Felipe Gonzalez 2012 Felipe Gonzalez 2012 Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Felipe González, ETA and the death squads, by Chris Bambery 

In Spain it is not statues that are being toppled, but the remaining pillars of the transition to parliamentary democracy that followed the 1975 death of the dictator, General Francisco Franco.

Former King Juan Carlos – trained by Franco to replace him as head of state – not only had to abdicate in 2014 when his son-in-law was jailed for corruption, but now faces prosecution over money laundering and pocketing a share of an €80 million kickback for a Spanish high-speed rail deal with Saudi Arabia.

Juan Carlos was once regarded as the “pilot of change,” the monarch who had presided over the transition to democracy, and whose finest hour was the night of 23 February 1981. When faced with a military coup by right wing officers, he went on television as head of the armed forces to order its end. Unfortunately, a German diplomat has subsequently revealed that Juan Carlos told him he was in broad agreement with the plotters’ aims.

Now another hero of the transition, Felipe González, the former Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE) leader and democratic Spain’s longest serving prime minister, is in the frame after CIA documents were released naming him as the man in charge of death squads unleashed against Basque guerrillas in the 1980s.

At that time the Spanish state was focused on defeating ETA (Euskadi Ta Askatasuna/Basque Homeland and Liberty), the militant Basque separatist group, which caused 829 deaths between the 1960s and early 2000s and in 2011 was described by the CIA as “perhaps the greatest challenge facing the González administration.”

The CIA report from 1984 states:

 ”The Spanish government seems determined to adopt an unorthodox strategy in relation to ETA,”

The name of the source for this information has been cut from the newly released documents but the CIA author wrote that “González has agreed to the formation of a group of mercenaries, controlled by the army, to combat terrorists outside the law”.  It adds that “the mercenaries would not necessarily be Spanish and their mission would be to assassinate ETA leaders in Spain and France.”  With great prescience the author concludes that “bungled operations in a dirty war against ETA could severely discredit the González administration, which makes much of its devotion to democratic freedoms and legalities.”

It’s long been believed that González was in ultimate charge of the state’s Grupos Antiterroristas de Liberación (Anti-Terrorist Liberation Groups, or GAL) death squads. It is worth remembering that the Spanish Socialist Workers Party which González led described itself as Marxist until 1979. Between 1983 and 1986, members of the GAL killed twenty-six Basques, a third of whom had no connection with ETA whatsoever. Many of these killings were actually in France (the Basque Country spans the Franco-Spanish border).

Before the Spanish parliament, Felipe González stated publicly:

“The State will defend itself through the Parliaments, but also through the sewers.”

It didn’t stop with murder:

“… between the coming to power of the PSOE in 1982 and 1990, 484 cases of torture of political prisoners (comprising beatings, physical exhaustion, and asphyxiation, together with sexual and psychological violence) were reported to the Spanish authorities.”

Summoned to testify before the Spanish Supreme Court, General Sáenz de Santamaría – who headed the Guardia Civil (the army controlled paramilitary police force) between 1983 and 1984 – told the judges:

“There is no other way than using the irregular war against some guys who shoot in the back. The rule of law is a good thing but we cannot indefinitely respect it because it will be playing into the hands of the terrorists.”

Although his military career was finished, the general would walk away from any charges because the court felt that – despite being head of the Civil Guard – he could not possibly know all that was going on.

Among those eventually jailed for these political crimes were the Spanish Interior Minister, José Barrionuevo; the Guardia Civil head of anti-terrorist operations, General Rodriguez Galindo; and the PSOE governor of the Basque province of Gipuzkoa, Julen Elgorriaga. That is equivalent to the British Home Secretary, head of the Metropolitan Police anti-terror unit, the Mayor of London, and the head of MI5 all being jailed for murder or kidnapping. Predictably, the heavily-politicised Spanish judicial system paroled both General Rodriguez Galindo and Elgorriaga on ‘health grounds’, after only a few years in prison. Barrionuevo was sentenced to ten years but given a partial pardon and instant parole when the right wing Popular Party took office in 1996.

Barrionuevo is of interest, because under Franco he had been the Chief of Staff to the Deputy General Secretary of the National Movement (the rebranded Falange, Spain’s fascist party). The National Movement ran the state-controlled trade unions, family and youth organisations, and cultural bodies across Spain – ensuring conformity to El Caudillo’s (Franco’s) conservative values. But it had an even more sinister aspect: it acted as a vast intelligence gathering network keeping tabs on millions of individual Spaniards and vetting their ideological suitability for public appointments.

When Franco was on his death bed, leading Francoists – like Barrionuevo – sought democratic camouflage by joining the many competing political parties. Barrionuevo ended up in the PSOE in 1977. After 40 years of dictatorship, the PSOE was short on people with experience of administration, so Barrioneuvo quickly found himself as ‘security’ advisor to the new PSOE mayor of Madrid, running the municipal police. From there it was a quick jump to Minister of the Interior when González became Prime Minister in 1982. Barrioneuvo was back with his old friends in the security apparatus and ready to turn up the heat on ETA.

