Old bones reveal dark side

 

Were it not for the curiosity of a dog, the story of Joxean Lasa and Joxi Zabala may never have been told. A hunting dog, nosing around in dry scrubland near Busot, in the Spanish province of Alicante, disturbed some human bones in January 1985. The Guardia Civil, a quasi-military security force, was called in. They found the skeletal remains of two young men, severely burned by the quicklime in which they had been buried, plus bullets, blindfolds and bandages.

The condition of the bones made it obvious that this was a case involving torture and murder, but the Guardia Civil made only the most cursory investigations. There was no cross-checking with missing persons archives outside the immediate area.

Yet the gruesome find caused some commotion in Alicante. A local journalist speculated that the bones might have been those of Lasa and Zabala, two members of ETA, the Basque terrorist group. They had "disappeared" in the French Basque Country 14 months previously. Their disappearance was attributed to the GAL death squads, which killed 27 people in a dirty war against ETA between 1983 and 1987. In early 1984, Radio Alicante had received this anonymous telephone call:

"We are the GAL . . . At 15.00 hours we executed Lasa and Zabala. They died crying like cowards. They asked for a priest but we refused because they didn't deserve one."

Yet the investigating magistrate in Alicante closed the case, suggesting that the victims were foreigners involved in a drugs feud. The bones would have been consigned to a common grave, and probably lost for ever, but for the professional dedication of a pathologist, who insisted they should be properly preserved.

So the two broken skeletons lay together in a chilling-drawer in a police morgue for 10 more years. Then a zealous Alicante policeman - not a Guardia Civil - suddenly made the Lasa and Zabala connection again. He had been checking unsolved cases while reading sensational new press reports linking the GAL to the Spanish Socialist government. A photograph of Joxean Lasa, laughing, showed a gap in his smile, just where there was a missing tooth on one of the jaws found in Alicante. Identification was confirmed, and the case was reopened in March 1995.

Miguel Mari Lasa and Juan Mari Zabala remember the long years of anguish after the night they were called to Bayonne to be told their brothers had, apparently, simply vanished. In that situation, says Miguel Mari Lasa, there was no "final point", no moment when they could let themselves grieve freely - a trauma shared by the victims of IRA "disappearances", as recent events here have shown so grimly.

"You can hope for a month, two months, even a year," he concedes, "but knowing the political situation in the country, not more than that. My mother used to cry constantly." Long before they knew what had really happened, they put up a modest monument to the two young men on the outskirts of their home town of Tolosa, to try to find a focus for their mourning. Shortly afterwards, a neighbour looked out her window and saw that the Guardia Civil had chained the pedestal to an armoured car, and were trying to drag it away. She called the Basque Autonomous Police who, in an exchange one would love to have on record, persuaded them to desist. This would not be the last ghastly tug-of-war over the remains, symbolic or otherwise, of Lasa and Zabala. After the bodies were identified, Miguel Mari Lasa remembers the appalling moment when he finally saw his brother's bones: "We always knew they had been tortured, but to see them burned, destroyed ...To get a person to talk, once they know they are kidnapped and in whose hands they are, it is not necessary to torture in this way. This was rage, fury, vengeance."

"Why didn't they just shoot them?" ponders Juan Mari Zabala. "They knew they weren't leaders with useful information. We'll never know what really happened to them."

Joxean Lasa and Joxi Zabala were certainly not significant figures in ETA. They were barely out of their teens when they "disappeared" . They had grown up in strongly nationalist Basque families in Tolosa, a town which was the scene of constant violent confrontations between radicals and the Spanish police at the time. In this heady atmosphere, they joined ETA about 1980, and went into hiding a year later when a bank robbery went wrong. Like thousands of ETA supporters before them, they slipped across the border to France. Bayonne was home to many Spanish Basque refugees. Desite their more or less open commitment to "armed struggle", they were tolerated by the French authorities, who remained unconvinced that Spain had become a full democracy. This exile community lived a surprisingly vibrant social life, sometimes fusing the principles of utopian communism with 1960s hedonism. There were a lot of parties, and Lasa and Zabala didn't miss many of them. "The fact that you are having a bad time politically does not mean you have to repress your joie de vivre," says Juan Mari Zabala. "My brother needed to express himself by having fun."

