Reflections on the Spanish State-Sponsored Assassination Campaigns against ETA
[Extract from a presentation delivered by Dr. Emmanuel-Pierre Guittet during the Workshop on Political Violence and Political Assassination, organised by Dr Thomas Tunstall Allcock – University of Manchester – 08 May 2014]
Contemporary democratic Spain has been plagued with serious campaigns of violence. Since the end of the Francoist regime in 1975 until the announcement of a ceasefire in 2010, the Basque separatist and clandestine group ETA (Euskadi (e)Ta Askatasuna, Basque country and Freedom) and its various sub-groups have unquestionably played a central part in this deadly process. Since the end of the 1970s, Spanish authorities have been consistent in adopting a strong stance against the violence perpetrated by ETA, seeking international police and judicial cooperation, implementing, step by step one of the most impressive counterterrorist legislation in Europe but also relying on the Francoist recipes that have proved to be more or less successful during the dictatorship; intimidation, coercion and death squads. Between 1984 and 1987, an enigmatic and clandestine organization, the Antiterrorist Liberation Groups (Grupos antiterroristas de Liberación, GAL), was at war against ETA (http://books.google.co.uk/books/about/Dirty_War_Clean_Hands.html?id=LC3VT91k95IC&redir_esc=y). 27 persons have been killed in this smear campaign of torture, kidnapping and execution of suspected members of ETA and Basque refugees on the French territory. Until 1995, the GAL was still a rather mysterious but deadly organization, before becoming a national political scandal of a “death squad” funded and sponsored by the Spanish government. No less than 14 high-rank Spanish police officers and senior government officials, including the minister of interior himself, have been arrested and condemned. This near-30-years old series of deadly covered-up actions has continued to grip Spain ever since (http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=eraKRQAACAAJ&dq=anti+terroriste+clandestin,+antiterroriste+officiel&hl=en&sa=X&ei=YASfU7SmF9PX7AbgzIGgBA&ved=0CCIQ6AEwAA) and is certainly a local trauma across the Basque country (http://www.argia.com/argia-astekaria/2288/emmanuel-pierre-guittet).
Without entering into the details of the 40 different actions of the GAL(http://www.berria.info/GAL/judiziala.php), let’s say that some of them were very neat, sophisticated and precise military-style operations – one target, one sniper, one shot – and others were more disorganised and messy – kidnapping of the wrong person, bombing the wrong car or spraying a room with bullets, killing indiscriminately. The variations between the different modus operandi can be explained if one look at the perpetrators involved: French, Spanish and Portuguese petty criminals ready to play the secret agents and killing some Basque people for a thousand of pounds, mercenaries and members of Italian paramilitary extreme-right and Spanish pro-Francoist groups with a clear anti-Basque, anti-communist, anti-ETA political agenda, Police officers, and finally, members of the ‘sharp end’ of the state military and security infrastructures, “special anti-terrorist forces” SAS-type from the Guardia Civil.
As such, the different actions of the GAL constitute a fascinating case of illegal counter-terrorist practices, a clear situation of recruitment of mercenaries paid by the Spanish treasury and relying upon national intelligence support to kill Basque people, a superb case of State agencies involved in extra-judicial killings in a liberal democracy. I am reluctant to use here the notion of state-terrorism which is just as politically and analytically problematic as the term terrorism. A more nuanced approach is necessary. Some of the actions and actors of the GAL were definitively in a kind of employer/employee relationship. They were commissioned to act, to kill and to disappear after. Others were more in a situation of patronage, where they were rewarded for deadly actions that they would have done anyway but were regarded as “GAL-friendly” afterwards. The degree of autonomy, complicity and of collusion between the perpetrators and the different Spanish State agencies were quite different from an operation to the other. A considerable number of the GAL operations have been perpetrated by third parties groups or individuals. These groups have never entirely followed state directives on each and every killing. They had a dynamic of their own in their targeting and operational strategies. As such the notion of State-terrorism tends to erase this complexity of relationship. Furthermore against the terms of State-terrorism, and in most of the cases, State agencies involved in some these “dirty business” have usually a strategy of duplicity, denial and evasion of responsibility rather than a strategy of pride and public confirmation – a double edge strategy made of “simulation and dissimulation”. I personally prefer the notion of “state-crime by proxy” (10.1093/bjc/azi035) or, in that case “counter-terror by proxy” (Guittet, forthcoming) for it encompasses these different realities without giving the advantage to an all-too much rational and instrumental understanding of violence, causes and motives.
