Madrid letter: Rancour lives on two decades after bombing

Horrific 2004 train attack killed 193 and left legacy of division

There was a political spat recently over a Spanish government plan to rename Madrid’s Atocha railway station after the late novelist Almudena Grandes.

The administration of Socialist Pedro Sánchez presented the move as a fitting tribute to the writer who died of cancer in November. In naming such a prominent public space after a woman, it was also seen as a nod to Spain’s feminist movement.

But for some on the right it was a politically motivated provocation, given that Grandes was known for her left-wing views, and a war of words ensued. Such disputes are commonplace in Spanish political life, although this one happened to revolve around Atocha, a place which was at the centre of a tragedy that contributed enormously to today’s rancour.

On March 11th, 2004, 10 bombs were detonated on four commuter trains in Atocha station and just outside Madrid. A total of 193 people died and around 2,000 were injured in the largest terrorist atrocity Spain had seen, which is now known simply as "11M".


In the immediate aftermath of the attack, the conservative government of José María Aznar said the Basque group Eta had been responsible. Initially, that version of events was accepted and millions of Spaniards marched together through the streets to condemn the terrorists.

But it soon became increasingly apparent that jihadists had carried out the bombings and this had political ramifications. Three days after the attack a general election was to be held. The idea that Eta was responsible was seen as a vote-winner for Aznar's Popular Party (PP), which had presented itself as the natural enemy of the Basque terrorists. By contrast, the idea that jihadists may have been involved was seen as electorally problematic for the PP, which had been a vocal supporter of the United States' invasion of Iraq.

"You look at other similar attacks in the West and they always tend to unite people behind their leaders – even 9/11," says José Gómez, a Mexican filmmaker who has made a documentary about the attack, '11M: Terror in Madrid', which is available on Netflix.

“People tend to support their leaders – when you’re scared, you get behind what you know,” he says. “But in Spain it didn’t happen like that.”

The documentary, which took a decade to make, gives a voice to many of those who were injured or who lost loved ones with heart-rending detail and dignity.

It explains exactly how an Al Qaeda cell came to carry out the attack and how the conservatives were unexpectedly ousted from government on a wave of public anger over the mismanagement of the crisis by Aznar and his cabinet. The film also shows how the Socialists capitalised on the chaos to win the election.

Bad blood

In the months that followed, the political atmosphere curdled, as the right accused the Socialists of cheating their way into power and many opposition figures fuelled baseless conspiracy theories that Eta had somehow been involved in the attack.

The most notorious source of misinformation about this, El Mundo newspaper, has since acknowledged its mistakes. However, others such as influential radio presenter Luis del Pino have continued to promote a discredited theory that the attack was an elaborate deep-state plot.

Such is the acrimony that there has even been bad blood between groups representing relatives of the victims who have different views of what exactly happened on March 11, 2004.

Today, fringe sectors of the right cling to the phrase “since 11M everything is 11M” to express their fury at how left-wing politics and Catalan and Basque separatism have supposedly gripped Spain over the last two decades.

“11M was a watershed, I think,” says Gómez, reflecting on this toxic legacy, which has seeped into mainstream politics. Nonetheless, he points out how under-30s in Spain tend to know very little about the attack itself.

“It’s not taught at school,” he says. “I spoke to teachers and they told me: ‘The problem is that it’s been so controversial and people are still so divided that if we tell the class what happened then the next day you have three or four parents asking for us to be sacked’.”

Eighteen years on, acrimony in Spanish public life is visible in many ways: politicians are hounded and harassed by extremists who stake out their homes; parliamentary debates frequently veer off-topic into routine name-calling; and the far-right Vox party is on the ascendant, focusing its ire on feminism, LGBT organisations and Muslims.

It would be glib to attribute all of this to one terror attack. But Spanish democracy did lose something in the aftermath of that tragic day. The hope is that Gómez’s sober and moving film will help redress the balance.