GAL verdict concludes investigation into Spanish dirty war crimes

SPAIN: A ruling this week may consign government-backed death squads to history, writes Paddy Woodworth.

SPAIN: A ruling this week may consign government-backed death squads to history, writes Paddy Woodworth.

The Spanish dirty war scandal, which filled the front pages of Madrid newspapers for years, may have drawn to a close this week, not with a bang, but with a whimper. The case against José Amedo, José Luis Morcillo, and Rafael Masa for the murder of Santiago Brouard is probably the last such case which will come to full trial.

Brouard, the most significant leader of Herri Batasuna at the time, was shot dead while he attended a child in his medical clinic in November 1984.

On Wednesday, the judges found all three defendants not guilty. It is unlikely that we will now ever learn much more through judicial channels of the disastrous dirty war against ETA carried out under Felipe González's administrations in the mid-1980s.


The Brouard case was perhaps the most convoluted of all the judicial investigations into the so-called Anti-Terrorist Liberation Groups (GAL), the death squads which, as earlier trials established, operated with the blessing of very senior Socialist Party (PSOE) politicians. González himself, however, has always denied all knowledge of their activities.

This month's trial was the second court hearing to arise from the 19-year-old investigation. Rafael López Ocaña, a criminal mercenary, had already been convicted as one of the two material authors of the crime in 1993. The background to that trial was squalid, even by the GAL's standards. Rafael's brother, Miguel Ángel, was convicted of murdering their own brother-in-law, the drug addict Alberto Granados Céspedes, because he was going to inform on them. Miguel Ángel later died in prison of AIDS.

The current case had an equally murky background. It reopened because Morcillo, who had absconded before the first trial, was arrested in connection with a large consignment of the ecstasy drug in 1997. Masa, expelled from the Guardia Civil for torture (and then readmitted) has a major cocaine trafficking conviction. Amedo, already convicted for several GAL crimes, has spent much of the last 15 years defending himself, and implicating others, in GAL investigations.

The evidence presented at this trial had many of the sadly familiar characteristics of the previous GAL cases: the "scandalous" (according to the judges) failure of the police to investigate the murder; conspiracy theories to suit every taste; unreliable witnesses; vanishing witnesses; bizarre decisions by investigating magistrates; feuds among the usual suspects from the grotesque Interior Ministry and counter-terrorist top brass of the period.

While the judges found no evidence sufficient to convict the accused, their world-weary judgment gives some credence, like others before it, to the view that the GAL were state-sponsored death squads. This is hardly news after all these years, but, nevertheless, the judgment makes shameful reading in any democracy.

A former policeman, Michel Domínguez, casually told the court that he had put out a communique in the name of the GAL (denying responsibility for the murder) from the Bilbao police headquarters, on the instructions of his commanding officers.

The Spanish have heard this kind of story so often that it begins to appear normal. This is just the way things were in the Basque Country in the 1980s, when elements in the security forces were given the green light, by PSOE politicians, to use state terrorism in response to ETA's continuing terrorist offensive. Citizens are still counting the cost, in human lives and warped politics, today.

Spain must be grateful for the enterprise and courage of a handful of journalists, parliamentary deputies, columnists, prosecutors and investigating magistrates who took the then rather unpopular view that this kind of activity was not normal. They used the full force of the media and the law to expose the GAL for what it was: a campaign which was doubly criminal, because it abused the authority of the democratic state, first to support and then to cover up its crimes.

It is to the credit of Spain's young democracy that the GAL has been investigated to this extent, especially given the appalling anti-democratic pressure of ETA's increasingly indiscriminate and vicious strategy. Few countries have gone so far in revealing the grim secrets of what Felipe González so tellingly called the "sewers of the State". Spanish democracy is healthier as a result. But we still do not know the whole story. More importantly, justice, for the families of the victims, is still, at best, incomplete.

The outcome of the Brouard case is particularly frustrating, given the great quantity of circumstantial evidence pointing to state involvement - this was elicited by the meticulous work by the victim's family lawyer, Txema Montero.

However, given the obstruction - usually emanating from state agencies - experienced throughout the investigation, this circumstantial evidence stood little chance of becoming judicial truth.

It may now be left to future historians, rather than judges, to find the documents which have still not been produced in court. Unless some ageing PSOE leader from the González era suddenly recovers his conscience and his memory.

Paddy Woodworth is the author of Dirty War, Clean Hands: ETA, the GAL and Spanish Democracy (Yale University Press)