Some say that Arnaldo Otegi is an assassin. Others call him a peacemaker. Given his history, he might be a little of both. Otegi used to be a member of E.T.A., the armed militant group that fought in Spain for fifty years for an independent Basque state, first against the dictatorship of Francisco Franco in the 1960s and ’70s and later against the country’s democratically elected government. Otegi has gone to jail on terrorism charges three times, and is now the leader of the second strongest electoral force in the Basque Country. His actions led to E.T.A. issuing a ceasefire seven years ago, but the group still hasn’t disbanded.
In the Basque Country, violence is often justified behind closed doors. Since its inception in 1959, E.T.A. has killed over 800 people and, for decades, kidnapped and extorted to finance their activities. In response, Spain’s civilian and military police, and paramilitary groups financed by the Spanish government, killed hundreds and tortured thousands, even after the country’s transition to democracy. At different times in history, both sides have had enormous popular support in the Basque Country, and it has divided the region as much socially as it has politically. Here in many workplaces, schools, social circles, and even families, people found themselves on opposite sides of the conflict. Now after fifty years of conflict, Otegi says he knows how to end the war.
Last month, I met Otegi in his hometown of Elgoibar, a dense industrial village of 11,500 people, nestled in a lush green valley near Spain’s north coast, forty miles from the French border. We were on the outskirts of town in a txoko, a kind of private bar that social groups in the Basque Country typically rent out for events. This one was owned by one of Otegi’s childhood friends. The two reminisced about protesting Franco’s regime together as teenagers. Otegi joked about the first time he threw a Molotov cocktail. It was at Spain’s military police, he added with a laugh, and he was assembling and throwing them with someone who is now the mayor of a nearby town. His friend looked at me and said, ¨That’s the Basque Country for you.¨ In the three years I lived in the Basque Country, every single person I met had some connection to the conflict, from one side or from the other.
Otegi was born in 1958. Growing up, he told me, he noticed the dictatorship in small ways, like something was wrong but it wasn’t being openly talked about. ¨People only spoke of politics at home, quietly. We listened to pirated radio at night.¨ This was in the early ’70s, near the end of Franco’s rule: Basque cultural identity was heavily repressed and there was a real fear of arbitrary detention by military police. During the dictatorship, it was even illegal to speak the Basque language.
In the ’70s there were two organized oppositions to the dictatorship: Spain’s communist party and E.T.A., whose name, Euskadi Ta Askatasuna, means ¨Basque Country and freedom¨ in Basque. ¨For us, during the dictatorship, there weren’t any democratic ways to change politics, and the perception was that E.T.A. were heroes,¨ Otegi said, adding that the specters of Spain’s bloody civil war that ended with Franco’s fascist dictatorship were ever present. ¨[E.T.A. was] continuing a war that we had lost in ’39, and they were laying out the prospect of an exit from the dictatorship.¨
E.T.A. did help end the dictatorship, but not in the way that Otegi or anybody outside of the armed organization would have imagined. In June 1973, Franco’s health was deteriorating. He named Luis Carrero Blanco, an admiral in the navy and his handpicked successor, as Prime Minister of Spain. Six months later, E.T.A. packed enough explosives under a Madrid street to send Carrero Blanco’s car over a nearby four-story building. Franco appointed another successor, Carlos Arias Navarro, but he was unable to consolidate power before the dictator’s death. Franco died two years later, in 1975, and Spain began its transition to democracy.
In the Basque Country, much revolves around the local language, called Euskara. The word for the Basque people—Euskaldun—literally means ¨haver of the Basque language.¨ Euskadi refers to the three provinces of the Basque Country in Spain. Even Basque domain names end with .eus. Otegi and others from the izquierda abertzale (leftwing Basque nationalists—literally ¨leftwing patriots¨) described their home with the term Euskal Herria, referring to the greater Basque Country, a New Jersey-sized territory that spans the three Spanish provinces of the Basque Country, plus the Spanish province of Navarra and the small Basque region in France. It’s this territory that many Basque movements, both armed and peaceful, have sought to create.
Otegi tried to downplay his involvement in E.T.A., claiming he was only a member during the dictatorship. Otegi joined the armed group in the mid ’70s, and now he goes out of his way to avoid talking about what he did as a member. In 1987 he went to prison for the first time. He was arrested in France and extradited to Spain, where he received a six-year sentence for having participated in the kidnapping of the director of a Michelin tire factory in 1979. Otegi was accused of participating in two other kidnappings in 1979, but both cases were dropped for lack of evidence. Kidnappings, Otegi said, were a normal activity of E.T.A. The organization was involved in armed struggle; when someone joined E.T.A., they knew what they were getting themselves into.
After his arrest, Otegi said, he was tortured by Spain’s military police. This was common during the dictatorship and in the decades after Spain’s transition to democracy. A 2016 study by the Basque government documented over 4,000 cases of torture by all levels of Spanish police between 1960 and 2013. Amnesty International has issued dozens of reports on torture by both sides of the conflict. Spanish law still allows for terrorism-related arrestees to be held incommunicado for five days without charges and without seeing an independent lawyer.
