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Terrorism by the Numbers in Spain

The only agreement about the ETA body count in Spain is that it is long and grim.

by
Robert Latona

Bio

December 17, 2011 - 12:58 am

Most Spaniards gave a wary welcome to last October’s announcement by the Spanish Basque terror group ETA that it has decided to “definitively cease its armed activity” — though polls suggest that as many as 70% doubt it is for real. Nor do they appear to be buying into the stipulation that what should come next are political negotiations in which there are “no victors, and no vanquished.” The last part is easy, though. There never were any. Just murderers and their victims.

Who could object to totaling up accounts before the books are closed by a probably inevitable, Ulster-style amnesty? Let’s do that — and start by deciding how many people have been murdered by ETA since it was formed in 1959 to establish a racially-exclusionary homeland in which the Basque people could defend the purity of their bloodlines, speak their peculiar language, and exalt other fetishes of their collective cultural identity.

El País, Spain’s largest-circulation daily, puts the number of victims at 829 and most foreign media, including the Associated Press and Agence France Presse, copy; but the second-ranked paper, El Mundo, says it’s 864. Meanwhile, the centennial tabloid ABC holds ETA responsible for 856 deaths, while the principal victims’ associations and radio talk jocks will often claim 857 or 858. How to account for such disparity? One reason is that the lower numbers exclude those killed by a splinter group that broke away from ETA in 1978 and remained active until 1984.

The turgidly-named Comandos Autónomos Anticapitalistas rejected ETA’s Soviet-inspired “democratic centrism” that reserved all authority to a handful of individuals at the top. They demanded “autonomy” for hit teams to choose their own victims and this did not sit at all well with the ringleaders, who were control freaks as well as Stalinists, and jealous of their prerogative to decide who lives and who dies.

That being the case, can it be sustained that those 20-30 unaccounted-for victims — a prominent Socialist senator included — were, in fact, killed by ETA, even though ETA’s own leaders had no hand in marking them for death? But you also have to consider that the faction’s surviving members were eventually reincorporated into the parent organization, where they carried on killing — only this time under orders.

Borderline cases muddle the victim audits. When Luis Allende, a well-to-do Bilbao dentist, died of cancer a year after being kidnapped for ransom, a judge deciding the insurance claim ruled that the “violent stress” he experienced during his ten-day ordeal caused the cancer. And what about the Civil Guard sergeant struck and killed by an ambulance while helping to evacuate the wounded from the 1991 car bomb massacre at Vic, near Barcelona? Does that get filed under terrorism or traffic accidents? (In both instances, the Spanish government said terrorism and green-lighted compensation.) Official victim status was likewise conceded to Emilia Larrea, a housewife in the ETA stronghold of Mondragón. She was chatting with a neighbor when she took a bullet in the firefight that erupted on the street between five heavily armed ETA hitmen and the Civil Guards in hot pursuit of them.

Another reason for the numerical discrepancy arises from ETA’s practice of publicly crowing over its murders — but not quite all of them. In fact, the gang never quite got around to acknowledging its very first killing. Their reticence may be due to the fact that Begoña Urroz Ibarrola was two months short of her second birthday in June 1960, when the incendiary bomb went off in San Sebastian’s Amara train station, while her mother was working the checked baggage counter. One night of agonizing pain was required for life to ebb from Begoña’s tiny, charred body, but it took 51 years for Spanish authorities to acknowledge her victim status. ETA has yet to follow suit.

Nor has the group ever commented on the bomb that claimed 14 lives in a Madrid cafeteria in September 1974 — the “calle del Correo” atrocity. A next-door police station may have led the killers to imagine they were striking a heroic blow against the oppressor, but all they got for their trouble was a single officer who succumbed to his wounds two years after the attack, in addition to a shrapnel-shredded telephone operator, a schoolteacher, a neighborhood bakery owner, and office workers on their coffee break when the building fell in on top of them.

Giles Tremlett, the author of Ghosts of Spain, rounds off to “more than twenty” the tally of murdered children, many of whom were killed either with, or in the presence of their parents. The father of two-year-old Luis Delgado happened to be driving past Civil Guard main headquarters in Madrid at the moment the bomb went off. Nor has ETA shown the slightest scruple about killing parents in front of their children. Off-duty police officer Julio César Sánchez had just picked up his four kids from school when they gunned him down at the schoolyard gate. Dolores González Cataraín, alias “Yoyes,” once a senior ideologue of the terror group, accepted a government amnesty offer. In September 1986 she was out walking with her three-year-old son when the designated assassin came up to them, announced “I’ve come from ETA and I’m here to execute you,” and pumped three rounds into her.