As such, the GAL episode is not different from what happened in Northern Ireland during the Troubles. A clear case of serving members of security forces acting perfidiously, Special Forces acting with de facto legal impunity and, finally, involvement of third parties paramilitary organizations or individuals who have been given money, information and orders to plan and execute someone precisely or indiscriminately – some Basque refugees or members of ETA in one case, some Catholics or Republicans in the other (10.1177/0967010611425532). If one avoids the notion of state-terrorism, there is a chance to observe more carefully the logic of fluidity, of a not always so well-planned or premeditated set of actions. A closer look to the sequence of actions reveals a mix of tactic, strategic considerations with impulsive actions taken in response to emergency or the need to be seen as pro-active. This particular campaign of violence was not so well organized, not entirely premeditated and not by the same actors at the political level and with a lot of deviations from the original plan.
When it comes to understand the motives and rationale behind the GAL, one has to be aware of not only the complexity of these logics of violence by proxy, but also of the post-factum justifications and declarations made during the different trials in Spain, France and in Portugal or the diverse techniques of denial mobilized by offenders in order to ﬁll the moral void they were presumably experiencing (http://books.google.co.uk/books/about/States_of_Denial.html?id=5UNrAnSC3d0C). What do we know really? The GAL produced only one written statement. According to the statement, the GAL were at war against ETA but also against the French authorities who were, at the time, taking a loyal pure political offense approach to the doctrine of extradition. The French Basque region, just across the Spanish border, has always been a rear guard area for the militants of ETA and the Basque refugees. The popular quarter of Le Petit Bayonne has always been a safe haven only an hour drive from Donostia (San Sebastian). Back to the 1980s, French authorities were prepared to turn a blind eye; No violence committed on French territory and no-one will be arrested or extradite. Clearly in that unique statement, the second mission of the GAL was to set an example and to give a lesson to the bloody French. Was the GAL only at war against ETA and France? I would add another layer of complexity to the rationale of the GAL: one of the main perpetrators behind the GAL was also a target! The Spanish security and Armed Forces were not so keen on having a socialist government in 1982. The last attempted coup was only a few month before, in February 1981, and clearly the new socialist government was unconvinced by the democratic qualities of their security forces and armed forces, created by the Francoist regime, to serve the Francoist regime and as such one of the main target of ETA.
As soon as France started to cooperate extensively with Spanish authorities, delivering entire planes of Basque refugees, the GAL were reduced to silence. Once reassured by the clear intention of that Socialist government would be harsh on violence and perhaps tougher than the previous conservative governments of the Transition, police officers and soldiers piped down and got back in line. ETA is a different story. In the Basque country, the GAL was immediately viewed as the adaptation of an old recipe from classic Francoist repression. Just but a new death squad like many others before since the 1950s. For the hardliners of ETA, the GAL was the ultimate demonstration that nothing has changed since the death of Franco. The violence of ETA was therefore a logic and necessary response to state violence. The GAL episode was a major episode in the many lives of ETA, leading the organization to become increasingly narrow-minded, devoting its energy almost exclusively to the growth of its military strength, reducing the politics to nearly null. Considering that by the end of the 1970s and the beginning of the 1980s, there were many clandestine political discussions between the organization, its members, sympathizers and representatives of Madrid, the GAL episode put an end to these negotiations for a very long time.
There are two broad approaches to the episode of the GAL. It is either one is considering how a particular government panicked and resorted to the counter-insurgency repertoire, used extensively by the previous regime and still alive within some of its institutions (namely Intelligence, security and Armed Forces) or, on the contrary, that political elites took a set of decisions, knowing the costs but biding on positive outcomes on the long term. As such, the messy, disorganized aspect of the campaign of killings was part of the game of simulation and dissimulation. Not entirely neat and professionally designed in order to be able to play a double game with the French authorities, by opening a space of plausible deniability and reinforcing the point made by Spanish authorities since the 1970s; we need more police and judicial cooperation among European countries when dealing with organizations such as the GAL or ETA crossing our sovereign borders. This episode of the GAL is an episode of a war against terrorism in Europe before 9/11: impunity, illiberal practices in a liberal regime, extraordinary rendition and extra-judicial killings, logic of emergency and discourses of exceptions.