ETA: What the Future Holds and How the Past Can Help Predict

ETA: What the Future Holds and How the Past Can Help Predict

The organization Basque Homeland and Freedom is fighting its last battle— a legal battle with Spain and France to formally demobilize and begin the reparation process.  The organization, better known as ETA, has been terrorizing Spain and France since 1958 as it struggled for a free Basque Country. Basque Country, or País Vasco in Spanish, is the north-eastern region of Spain located just below the south-easternmost section of the Spanish-French border.

Image from  Financial Tribune

The area historically also extends into the southeastern corner of France. The region has developed a unique reputation of being unconquerable due to its mountainous land protections and unnavigable seaside. The region was remarkably removed, and prior to the unification of the region in 1512 by Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand, Basque Country was largely left untouched by the world due to its accessibility. Proof of this lies in the fact that the Euskara language is one of the most difficult languages in the world to learn, and holds little traces of outside influence. It is in this fiercely independent pocket of the world that ETA has flourished. Over the past 51 years, the group has engaged in local and national politics, as well as horrific guerrilla warfare. In total, the group has taken over 829 lives, largely civilian, through their comprehensive bombings and shooting campaigns. Their methods have landed 287 group members in prisons across Spain and France. Today, the group is attempting to lessen their prison sentences of their members by demobilizing.

History of ETA

ETAs roots are anchored in the historical battle between Basque Country and the Spanish Crown. The annexation of the region came at an extreme loss of life to both sides, and while it ended with Basque Country being incorporated into Spain, the people revolted against the central powers for decades. The Basque people have long felt that their wealth and freedoms were being drained by Spain, a notion that was captured by Sabino Arana, the founder of the Basque Nationalist Party (PNV) in 1895. Arana, considered the father of the Basque nationalist movement, framed Basque history as an epic of military victories and popular revolts centered on the all-consuming goal of territorial unity and the continuation of the ever-disappearing Basque culture and language. These sentiments captured many Basques and steeped into their national identity until coming to fruition during the Franco era.

Image from  I ngelesa Hobetzen

Image from Ingelesa Hobetzen

Francisco Franco rose to power following the Spanish Civil War. His reign lasted from 1939 until his death in 1975 and was characterized by a violent pursuit of a united Spain and a singular Spanish identity and culture. His regime demanded the extermination of regional cultures and languages. The insistence of the Basque people to keep their cultures and to continue to speak Euskara caused Franco to declare Biscay and Gipuzkoa (Vizcaya and Guipuzcoa in Spanish) as “traitor provinces.” It is here where the pro-separatist sentiments were the strongest.  Halfway through Franco’s regime, in 1958, ETA was formed as a clandestine group with the objective of reunifying Basque Country as its own state and bringing freedom to the Basque people. The existentialist desperation of the group propelled them to focus on guerrilla warfare tactics, often targeting civilians. The group solidified their means 1962 at the first assembly of the Basque Revolutionary Movement of National Liberation. Guerrilla warfare was decided upon as the most visible means of self-determination under Franco’s regime, where dissidents were quickly and publically persecuted. Whereas the Franco regime fell in 1975, these tactics have continued into modern day.

Government Background

Prior to the Spanish Civil War and the Francoist Years, Basque Country had certain regional exceptions from the rest of Spain. Deemed a historical province in 1936, the region had benefited from greater autonomy in comparison to the other regions of Spain (excluding Catalonia, which declared autonomy in 1932). This exception was meant to reflect the varied cultural background of the region in comparison to the rest of Spain. However, these exceptions had very real implications for Basque Country's political situation. It also granted the region a higher level of autonomy. These traditions were ultimately continued as Basque exceptionalism was reflected in the 1978 constitution.

The 1978 Spanish Constitution was introduced to a nation that was scarred by the Franco regime and undergoing a transition to democracy. Each region was also celebrating and clinging  to the regional identities that had almost slipped away in the previous years. The Constitution thus formed modern day Spain with respect to these regional identities, but also an eye on what a united Spain could become.  Therefore, the constitution (and later decisions) decided upon having 19 regions, generally informed by historical regions. Each autonomous region has its own parliament and lawmakers. However, Basque Country, Navarre, and Catalonia, were allotted the additional autonomy over the police forces in their region. Additionally, Basque Country and Navarra hold near-total control over their tax systems. While each region pays some money into the federal system, the majority of their taxes remain in their respective regions, and help pay for schools, infrastructure and other necessities. Basque Country received the highest level of autonomy in Spain (with Navarra), yet pro-separatists were unsatisfied, wanting a higher degree of separation. The PNV and other more moderate separatists called for abstention of the referendum for the Constitution that resulted in very poor voter turnout. Factoring in the absentees, only 34.9% of the electorate in Basque Country supported the 1978 Constitution.  Thus, the dissatisfaction in Basque Country continued to grow into the modern day.