There was, of course, a much darker side to this community's activities. Shortly before they disappeared, Lasa and Zabala had helped Mikel Goikoetxea to move house to St Jean de Luz, in great secrecy. Goikoetxea was one of the key figures in ETA's ferocious terrorist campaign inside Spain, and was accused by the Spanish police of more than 20 killings. Ten weeks after Lasa and Zabala disappeared, he was shot dead at dusk by a single shot from a GAL sniper. He was outside his new home, which was known to very few people other than his vanished young comrades. Obvious conclusions were drawn.

Lasa and Zabala's love for parties may have been their downfall. On the night of their disappearance, October 16th, 1983, they borrowed the keys to a friend's car to go to a fiesta in a nearby village. They never got to turn on the ignition. The owner found his car open, where he had left it, 36 hours later, with their documents, jackets and a hank of human hair inside.

A POLICE and judicial investigation in Madrid has pieced together the following account of what happened next, all of which has yet to be proved in the court case which has just opened in Madrid. Four members of the Guardia Civil, who formed one of the branches of the GAL, kidnapped Lasa and Zabala in Bayonne and brought them back to Spain. They were held in specially prepared cells in a disused palace under the control of the senior Socialist politician in San Sebastian, Julen Elgorriaga. According to the Madrid magistrate's report, they were then interrogated and tortured for days, or possibly weeks, on the orders of the Enrique Galindo, a hero to the Guardia Civil and a top anti-terrorist commander. Both Galindo and Elgorriaga are accused of visiting the cells, wearing balaclavas, during the interrogations. Galindo is accused of deciding that , given their "lamentable physical state", Lasa and Zabaka should be taken to the other side of the country, and "made disappear". The victims were thrown into the boot of a car, and driven 800 kms to Alicante. There they were stripped to their blindfolds, and the bandages which covered their injuries, and shot in the head. They were buried in quicklime to speed decomposition and destroy evidence. A deputy interior minister, Rafael Vera, already convicted for another GAL kidnapping, is accused of organising a cover-up operation. Galindo, Vera and Elgorriaga deny all charges against them.

As these allegations emerged through 1995 and 1996, Spain was convulsed by the evidence - corroborated by some of their subordinates - that its top political and military anti-terrorist officers had been involved in a such a gruesome dirty war. The scale was not of Argentinian or Chilean proportions, but the details were. The macabre image of Lasa's and Zabala's mingled and twisted bones dominated front pages. Yet Felipe Gonzalez's outgoing Socialist government actually promoted Enrique Galindo to the rank of general while this investigation was going on.

Meanwhile, the Basque Country erupted in fury, and there were, almost inevitably, more victims. Angry youths petrol bombed a Basque police van, and the driver's face was melted into horrifically featureless tissue. IF there was any sensitivity to his suffering among radicals, it was quickly eclipsed by monumental blunders by the authorities when Lasa's and Zabala's bones were brought back to the Basque Country. The police refused to hand over the remains to the families at the airport, as previously agreed, and a riot ensued in which the coffins were pulled backwards and forwards. Then the police sealed the families into the cemetery in Tolosa, and baton-charged grannies and aunties as they tried to bury their dead. It was yet another horrific experience for the relatives, and yet another propaganda gift to ETA.

Jose Luis Barberia, one of the most seasoned and sober observers of the Basque scene, wrote at the time: "Rage propagated itself yesterday in Tolosa like a blind tide, which threatens to bury all Basques in civil conflict." Lasa and Zabala became emblematic martyrs of the Spanish State's dirty war against ETA, a war whose main achievement was to sow the seeds of popular support for terrorism in the Basque Country for another generation.

But perhaps the most remarkable aspect to this story is the fact that it can be told at all. The revelations may have started due to the curiosity of a dog, but they were advanced and made public by the democratic commitment of one section of the police, by the judiciary and by the media.

Over the next two months in Madrid, a hero of the Guardia Civil and two former Socialist leaders will have to defend themselves against the magistrates' conclusions in court. Jesus Santos, a prosecutor with no radical leanings, has pursued the Lasa and Zabala case under extraordinarily difficult conditions. He says that it is "the strength and pride of Spanish democracy that it has taken up the challenge of investigating the GAL". He has a point. It is hard to imagine many other European states looking so deeply into the dark heart of their security forces, while enduring a prolonged terrorist campaign.

Paddy Woodworth's book on the GAL, Dirty Wars, Clean Hands, will be published next year. He can be contacted at pwoodworth@irish-times.ie