Though the Spanish government insists that ETA is weaker than ever, the Basque separatist group appeared to mark its 50th anniversary this week with a defiant burst of deadly violence.
On Wednesday, the group was suspected of blowing off the outer wall of a barracks housing police families in a highly populated area of Burgos; on Thursday, they were blamed for planting a car bomb that killed two young police officers on the island of Mallorca.
The latest activity pointing to ETA has left a trail of mixed messages, as specialists, newspaper editorialists and Spaniards ponder how the group could continue to stage ambitious attacks while handfuls of their top leaders have been arrested and regional support has faded.
A show of strength by a regenerated ETA
The Spanish government has claimed in recent years that security forces have an increasingly tight grip on ETA, which has killed over 850 people since it was founded in 1959. Key figure Jurdan Martitegi, arrested in France in April, was the fourth ETA commander captured in less than a year.
Analysts seem to agree that the latest attacks were timed to undermine Spanish leaders’ professed confidence in their control of the situation. In an interview with France 24, Pascal Drouhaud, a specialist in international relations at France’s Institut Choiseul, said ETA wants to prove that “50 years after their creation, they are still alive, they are still present and they can be present everywhere in the Spanish territory.”
Drouhaud pointed to the carefully chosen locations of the attacks – a densely populated urban area and a beloved family vacation spot – as an indication of the group’s desire to be perceived as “an organization living in movement” and able to strike “symbolic places.”
The attacks also serve as evidence that the Spanish and French crackdown on ETA’s leadership has not rendered the group powerless. Drouhaud noted that the rebels’ latest attacks cast them as a “movement in regeneration,” composed of progressively younger members who have slipped into power as security forces successfully target more seasoned chiefs.
Increasingly marginalised mission and methods
Still, if this week’s attacks come as a stinging reminder that ETA has not been eradicated, its bombing campaigns since Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero ended peace talks in 2006 are undeniably mild compared to the group’s violent heyday in the 1980s.
The group once boasted an estimated 150,000 supporters, initially benefitting from broad regional sympathy during the years of the Franco dictatorship when the Basque language and culture were suppressed.
But though opinion polls continue to show a majority of Basques favouring some form of independence from Spain, support for ETA has waned as its mission and methods have changed. As Drouhaud explained, a movement of resistance transformed into “a movement of terrorism” that relied on violent tactics which alienated mainstream Basque nationalists who long dominated politics in the mountainous northern Spanish region.
The dwindling number of ETA supporters is, according to Drouhaud, a testament to a changing Spain. As Basque identity has been successfully “preserved and defended” in the region, people increasingly feel that there is “no sense in using these terrorist ways” and that “the objective of ETA…today has no sense.”
The feeling that ETA’s approach is too extreme and its goal obsolete, coupled with the police battering their leadership, has limited the scope of the group’s threat -- despite periodic spurts of violence.
Spain, nevertheless, remains firmer than ever in its pledge to defeat the group. As France 24 correspondent in Madrid Sarah Morris noted, “There’s no mention of any kind of peace process in the future. The message continually coming out of the government is ‘we are going to beat this group through arrests and through continued vigilance.’”
Morris noted that as people across Spain digest the latest attacks, Spanish leaders have warned that though ETA is weaker than ever, “that’s when this group is most dangerous.”