The stain of Spain's dirty war

Paddy Woodworth examines how the socialist government's dirty war against the armed Basque nationalist group ETA has had a corrupting influence on the restoration of Spanish democracy.

WHY SHOULD we lose sleep because of a phenomenon which has happened in Spain like it happened in France, in Germany and in all democratic countries? Dirty tricks are normal in very many countries.

This was the defence offered in 1997 by Carmen Romero, the wife of the former Spanish prime minister, Felipe González, against allegations that his government had been responsible for a dirty war against the Basque terrorist group ETA in the previous decade.

It was a casual, not to say callous, dismissal of legitimate concerns about a phenomenon which cost 27 lives. The fact that it came from a Socialist Party MP, and a leading feminist, gives some indication of how deeply the bloody conflict in the Basque Country was capable of corrupting the thinking of senior Spanish democrats.

It has now been clearly established that the Socialist Party (PSOE) administration in the 1980s set up a series of death squads known as the GAL (Grupos Antiterroristas de Liberación -- Anti-terrorist Liberation Groups). The GAL operated almost exclusively in the French Basque Country, where ETA maintained its organisational bases.

The death squads targeted leading members of ETA, but at least a third of their victims had no connection with terrorism.

This dirty war strategy seems to have been directed at least as much at persuading the French authorities to take a tougher line against ETA as at decapitating the organisation itself. The GAL ceased to function in 1986, at precisely the moment when Paris began to implement a much more vigorous extradition policy.

Ironically, however, the GAL were a major factor in ensuring ETA's survival into the 1990s and beyond, because this blatant use of state terrorism by Madrid was a propaganda bonanza for the supporters of radical nationalist terrorism.

The PSOE has never acknowledged responsibility for the GAL, but the courts have convicted most of the senior members of the 1980s anti-terrorist high command, up to and including González's interior minister, for GAL-related crimes. González himself has never been charged with a GAL offence, but many Spaniards regard him as, at the very least, politically responsible for the death squads.

If a policy of extra-judicial killings alone were not enough to make Spanish socialists lose sleep, the modus operandi of the GAL should have been the stuff of nightmares for any democrat.

Their first operation was the kidnapping of two young ETA members, Joxean Lasa and Joxe Zabala, in Bayonne in October 1983. They were taken across the border to a disused palace belonging a PSOE leader, Julen Elgorriaga, in San Sebastián. There they were tortured by members of the Guardia Civil for several weeks. They were then stuffed into the boot of a car, and driven 800 kilometres to Alicante. Taken to a lonely desert spot, they were shot in the back of the head and buried in quicklime.

Elgorriaga, and a former Guardia Civil general, Enrique Rodríguez Galindo, were convicted for kidnapping and murdering Lasa and Zabala last year.

Many of the GAL's subsequent attacks were terrorist in the most classic sense, ranging from leaving bombs on busy streets to shooting up bars where children were playing.

In the PSOE's defence, it should be said that they encountered a grim political challenge when they won the 1982 general elections. They had to deal with an army still nostalgic for Franco's dictatorship, and which had nearly supported an anti-democratic coup d' état the previous year.

They had expected ETA to at least give them some breathing space. Instead, the Basque radicals killed a top general only weeks after the election.

The army and the police regarded ETA's increasingly ferocious and indiscriminate campaign as evidence that democrats were incapable of maintaining public order. This was precisely the charge which had given Spanish fascism its best propaganda in the 1930s.

However, as the first Spanish government in 45 years to have clean hands, unstained by links to the Francoist past, the PSOE also had an enormous responsibility to prove that the democratic rule of law was indeed a superior political and social instrument to both right-wing authoritarianism and leftist terrorism.

The resounding absolute majority which they enjoyed in 1982 gave them an enviable level of legitimacy to carry out reforms. Their abject failure to purge the police and the Guardia Civil of dirty warriors and torturers, coupled with the reckless promotion of ruthlessly ambitious bureaucrats within their own administration, left the door to the dirty war of the mid-1980s wide open.

Its consequences have not been limited to boosting ETA's chances of generational reproduction, in a democracy where terrorism should have no justification -- though this was bad enough.

The poison injected by the GAL into the bloodstream of Spanish democracy continues to circulate. The PSOE not only facilitated the death squads while they were active, it has continued systematically to obstruct every attempt to investigate the crimes they committed every since. And it has done so using language so persistently ambiguous as to suggest that this major European party does not have a firm grasp of such basic democratic principles as transparency and the rule of law.

González's notorious statement that democracy is defended in the sewers as well as in the salons is only the most striking of a whole lexicon of phrases which seemed to justify the use of death squads while denying any connection with specific crimes.

As the judicial evidence pointing to Socialist Party involvement mounted inexorably, the stubborn refusal of the PSOE to accept any political responsibility for 27 murders not only debased Spanish political discourse. It also put the Spanish government -- González remained in power until 1996 -- under corrosive pressure from a bizarre coalition of blackmailers, which included disgraced bankers, sacked intelligence agents, and corrupt policemen sick of carrying the can for their political masters.

Nor is the centre-right Partido Popular government of José María Aznar, which has won the last two Spanish elections, untainted by the GAL scandal.

Some veteran PP members are accused by the PSOE, with some justification, of having sponsored earlier dirty wars, raising the nightmare scenario that another bundle of skeletons could fall out of the Spanish establishment's cupboard.

Perhaps because of its vulnerably on this count, the Aznar government has been extremely generous in granting pardons to Socialists convicted of GAL crimes. This, in turn, feeds the ETA propaganda that Spanish democracy is a facade for sinister forces with no real commitment to the rule of law.

There is plenty of reason, then, for Spanish democrats, socialist or otherwise, to lose sleep over the GAL's dirty war. Whether Carmen Romero was right in suggesting that dirty tricks are normal in very many countries is another question, and one which must still be fully investigated in regard to collusion between British forces and loyalist terrorists in Northern Ireland and the Republic.

In stark contrast to the failure of the Spanish parliamentary system to come to terms with the GAL, however, it is precisely in this field of investigation that another arm of the democratic state has distinguished itself in Spain.

The judiciary has played a quite exceptional role, aided by the media, in uncovering what Madrid's agents were doing in the sewers in the 1980s. In no other European country has an Interior Ministry had to submit to such a rigorous examination.

To invert Romero's position, this is indeed an abnormality Spanish democracy can be proud of.

Paddy Woodworth is an Irish Times journalist, and the author of Dirty War, Clean Hands -- ETA, the GAL and Spanish Democracy (Cork University Press, £19.95 hbk), described by the British historian Paul Preston as one of the most important books about post-Franco Spain ever published.

August/September 2001

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