The PSOE’s arrival in government in 1982 did not bring any substantial changes with regards to the Basque conflict. On the contrary, in May 1982, before the general election, PSOE promoted “support for the Spanish democracy by recognising the need to intensify co-operation to fight terrorism” at the Socialist International meeting in Rome. In the PSOE Decalogue published two days after its electoral victory, it was stated that dialogue could only be used for surrender or repentance. From then on, the new government developed a triple intervention line in order to defeat ETA.

Firstly, police operations were reinforced, and the army started getting involved in the struggle against terrorism through the Rural Antiterrorist Groups (GAR) and the Quick Action Units (UAR).

Secondly, the state’s counter-terrorism unit (called the Department of Information and Special Operations, Gabinete de Información y Operaciones Especiales) was reorganised. The government launched the ZEN Plan (Plan for the Special Northern Zone) as an element of its counterinsurgency struggle. It was based on international counterinsurgency handbooks, and lessons given to Spanish military experts at the School of the Americas. The appointed leaders of the antiterrorist struggle were well known for having been members of the Francoist regime. Shootto-kill policies and reported cases of torture increased.36

Thirdly, the state also launched a dirty war against the Basque abertzale left. The death squads known as Antiterrorist Liberation Groups (GAL) were set up by officials of the highest bodies of the Spanish government and coordinated by the leaders of the counterinsurgency struggle.37 GAL carried out operations to annihilate Basque refugees in Basque territories under French rule and significant political representatives of the abertzale left.38 Para-police organisations and death squads were not new in the Basque conflict,39 but GAL was a step forward in terms of organisation
and operation. It had clear objectives, stable co-ordination and the order to disappear after fulfilling all of its functions. GAL’s double objective was to punish the community of refugees and weaken the Basque patriotic left-wing activists, and force the French government to change its policy about Basque refugees and get more involved in the struggle against ETA. This latter aim was fulfilled after the French Home Ministry signed an agreement with their Spanish counterparts in June 1984 and started to extradite Basque activists.

Although such policies were aimed to defeat the Basque abertzale left politically and militarily, in fact they helped enhance internal cohesion within Herri Batasuna. They also failed to stop ETA’s activity, and ETA responded to these policies by declaring that the PSOE had the choice to become either “the guarantor of democratic liberties or, contrarily, the allied bridge of the so-called pro-coup reaction”.40

In this repressive situation, the government started to send messages to ETA in July 1984, through the intermediary of Jesuit father José María Martín Patiño. In August, the Spanish Home Minister announced he was willing to negotiate peace directly with ETA wherever and whenever they wanted.41 The same month, the French Ambassador in Madrid Pierre Guidoni met two leaders of Herri Batasuna and gave them an ultimatum for ETA: its leaders were invited to a meeting in Bordeaux, where they would need to declare a 60-day ceasefire, after which the Spanish government would appoint an official mediator, authorised to talk about political matters. If this condition were not fulfilled, the French government would start extraditing prisoners to Spain. ETA failed to attend this meeting because its leaders considered that there were not enough security guarantees and that the decision to start extraditions had already been made.42 The next months and years were a tangle of contacts with the police, politicians and other concerned parties. However, these contacts did not produce any results and the armed conflict worsened. ETA increased its armed action against the government and started using car bombs.

When the PSOE was re-elected by absolute majority in 1986, it reinforced its political and police collaboration with France, and the conflict became internationalised as more countries started to get involved with the Basque question; some of these were strongly in favour of a negotiated solution.43 The government of the Basque Autonomous Community promoted a report drawn up by international experts (including US intelligence services), which insisted emphatically that negotiation should never be excluded as a political option.

For its part, ETA progressively developed the concept of a negotiated end to the conflict. Although its operative units had managed to reach a high level of intervention severely destabilising the state, the leadership was also aware that its military capabilities were unsustainable, that it could never obtain military victory, and that the correlation of forces with the Spanish and French states was out of proportion. As a result, it became aware of the limits of armed actions and the need to develop negotiation as a new fighting front in the national liberation process. It thus started engaging some reflections on ceasefire as a tool to promote a political initiative, the different phases of future negotiations (i.e. informal contacts, formal contacts, and political conversations – separating talks, negotiation and agreement), unilateral and bilateral goodwill attitudes, the possible participation of political parties, international intervention, etc. Thus, a base was established for the talk and negotiation process between ETA and the Spanish government which was due to take place in Algeria.

The Algiers process and its failure

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36 The practice of torture has been constantly denounced for decades in the Basque Country. According to the foundation Euskal Memoria, in the period between 1959 and 2009, 50,000 people were arrested for politically motivated reasons. 10,000 of these have reported being tortured. The practice of torture has been identified by several international organisations. In his report following his visit to Spain in 2003 (UN Doc. E/CN.4/2004/56/ Add.2), the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture Mr. Theo van Boven recognised that “torture or bad treatment are not systematic in Spain, but the system, as it is practiced, allows torture and bad treatment to take place, especially in the cases of people placed in incommunicado detention in relation to terrorist activities”. He also expressedconcerns regarding “the high level of silence which surrounds this issue and the refusal of the authorities to investigate allegations of torture”. See also Reports A/59/324, Amnesty International annual reports, or the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CPT) reports (e.g. the Report to the Spanish Government on the visit it carried out to Spain in July 2001), the recommendations of the Committee Against Torture (CAT/XXIX/Misc.3, 19 November 2002). More information can be found at www.behatokia.info.
37 The Spanish government’s involvement was proven when the former socialist Home Minister José Barrionuevo, the Secretary of State Rafael Vera, and members of the State Security Forces were sentenced to ten years in prison for kidnapping Segundo Marey, a French citizen, and for embezzlement of funds.
38 In total, 29 assassinations committed between October 1983 and November 1989 were attributed to GAL. For instance, Dr. Santiago Brouard, president of HASI (People’s Socialist Revolutionary Party), member of the National Board of Herri Batasuna, member of the Basque Parliament, and mediator in the talks held with the French Ambassador Pierre Guidoni, was assassinated in his own paediatric office. The last victim was Josu Muguruza, representative of Herri Batasuna in the Spanish Parliament, killed on the day before his speech in the parliament to present a new peace offer.
39 Precedents included the Triple A, the Basque-Spanish Battalion, Spanish National Action, AntiTerrorismo ETA (ATE), etc.
40 Zuzen (ETA’s bulletin), No. 26. November 1982.
41 At the same time, Eugenio Etxebeste, an alleged member of the executive committee of ETA, was arrested in France and deported to Ecuador.
42 As Le Monde published on 24th August 1984, “this operation shows that they [the government] are willing to talk, without having to give anything really, and at the same time, they maintain a big offensive to isolate ETA internationally”.
43 A reflection of this was the meeting held by Felipe González (Prime Minister of Spain) and François Mitterrand in Latché (French Landes). They discussed the possibility of starting political talks with ETA, as Mitterrand questioned the efficiency of the dirty war, its unsustainable human and moral cost for the French state, the risk of turning the problem into an international issue and the hazards involved for the frail Spanish democracy itself.