Weakened Eta to disarm half a decade after ceasefire

Basque terrorist group to hand over weapons in south of France on Saturday

A group of civil intermediaries is expected to inform the French authorities in Bayonne on Saturday morning of the whereabouts of several arms caches belonging to Eta, culminating, a few hours later, in the disarmament of the terrorist group.

Eta has not killed since shooting a French policeman dead in 2010 during a botched car robbery and in October 2011, it formally declared the end of its four-decade campaign of violence. This decommissioning, therefore, has been a long time coming and is far from unexpected. But it reflects the weakness and desperation of a group that at its peak both recruited and killed with ease.

Euskadi Ta Askatasuna, meaning "Basque Homeland and Freedom" and more commonly known as Eta, was formed in the late 1950s with the aim of creating an independent Basque state. It started killing a decade later, targeting security forces in the small northern region, and in its early years it was often seen as an army of resistance to the right-wing dictatorship of Francisco Franco.

But after Franco’s 1975 death Eta continued, broadening the scope of its victims to include civilians and political flux and police violence during the transition to democracy drove recruitment among young, mainly male, Basques.


Throughout the 1980s and much of the 1990s the organisation killed at a remorseless rate, with a total death toll that now stands at more than 800.

A state-sponsored death squad designed to eliminate Eta, known as GAL, was counterproductive, torturing and killing civilians as well as terrorists, thus hardening the separatists’ resolve.

But by the beginning of this century, Eta was struggling as Spain’s security forces regularly infiltrated the group and benefitted enormously from the co-operation of the French authorities in making arrests and locating weapons.

Damaged credibility

When Eta detonated a bomb in Madrid airport car park, killing two people, in 2006, it ended fragile peace talks being held with Spain’s Socialist government and severely damaged its own credibility as a negotiator. Moreover, Ireland’s peace process and the rise of Islamist terrorism encouraged the view that separatist violence was now obsolete.

By 2009, the end was clearly in sight. José María Matanzas Gorostiaga, a lawyer close to Eta, issued an internal memo to the organisation’s hierarchy in which he admitted that the Spanish state was no longer willing to negotiate. “It’s time to pull down the blinds,” he wrote.

With Basque independence unlikely in the medium term, Eta is now hoping at least for a change in the government penitentiary policy that keeps most of the group's nearly 400 jailed members in prisons far from their families.

By this stage, Eta's relationship with its political support, the Izquierda Abertzale, had changed, with the latter exerting increasing influence on the terrorist group. Arnaldo Otegi, who had served several jail terms for his links to Eta and its outlawed political wing, Batasuna, was particularly relevant in pushing for an end to the violence.

"We did something which I think was exemplary," Otegi told The Irish Times last year. "We changed strategy, ending Eta's violence, we convinced our support base that the political future lay in a different framework, which had to be exclusively democratic, and that was hard."

The 2011 ceasefire has been scrupulously observed, leading to Saturday’s disarmament and, in all probability, to Eta’s disbandment in the coming months. But although Eta and its political allies would like to see this as a major development with international significance, there are caveats.

Small arsenal

The Spanish government has refused to take part in, or even bless, this process. Although a so-called International Verification Commission has been involved, Eta’s weapons surrender is not comparable, say, to that of the IRA. According to Spanish media reports, Eta’s remaining arsenal numbers only a couple of hundred or so guns and explosives.

With Basque independence unlikely in the medium term, Eta is now hoping at least for a change in the government penitentiary policy that keeps most of the group's nearly 400 jailed members in prisons far from their families. The uncompromising stance of Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy appears to make such concessions unlikely, although that could change if he devolved penitentiary powers to the nationalist Basque regional government.

In the meantime, Saturday’s disarmament means that, beyond the absence of killings and kidnappings, there is one less obstacle to genuine reconciliation in a Basque society that remains divided by the years of violence.