‘We lost our fear’: the Basque terror group’s killing that made Spain say enough is enough – The Guardian

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The Eta group’s kidnap and murder of a young councillor in 1997 united a country in revulsion and the wounds are still open today
The place where it happened is out past the hotel, the roundabout, the pharmacy and the blocks of flats hung with washing and geraniums, out where the small Basque town of Lasarte-Oria gives way to a narrow road fringed with trees and ferns.
Today, little carries on the humid coastal air save for birdsong, the barking of a distant dog and the growl of a cultivator. But, 25 years ago this week, two shots from a .22 calibre Beretta pistol rang out beneath the trees and echoed across the length and breadth of Spain.
At 4.40pm on 12 July 1997, Miguel Ángel Blanco, a 29-year-old councillor for the conservative People’s party (PP) in the Basque town of Ermua, was murdered on the outskirts of Lasarte-Oria. His killers were three members of Eta, the terror group that waged a violent campaign over four decades for an independent Basque state. Despite two bullets to the back of his head, Blanco was still alive when he was found a few minutes after the shooting by a pair of locals, his hands bound behind his back. He died in hospital at 5am the next day.
Blanco had been kidnapped while on his way to work two days earlier, chosen as the human bargaining chip in Eta’s latest public ultimatum: if the PP government of prime minister José María Aznar did not move all Eta prisoners to jails in the Basque country, the young councillor would be dead within 48 hours.
By 1997, Spain was all too familiar with the lengths to which Eta would go in pursuit of its goals. In 1973, it had murdered prime minister Luis Carrero Blanco with a bomb so powerful his car was blown 20 metres into the air. Fourteen years later, it bombed a Guardia Civil barracks in Zaragoza, killing 11 people – including six children – and a supermarket in Barcelona, killing 21 people.
The group also had a propensity for kidnapping. A week-and-a-half before Blanco was snatched, the prison officer José Antonio Ortega Lara was freed by police after being held captive by Eta for 532 days in a cramped, damp bunker 1.8m wide and 2.5m long.
While Spain had already suffered 30 years of personal and political terror, there was something different about the cynical, cruel and random murder of Blanco – evidenced by the watershed response it elicited. Instead of being cowed into silence and fear, millions of people across Spain took to the streets to say enough was enough.
One of those gathered outside Ermua town hall that weekend, waiting for news of Blanco, was a man in his early 20s called Juan Carlos Abascal. He knew Blanco as “a quiet, introverted person who didn’t speak much”. He recalls how the crowd reacted to news of the murder. “There was a look of absolute horror on people’s faces,” says Abascal, who is now mayor of Ermua. “And there were looks of disbelief. And hatred.”
Also in the crowd was Eduardo Madina, a member of the Socialist Youth of the Basque country who would go on to become a leading MP for the Spanish Socialist Workers’ party (PSOE).
“I’ll never forget the mayor, Carlos Totorika, telling us that Miguel Ángel Blanco had been murdered,” says Madina. “I was under the town hall balcony and I remember it just felt like it was raining razor blades.”
Aware of how easily 48 hours’ worth of bottled-up fear and fury could explode, Totorika decided to lead the crowd of thousands on a march to the nearby town of Eibar.
“That three-hour walk really helped people to calm down and come to terms with all the anger and hatred,” says Abascal. “There was something constructive about it. From then on, people began to lose their fear and there was a much more active mobilisation.”
Something had changed. The massive protests that erupted elsewhere across Spain suggested Eta’s recently introduced strategy of inflicting the maximum possible pain across Basque society, known as the socialisation of suffering, had backfired.
“There were a lot of factors, but this was a decisive moment when people said, ‘That’s enough now’,” says Abascal. “Until then, I think a lot of people had thought something like that could never happen to them. They suddenly saw it could happen to any of us: to a councillor; to a lawyer; to a police officer, or to a journalist. This wasn’t just about killing a person – it was about telling an entire society to keep its mouth shut.”
That moment – which Madina calls a “collective awakening” – occurred in a place that was a far cry from the Guggenheim-shiny tourist lure of today. Four decades ago, he says, the Basque country “was like a mix of Belfast and Manchester: it was a time of pronounced post-industrial decline when you also had a terrorist organisation with an enormous capacity for killing – as many as 100 people a year in the 80s – and an enormous capacity for doing damage”.
During the so-called años de plomo (years of lead), he adds, the social and political atmosphere in the region was characterised by terrorist violence, “and the cultural hegemony of the political movement that surrounded Eta’s terrorism meant that defending certain ideas was worth more than some human lives”.
That fanatical conviction was not destroyed despite the anger and revulsion that greeted Blanco’s murder – as Madina would discover five years later as he drove to work in his grey Seat Ibiza.
“What started as a normal Tuesday went on to become the worst day of my life,” he says of 19 February 2002. “I left the house, I went to work, and the car exploded just as I was getting there. It was very similar to Eta’s other car bombs but the difference was they didn’t manage to kill me – something went wrong.”
Although the blast resulted in the amputation of his left leg above the knee and ended his volleyball career, Madina refused to give in to hatred or bitterness.
“I’ve never been capable of hating; I’ve been more focused on justice and memory,” he says. “I’ve made my peace with the past and my life is mine. It doesn’t belong to Eta.”
An hour’s drive from Lasarte-Oria is a building that seeks to enshrine the importance of justice and memory. The Memorial Centre for the Victims of Terrorism sits in the heart of the Basque capital of Vitoria-Gasteiz and opened last year as “a place for meeting, reflection, and the defence of democratic values”.