Begoña was just one more child who will never have to pay adult bus fares thanks to ETA; making for a total of 23, if one counts the near-term fetus carried by one of the 21 shoppers slaughtered in the car bomb massacre at the Hipercor shopping center in Barcelona in June 1987. Two pairs of young siblings, including four-year-old twins, were among the victims of that ambitious exercise in collective bloodletting, as were various housewives, an architect, and the captain of a women’s soccer team. For good measure, a baby born three months after the attack to one of the survivors was deaf-mute on arrival.

A tally of underage victims inevitably leads to the December 1987 massacre at the Civil Guard residential barracks at Zaragoza that claimed the lives of five schoolgirls, aged three to eleven, in addition to a seventeen-year-old boy and five adults. A sculptural group representing children at play with a crouching dog now commemorates the open ground where the barracks used to stand. It has been fixed up with shrubbery and renamed “Hope Park,” but for many, a more eloquent statement of what happened there comes just from the fact that no matter how hard they try to make it a place for recreation, it remains a vacant lot, an empty space.

Five of the nine people killed at the Civil Guard installation in Vic were also children. One bizarre variation on the theme of parents and children involves a father and son who were both killed by ETA – but over an eight-year interval. In November 1978, Supreme Court Justice José Francisco Mateu Cánoves was gunned down. His son, who had been studying at the Spanish equivalent of West Point, petitioned King Juan Carlos to be relieved of his Army commission so he could enlist in the Civil Guard and contribute personally to bringing the killers to justice. The request was granted. But in 1986, Ignacio Mateu Istúriz, by then a lieutenant, was killed along with his partner when a bomb went off under their vehicle.

ETA metes out death to the lordly and lowly alike. Its most famous hit was Admiral Luis Carrero Blanco, the head of Spain’s government during Franco’s rickety final years and the old dictator’s heir apparent. José Maria Aznar was two times lucky. He was still leader of the opposition in April 1996 when a huge blast in Madrid flipped his car, but its 2,300 pounds of armor allowed him to emerge from the Audi unscathed. Not so lucky was the 79-year-old lady crushed to death when the explosion that targeted Aznar collapsed the two-story building that was her home.

In 2001, with Aznar in his second term, ETA apparently tried again with Russian SAM-7 missiles, but according to a captured terrorist, on three separate occasions when Aznar’s plane was in range, the shoulder-launched weapon failed to ignite. A few months later, the terrorists had King Juan Carlos in the crosshairs of a sniper’s rifle trained on the royal yacht when it was berthed on the island of Mallorca. Why didn’t they just shoot? Because islands can be sealed off with relative ease, and the killers hadn’t had time to work out an escape plan.

Estanislao Galíndez Llano would probably not be anyone’s idea of a high-profile terrorist target. He was the mailman of the town of Amurrio and was making his rounds on a bicycle in June 1985 when gunmen left him dead in a ditch next to the spilled contents of his leather bag. So why? It may have to do with the fact that four years before, the terrorists had murdered his brother, Felix, and he refused to observe the unwritten law of silence. Poor fool couldn’t keep his mouth shut, so ETA shut it for him.

Carlos Arguimberri Elorriaga drove the bus in Itziar Deva, a town with a population of under 3000. Patricia Llanillo was a housewife. Lorenzo Mendizábal Iturrarte was riddled with bullets while serving customers from behind the counter of the family-owned meat market. What did any of them do to “deserve” a death like that? A further 41 victims were business executives murdered because they either refused to pay protection money or because the ransom was late in arriving or because someone accused them of “exploiting the workers.”

The authors of a book called Vidas Rotas have arrived at a total of 858 victims (857 in earlier editions), which seems a reasonable approximation. They break that down into 59 women and 799 men, without differentiating by age. Of those 858, at least 361 were civilians, but once again, the distinction is shrouded in haze. How should one classify prison employees for example — not just guards and warders but an accountant (Jose Antonio Ortega Lara, kidnapped, buried alive for 532 days in an 8×10 ft. underground cell) or a psychologist (Francisco Javier Gómez Elósegui)? Ramón Díaz García was blown apart because he was employed as a mess cook for the Spanish Navy. Domingo Puente made a living trimming hair at an Air Force base in the southern city of Granada. That made them “collaborators with the forces of occupation.” Fish in a barrel is more like it.

