Terrorism by the Numbers in Spain

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.