Among its exhibits is the bomb jammer used by a Basque academic, a butane gas cylinder bomb, the tricornio hat of Antonio Jesús Trujillo Comino, one of two Guardia Civil officers murdered by Eta in July 1985, and a recreation of the tiny cell in which José Antonio Ortega Lara nearly lost his mind.
While much of the centre’s focus is inevitably on Eta, it serves as a testament to all those who have suffered from terrorist violence. One of its most poignant items is the green-wheeled skateboard that Ignacio Echeverría used to take on the perpetrators of the 2017 London Bridge terrorist attack.
“It’s important for people to know about terrorism, which has shaped the last 50 years of Spanish history,” says the centre’s director, Florencio Domínguez. “The younger generation – people of 20 or 25 – don’t know what terrorism has meant in our history.”
Although Eta declared an end to its armed campaign in 2011, bringing to a close almost half a century of violence that claimed 829 lives, Domínguez insists there can be no complacency when it comes to remembering what happened – especially when 20% of young people in the Basque country believe using violence to achieve political aims can be justified.
“We need to ensure that there isn’t a positive view of terrorism in people’s social values,” he says. “It’s a preventive measure to make sure that future generations aren’t tempted to repeat all this.”
The centre’s ample stock of warnings from the past is not confined to Eta or the Islamist terrorists who murdered 193 people in the Madrid train bombings of 2004. A photograph of a death-threat letter sent in 1985, signed GAL, shows that some in the state were quite prepared to use terror, too.
Faced with a ruthless, violent enemy, a cabal of Spanish officials and police officers formed paramilitary death squads know as the Grupos Antiterroristas de Liberación (GAL) to take the fight to Eta – and to anyone it suspected of involvement with the group.
The GAL, which operated between 1983 and 1987 during the Socialist administration of prime minister Felipe González, killed 27 people, many of whom had no connection to Eta.
Among their first victims were two young Basques, José Antonio Lasa and José Ignacio Zabala, accused of belonging to an Eta cell that tried to rob a bank in the Basque town of Tolosa in November 1981. They fled over the border to France but were kidnapped by Guardia Civil officers working for the GAL in October 1983. After being tortured and forced to dig their own graves, they were shot dead. Lasa was 20; Zabala 21.
While their bodies were discovered in Alicante province in 1985, they were not identified until 1995.
“We spent 12 years looking for them tirelessly,” says Zabala’s sister, Pilar. Like other relatives of the disappeared, Pilar and her family were condemned to years of agonising uncertainty.
“The main thing was just sadness, a sadness so deep that felt like a part of your body had been amputated,” says Pilar. “Our souls had been torn apart but we had to keep going and we had to keep working because we didn’t have much money. My father, who was a lorry driver, had to go back to work a few days after my brother disappeared. Years later, he told us how many nights he had spent crying as he drove because he felt so powerless and defenceless.”
The identification of the remains brought a bittersweet closure and, in the spring of 1995, the family visited the place where the two men had been murdered and buried.
“This was where they’d made them dig their own graves and where they’d shot them dead,” says Pilar.
“Being there, in that desert landscape that can only be reached on foot, I thought about the two of them. I thought about how they’d had to take their last steps to that place, how they’d been forced to dig their own graves, and about how they shot them and buried them under 50kg of quicklime. It’s just unbearable to think that there are human beings who are capable of that level of atrocity. I supposed it’s because of hatred, but I don’t really know.”
Although those responsible for the murders were tried and jailed, Pilar and others are seeking a rigorous and independent investigation into the GAL’s atrocities and want the Spanish government to recognise “both its responsibility and the pain that was caused”.
“No one deserves to be murdered like that,” says Pilar. “If someone belongs to Eta, they should be arrested, tried, and, if convicted, punished. But no democracy and no constitution allows or supports state terrorism.”
Madina attributes Eta’s eventual end to a variety of factors: concerted political, police and judicial efforts; peace talks initiated by the Socialist prime minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero in 2006; “a slow, progressive awakening that eventually led to a very conclusive rejection of Eta’s terrorism by Basque society”; the possibilities opened up by the Good Friday agreement and disgust at the 2004 Madrid attacks.
But 11 years after Eta laid down its arms, and four years after disbanding and apologising for the suffering it caused, a spectre lingers. It is frequently invoked by some on the Spanish right who accuse the Socialist-led minority government of being too dependent on Basque nationalist parties with links to the former political wing of Eta and of doing deals with “terrorists”.
Madina is not impressed with such talk, particularly when it comes from those who did not live through the Basque country’s años de plomo. “It makes me a bit sad; I think it devalues what the terrorism was, the capacity it had to inflict damage, and the struggle for freedom of so many people – some of whom gave their lives for it,” he says.
Domínguez believes a more public show of contrition from politicians with links to Eta is needed, pointing out that the emotional pain of terrorism long outlives its material destruction.
“The personal damage lives on – as we’ve seen with the Spanish civil war,” he says.
“The war finished in 1939 but we’re still dealing with it and there are still issues to address, still lots of people who were shot and who are still lying in unmarked graves. That was almost a century ago, and it’s still a matter of public debate. That the terrorism is far more recent makes it an ever greater one.”
It is a sentiment shared by Pilar Zabala, who is tired of being told to move on and to turn the page. “You can’t turn the page on all this when that page still needs to be written,” she says. “If we want to turn the page, it needs to be read and it needs to be come to terms with.”

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