The Spanish State’s Illicit War with ETA

Contemporary democratic Spain has been plagued with serious campaigns of political violence. Since the end of the Francoist authoritarian regime in 1975 until the announcement of a ceasefire in 2010, the Basque separatist clandestine group ETA (Euskadi (e)Ta Askatasuna, Basque country and Freedom) has unquestionably played a central part in this deadly process. In response to the increasingly violent actions of ETA during the political transition and onwards, Spain has adopted a determined and strong counter-terrorist stance, establishing one of the most impressive antiterrorist arsenals in western democracies, pushing the agenda of a European-wide reformulation of police and judicial assistance between member states and sparing no effort to secure French co-operation against terrorism in general and against ETA in particular. Less known were the extrajudicial strategies Spain used to suppress Basque radical nationalism and eradicate ETA. In the 1980s, initiatives to re-open channels to ETA by the Socialist government (PSOE) of Felipe González (1982-1996) were twinned with a confusing if astute strategy of official enhancement of police and judicial co-operation with France on the one hand and a covert campaign of assassination of members of ETA on the other. Between 1983 and 1987, mercenaries adopting the pseudonym GAL (Grupos Antiterroristas de Liberación, Antiterrorist Liberation Groups) paid by the Spanish treasury and relying upon national intelligence support were at war with ETA. Nearly thirty were killed in this campaign of torture, kidnapping, bombing and assassination of suspected ETA activists and Basque refugees. Nearly 30 years later, this campaign of intimidation, coercion, death squads and targeted killings in a liberal democracy continues to grip Spain. The aim of the paper is to shed lights on a fascinating and intriguing case of illiberal practices in a liberal regime where State agencies colluded with French, Portuguese and Spanish mercenaries in order to kill members of ETA and push the French Government towards more cooperation in the fight against Basque terrorism. New research on illiberal practices in liberal regimes continues to emerge at a brisk pace in an increasingly diverse array of regions in the Western world. Gaps and disconnects remain, but together these studies contribute to a more nuanced understanding of “state terrorism”. By offering a comprehensive yet readable understanding of a dark side of the Spanish contemporary counter-terrorist experience, this paper will contribute to this endeavour.

Presentation by Emmanuel-Pierre Guittet at the 11th ECPR Conference in Oslo