Endgame for the Spanish ETA

By now it is clear that the Spanish government is willing to pay the seller’s price for a declaration (suitable for framing, complete with certificate of authenticity) by the Basque terror group ETA, stating that it is going out of business, disarming, and calling it quits on a murder spree that has claimed 857 lives over the past half century.

ETA wants an amnesty for the killers and a parliamentary presence for their enablers that will allow true believers in the radical Basque nationalist cause to compete openly for power and political authority with negligible risk to their personal safety and of not getting what they want. The terms and details have all been worked out in clandestine negotiations that have been held regularly since even before ETA declared a “permanent, general and verifiable” ceasefire last January.

Now, with general elections approaching and polls showing the ruling Socialist party trailing by over 15 percentage points, it is in both sides’ interest to close the deal. Prime Minister José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero is exiting politics, but wants to be remembered as Mr. Peace, and not for having piloted the Spanish economy into its death-spin. For its part, ETA would prefer an outcome that does not give the conservative Popular Party an absolute majority that allows them to snub the demands of Spain’s non-violent Basque and Catalan nationalists.

But those are actually secondary considerations. An ETA shutdown sequence would likely have minimal impact on the November 20 polls. A survey at the beginning of October indicates only 3.7 percent of Spaniards consider terrorism to be their country’s most urgent problem. A year ago it was in third place; now it has plunged to tenth. As a result, it will be that much harder for the Socialists to sell an amnesty to those Spaniards who bitterly cling to their simple-minded notions that the thing to do with terrorists is bring them to justice.

In fact, there might never be a better time for doing just that. The group is a sorry shadow of its formerly lethal self. The hit teams are on the run; the recruiting, training, bomb making, support, and extortion networks disrupted or dismantled by coordinated police action in France and Spain. ETA’s last murder was of a French gendarme who died in a shootout during a botched car hijack in France in March 2010.

Police believe the group has been whittled down to 50 or so militants and scarcely a handful have the training or experience to carry out selective assassinations or indiscriminate bomb attacks. Most of them are lying very, very low somewhere in France. The two women and a man now running the show are said to be moving every week from one safe house to another, never venturing out of doors or traveling in the same car. Operationally speaking, unless they abruptly decide to go the suicide vest route, ETA is history.

There is, however, a militant stratum of diehards inside ETA and on its fringes who argue that to throw in the towel now amounts to throwing away the political dividends that shooting people in the back of the neck has earned them. Recent events, however, suggest that both sides have committed to a series of endgame moves, in a bid to deflect charges of a sellout from the dissidents in their respective ranks -- hardline terrorists on the one side, and terrorism hardliners on the other.

This month, the Zapatero government has played its "say you’re sorry and all is forgiven" card, with its client media outlets revealing and playing up an encounter that took place in May between the son of the victim of a 1980 terror attack and a now regretful ETA hitman  -- who is not the killer of the man’s father. The son claimed he was not disappointed with the experience. “I saw a man who was aware of what he had done, and was asking for forgiveness. When you’re faced with something like that, you just can’t feel the hate anymore.”

Meanwhile, around 90 percent of the 732 prisoners currently serving time for ETA-related crimes signed a statement urging their colleagues on the outside to seriously consider pursuing “by exclusively political means” their goal of an independent homeland made up of northern Spain’s three Basque provinces to which adjoining Navarra and a chunk of southern France would shortly be annexed.

That is, providing that certain demands were met, including the unconditional release of jailed terrorists whose cases have not yet come to trial, and other prisoners being transferred to holding facilities  “in the Basque people’s homeland, as the first step towards an amnesty." The Spanish government said it was a statement that “deserves to be taken seriously.”

Because there are so many of them, and the fact that they are serving jail terms of up to 30 years for the sake of the cause, ETA prisoners do have the influence, the clout needed to impose their views on the hold-outs. Apart from being direct beneficiaries of a near-future amnesty, they know, just as does every other political actor in Spain, that ETA’s terrorism has not just been forced into a corner, it has become an irrelevancy and an annoyance to the people whose support it depends  on.

The fact is that the radical Basque independence movement has been doing quite well for itself since its newest political arm, a coalition of small parties known as Bildu, was legalized with the not altogether passive consent of the Zapatero government. The decision was narrowly upheld by the Constitutional Court just in time for the radicals to field candidates in the municipal and regional elections held last May 22.

The radicals won big -- they came in second, took control of 72 municipalities, and gained a foothold in 22 others. The mayor of San Sebastian, the northern resort city, is now one of these not quite post-ETA pro-independence surrogates  -- a little more than a fellow traveler, a little less than an accessory to crimes of terrorism. So is the chief government representative in Guipúzcoa province. They do not, at least in public, justify or excuse terrorist activities -- that is a crime in Spain -- but they also refuse to condemn them.

Those elections were the game changer. Bildu, the pro-independence coalition that includes but does not consist exclusively of ETA’s hardcore supporters, wants to be dealt into the game because its leaders see an excellent chance of displacing the non-violent Basque Nationalist Party from the political space it has occupied for decades and ending their institutional hegemony. A few years in rhetoric rehab, some public relations work, a couple of lost elections, and the Bildu boys are set to take over the autonomous regional government of the Basque provinces -- the only place they are interested in -- without firing a shot.

So why does the government assume that if even if the deal can be closed, the terrorists will keep their word, turn in their arms, disband, and go home? Recall The Godfather, when the Al Pacino character says, “Kay, my father's way of doing things is over, it's finished. Even he knows it. I mean, in five years, the Corleone family is going to be completely legitimate!”

Going legitimate is every killer’s secret dream.