ETA Violence

Soon after the implementation of the Constitution, ETA murdered 100 people in one year.  The majority of ETA victims are innocent civilians, not targets of the organization. Some of the most highly successful operations include the June 1987 bomb that went off in a supermarket in Barcelona, killing 21 shoppers. Similarly, in November 2001, a car bomb exploded in Madrid and injured 95 civilians. These attacks are amongst those committed by ETA that harmed the highest number of civilians. ETA has also targeted its direct political opponents-- government officials, police chiefs, and the Civil Guard. The number of lives claimed by this campaign is estimated to be 829. ETA has been a constant terror in Spain, striking with little warning and with complete disregard for human life. Their use of guerrilla warfare extends long past the Franco regime, when the group initially decided on this tactic.

ETAs political affiliations have also continued to grow within Basque Country. The “left abertzale” has gained credibility in recent years - an organization that refers to political parties and organizations aligned with Basque nationalism and separatism. The left abertzale makes up for about a third of the voting population, yet if it is combined with the Spanish left (socialists) they make up half of the votes. It is in this combined political faction that ETA has more recently begun to rely upon. Due to both the relative effectiveness and legality of pursuing Basque goals though the political system, ETA has begun to disentangle itself from violence. However, this is a reiterated theme with ETA, which has caused Spain much grief in the past.

The first ceasefire agreement between Spain and ETA was decided in 1998 and only lasted 14 months. Likewise, in March of 2006 was supposed to be the first “permanent ceasefire” with ETA. ETA broke the agreement nine months later by placing a car bomb in the Barajas airport in Madrid, killing two civilians. These ceasefires are not just validating ETA by allowing it space in the political realm, but ultimately are humiliating the Spanish government. The French government, in comparison, has had more success as the police force has arrested and imprisoned many ETA members. However, it is important to not that not only does the historic Basque region lay primarily in Spain, but also ETA has focused its efforts mostly within Spanish borders as it considers the 1978 constitution humiliating.

Regardless of the targets or reasoning behind the group, it is evident that ETA was not to be trusted in the past in regards to ceasefires.  However, the current state of the group may provide the opportunity needed for Spain and France to finally end the reign of this terrorist group.

Image from  TIME

Image from TIME

2011 and Beyond

In 2011, ETA announced an end to all “armed activity.” This came decision followed a vote by the  abertzale within their base on political vs. violent action. 80% supported continued political actions while only 20% supported violence perpetrated by ETA. Based on this vote, the left nationalist involved negotiators to help convince ETA to end its tirade of violence.  Indeed, it has worked: since 2011 the group has only made the news when members were caught by the police and sent to prison. This success is mainly attributed to the high percentage of ETA members in prison. Today, over 300 ETA members are in prison and there are an estimated 30 members still at large. The group has little-to-no threat capacity and engaged in disarmament in 2017. They’ve also begun cooperating with authorities; the group alerted the French authorities to eight hiding places over the French border that held over 120 firearms, ammunition, detonators, and three metric tons of explosives.

Currently ETA is only engaged in protecting and advocating for the rights of ETA members in prison. The group is frustrated that prisoners are not being held near Basque Country, preventing families from visiting their loved ones, and that they are not being allowed access to second degree prison rights.  All but eight ETA members currently have first-degree status, which is the status most similar to American prisons. Second degree would give the prisoners access to penitentiary rights, including 18 days outside of the prison per year. More than half of the members applied for second degree status last year and were denied on the basis that they are still members of a an undissolved band. Additionally, the prisoners are scattered between prisons in Spain and France, yet only two are held in Basque prisons. The separation of the prisoners in addition to their physical distance from their families has been named by Amnesty International as being against United Nation standards. Thus, the demobilization of ETA will allows members to access second degree status, and could open up talks of moving the prisoners closer to Basque Country.


ETA has announced that it will put demobilization to a vote in the early summer months. They are considering the term ‘demobilization’ as the UN does, and how it has been put to use in the case of the FARC in Colombia. ETA and the FARC have long had ties, as ETA members have provided the FARC with logistical and tactical knowledge, as well as training in explosives. It seems that ETA is drawing a final parallel with the group as it pursuers an outcome similar to that of the Colombian peace process. Likely, it is because of the lenient agreement that ETA is invoking links to the Colombian peace process. FARC members were granted land reforms and the development of rural areas (an original goal of the group), future political participation, and amnesty for all but those to committed the most serious crimes. While ETA is not asking for amnesty, they would lessen their sentences by not being a part of an active group, and would be able to continue to further their goals through the relatively stronger left wing parties in Basque Country. However, the Spanish government has warned the group that any potential agreement with ETA is not comparable to that of Colombia. Contrarily, this type of agreement appears to have crucial public support. Not only do ETA members stand to gain from this deal, but also supporters of their changed penitentiary deals. In 2014 tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets in Bilbao to demand the return of the prisoners to Basque Country prisons. Additionally, the political left in Basque Country, more than half of the votes, would stand to gain from ETA demobilization as the political parties could refocus their efforts on achieving Basque freedoms through the political system. It is unclear at this point how Spain and France will react to the likely demobilization of ETA in the coming months. For ETA to secure its goals, it will be necessary for the two countries to engage in negotiations with the group, a move that both have been reluctant to do since prior ceasefire violations. However, considering the relative weakness of the group and the potentiality for the countries to put behind them this reminder of tragedies suffered, the world may see a historical deal in the coming year.


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