Fewer than 10% of ETA’s victims were killed when Spain was still under the Franco dictatorship. All the remaining 800 plus were assassinated when the country  was up and running as a modern democracy. The year ETA caused the greatest number of fatalities was 1980, in which 98 people lost their lives. The only day on the calendar that  ETA has not splattered with blood is, for some reason, November 10.

Though not individually targeted, a handful of foreigners have also made ETA’s victim list. There might be even more had ETA been more successful in its attempts to bomb tourist-packed hotels in the southern resort cities of Fuengirola and Marbella in 2002, coinciding with a European Union summit in Seville. Although only six people were injured, that time the aim was clearly to splatter Spain’s international prestige with the blood of dead foreigners, unlike the dozens of bombings targeting the country’s  tourism sector and that were intended to scare visitors away.

Eugene K. Brown was no tourist; he had come to Madrid in September 1985 for a three-day corporate strategy session with other senior executives of the American multinational Johnson & Johnson. A few hours before he was supposed to board a plane and return to his family in New Jersey, Gene Brown got up early to do some jogging near his hotel on Madrid’s upscale Serrano street — just where ETA had a  car bomb primed and waiting for a van full of Civil Guards.

Dorothy Fertig, a 20-year-old  Danish backpacker, was traveling in Spain with another girl on July 29, 1979, the day of ETA’s “hat trick” in which huge bombs were detonated at Barajas airport and the capital’s principal rail terminals, Atocha and Chamartin. The blast wave from the Charmartin explosion decapitated Dorothy instantly: an eyewitness described seeing the girl’s head go bouncing and skidding across the concourse, trailing blonde hair.

Four Portuguese citizens also appear on the list of collateral casualties, and the two men crushed to death when ETA blew up one of the parking ramps at Barajas airport in 2006 were immigrants from Ecuador. The terror group’s last, or if you prefer, most recent victim was also foreign, a gendarme killed in a March 2010 shootout during a botched car hijacking near Paris.

You want more victims? How about some of ETA’s own? You heard right: the terrorist organization is demanding that the Spanish government pay them compensation for 473 of their martyred militants. To the surprise of no one and the chagrin of many in Spain’s Socialist party, their list is headed by the 18 militants or facilitators who were murdered — along with nine innocent bystanders  — by an inept death squad formed by moronic mercenaries and hit men for hire that were recruited, controlled, and paid off by high-level officials of the Socialist government that ran Spain in the 1980s. It also wants blood money for the two other low-level ETA members killed by a rogue Civil Guard unit around that same time. (Other right-wing terror groups active during that period murdered a total of 66 people, but it is not clear how many, if indeed any, had some sort of relation to ETA).

But before succumbing to the suasion of moral equivalence, you should  know that ETA’s victims list also include five members who were murdered by their own comrades as alleged traitors, informants, or apostates. “Pertur,” once a senior ideologue, was accused of taking the platitudes of Marxism too seriously and of arguing that Franco’s death signified their struggle was over. His body was never found but ETA insists he was made to “disappear” by the security services. The death of Domingo Iturbe, who showed an untimely willingness to compromise in 1998 negotiations with the Spanish government, has never been convincingly accounted for. One version maintains that he fell off the roof while fixing a TV antenna in Algiers. ETA insists he was murdered.

ETA also wants to get paid off for the 40 members who “tragically” died when handling the explosives they were attempting to kill hundreds of others with, not to mention the 200 or so killed in armed showdowns with the Spanish security forces. They are also demanding compensation for a lawyer on the ETA payroll who drowned while swimming off the Cape Verde islands, where the French government, under Mitterrand, used to deport terrorists it was loathe to extradite to Spain.

Another ETA member living the sweet life in Cape Verde died in 2008 in a mugging that netted his killer all of three dollars. It seems a cheap price to pay to know that kismet caught up with a terrorist that had seven murders to answer for in Spain. At least 22 of the names on ETA’s own victim roster committed suicide; usually while in prison, though one killer named Félix Ramón Gil Ostoaga grew melancholic while doing 13 years of hard time, and  turned a shotgun on himself a few weeks after his release.

Are they victims, too? ETA certainly thinks so, and I suppose it ultimately depends on who’s doing the counting. But of course, none of this is really about numbers.

Robert Latona is a U.S. journalist based in Madrid who has written about Spanish politics, cultural affairs, and the arts scene for print and web venues.
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