishers’ intentions. Any attempt to punish them at national level is sure to be messy, and will only serve to prolong tensions in a region which still bridles at Spain’s heavy-handedness.

Perhaps the Spanish government, and media, would be better off turning the page. Instead of trying to punish those who welcomed the ageing ETA enforcers, it might be advisable to deny terrorism the oxygen of publicity. Instead of dwelling on the acts of homage which took place in the Basque Country, they should remember the one held in Mallorca instead.