The new Socialist government was determined to be seen as tough on ETA, in part because the motivation behind the leaders of the failed 1981 coup was to preserve the unity of Spain by stopping the Basque Country and Catalonia achieving any degree of devolved government.

González and company shared this unionist agenda and saw ETA’s violence as a police and security matter. The Francoist state had survived the transition intact, so army and Guardia Civil commanders were able to continue using the same methods as they had during the dictatorship. The Spanish media later uncovered that the GAL recruited heavily from the Batallón Vascos Español, a death squad set up by the Spanish military in 1975, recruited from right wing and fascist groups.

In fact, ETA had begun its military campaign under Franco. The occupation of the Basque Country by Franco’s forces meant not just the usual executions and mass arrests but the banning of the Basque language and its culture. In 1974, ETA succeeded in assassinating Franco’s prime minister, Admiral Carrero Blanco, the man Franco who had believed would guarantee the regime’s survival after his death. ETA’s violence actually grew after Franco’s life support system was turned off in November of 1975, in part because for nearly a year the regime limped on creating a situation of near revolution in the Basque Country, as Madrid unleashed mass repression.

Things peaked on 3 March 1976 in Vitoria, where a two day general strike had begun and was supported by all the major factories, students, and the general population. From the start, police used tear gas and anti-riot weapons, killing an activist. That afternoon they stormed into a church where a strike assembly was taking place, filling it with tear gas. As the crowd fled in terror, the police opened fire, killing five and wounding dozens more.

The general strike not only continued, but began to spread across the Basque Country, Catalonia and the rest of Spain. At this stage, the West German and French governments demanded that Juan Carlos and his Francoist ministers negotiate a pact with the opposition Socialists and Communists.

In turn for conceding parliamentary democracy the opposition would agree to leave the institutions and personnel of the Francoist state intact, to an amnesty for Franco’s torturers, and to a pact of silence over the mass repression carried out by Franco’s forces and the Falange during and after the Civil War. This was enshrined in a new Constitution, which remains and supposedly cannot be changed, that defends the unity of the Spanish state against any attempts by the Basques and Catalans to achieve self-determination. Although the Basques and Catalans eventually got devolution, many in the Basque Country could not accept this. Thus ETA had a degree of popular support.

Its political wing, Herri Batasuna, won 15 percent of the Basque vote in the 1979 Spanish general election. A year later, in the first Basque parliamentary election, Herri Batasuna came in second place behind the moderate Basque National Party (PNV), taking 16.6 per cent and winning 11 seats. Being a member of Herri Batasuna was no sinecure: Santiago Brouard, a leading member, was gunned down by the GAL state death squad in 1984. The party would be eventually banned outright after a court ruling that it financed ETA.

When Felipe González took office in 1982 he introduced a neo-liberal economic agenda to Spain, a precursor of Tony Blair’s New Labour. The revelations about the GAL murders and rampant corruption would eventually bring his 14 year premiership to an end in 1996.

The whole affair speaks volumes about Spain’s flawed transition to democracy; institutional corruption is rife and senior judges are political appointees. It remains home to the greatest amount of unknown civilian mass graves outside Cambodia (Franco’s legacy from the Civil War). But above all, it impacts on the aspirations of Basques and Catalans.

The use of the Guardia Civil to physically stop the 1st October 2017 Catalan independence, and the subsequent jailing of Catalan civil and political leaders has embittered a majority of Catalans. The imposition of the direct rule that followed reminded both Basques and Catalans that devolved power is power retained by Madrid.

ETA surrendered its weapons in 2017 and went on to disband in 2018. But, unlike the Northern Ireland Peace Process, the Spanish government did not recognise this and ETA prisoners are kept in jail hundreds of miles from home. Legal action against recognised international observers to the decommissioning of ETA weaponry was only halted when the potential international damage dawned on the judges and politicians.

The quotes are from the following texts:

David Bassa, Stifled by the Franco Regime, introduction to Lluc Salellas I Vilar, Franco Lives On, Edicions Saldonar, 2018, P20

Emmanuel-Pierre Guittet, European Political Identity and Democratic Solidarity After 9/11: The Spanish Case, Alternatives: Global, Local, Political Alternatives: Global, Local, Political, Vol. 29, No. 4 (Aug.-Oct. 2004), pp. 441-464

Cameron Watson, Modern Basque History: Eighteenth Century to the Present, University of Nevada Press, 2003, P354

Chris Bambery is co-author with George Kerevan of Catalonia Reborn, Luath Press, and the article draws on chapter, “Dirty War in the Basque Country.”

Chris Bambery

Chris Bambery is an author, political activist and commentator, and a supporter of Rise, the radical left wing coalition in Scotland. His books include A People's History of Scotland and The Second World War: A Marxist Analysis.