The ’80s were the Basque conflict’s bloodiest years. According to the Spanish Ministry of the Interior, E.T.A. killed an average of forty people per year. Meanwhile, the G.A.L. (Groupos Antiterroristas de Liberación) a rightwing paramilitary group financed by the Spanish government, pursued a campaign of kidnappings, tortures, shootings, and bombings throughout the Basque Country. Their victims were members of E.T.A., Basque nationalist activists, and some who had little or nothing to do with the conflict.
E.T.A. financed its operations through the extortion of businesses throughout the Basque Country, known here as ¨the revolutionary tax.¨ First you’d receive a letter asking, usually nicely, for your voluntary participation, Izaskun Sáez de la Fuente, an E.T.A. researcher at Deusto University, explained to me by phone. If you didn’t pay, the letters would get progressively more threatening: sometimes they would be sent to friends or family members. Other times they would be sent to your children. Eventually, non-payment resulted in a kidnapping and, if ransom wasn’t paid, death—according to government statistics, over one third of the people E.T.A. killed were civilians.
¨[E.T.A.] wanted it to be known that they were extorting people,¨ said Sáez de la Fuente, ¨so everybody was aware that, at some point, it could be them.¨
E.T.A. lost significant public support in the ’80s, as the lingering effects of the dictatorship waned and the group’s attacks increasingly targeted civilians. In 1987, E.T.A. members set off a car bomb in the parking lot of a Barcelona supermarket, killing twenty-one people and severely injuring forty-five. The attack, referred to by the supermarket’s name—Hipercor—was the deadliest attack in E.T.A.’s history. It was also when some in the Basque separatist left started distancing themselves from the group.
Herri Batasuna, which is Basque for ¨Popular Unity,¨ was a political party in the Basque Country that was formed by some early E.T.A. members to represent the izquierda abertzale politically. In the ’80’s Herri Batasuna averaged 10–20 percent of the popular vote in Basque elections. From the party’s creation in ’78, Herri Batasuna and E.T.A. were ¨very united, despite some small internal differences,¨ said Iñaki Aldekoa, one of the party’s founders. Over the course of twenty years, Aldekoa added, as E.T.A.’s actions increasingly targeted civilians and the group lost strength and popular support, Herri Batasuna’s support grew.
Otegi came to lead the izquierda abertzale by accident. In 1997 Spanish police arrested the entire leadership of Herri Batasuna and charged the twenty-five people with having collaborated with E.T.A. The group was sentenced to seven years of prison, and Otegi, who had joined years earlier, became the party’s speaker. Since then, the political parties representing the izquierda abertzale have gone through different iterations, each one eventually made illegal by the Spanish government and then recreated under a new name. Otegi has been at the forefront of every one.
E.T.A. has issued three major ceasefires in its history. The first, in 1998, came days after Basque nationalist political parties, labor unions, and social organizations signed a public statement—The Lizarra Pact—aimed at ending the Basque conflict through dialog and negotiation with E.T.A. The ceasefire was so significant that the government in Spain at the time sent a delegation to negotiate directly with the armed group. Aldekoa told me he remembers watching the announcement on T.V., when, the then hardline president of Spain, Jose María Aznar, went so far as to refer to E.T.A. as the ¨national Basque liberation movement,¨ the group’s own terminology..
Those negotiations fell apart and, a year later, E.T.A. broke the ceasefire with a car bomb in Madrid, killing one person. The same happened the second time around: in 2006, E.T.A. announced another ceasefire, calling this one ¨permanent.¨ The Spanish government again sent a group to negotiate with the armed group and again the ceasefire was broken within a year. On December 30, 2006, E.T.A. set off a car bomb in a parking lot at Madrid’s airport, killing two people and injuring forty-one others.
Between the two ceasefires, Otegi had begun negotiations with a politician from the other side: for five years he met secretly with Jesus Eguiguren, former head of Spain’s leftist party in the Basque Country. The idea was that Otegi had access to E.T.A. and Eguiguren had access to the Spanish establishment, and between the two of them, they could potentially work out a peace.
Otegi and Eguiguren met for years to negotiate in the house of a common friend, Pello Rubio, just outside Elgoibar. Like in England, rural Basque cottages sometimes have names—this one was called Txillarre. I met Otegi and Rubio at Txillarre the day after our initial meeting. Leaving town, the house was a few miles up a mountain road that wound through the green countryside, past a large factory that made industrial parts, and sandwiched between large parcels of sloped farmland. It was hard to find, even with directions.
Txillarre was a typical Basque cottage, made of white stucco and large wooden beams. Inside, the house smelled of smoke from a large wood stove. Otegi and I sat at the same long wooden table that hosted secret meetings with Eguiguren. Otegi showed me a visibly aged magazine; the article from when the two were finally caught by Spanish intelligence. Accompanying it was a two-page photo of the cottage and surrounding hillside, with headshots of Otegi and Eguiguren. A headline halfway through the article added that, according to unnamed sources, Spain’s intelligence services had photographed and bugged the meetings. ¨That’s from when they caught us and made the meetings public,¨ remembered Rubio. ¨They had no idea we had been meeting for four years.¨
Otegi looked exactly the same as he did in photos from the ’90s, just older. Prison—twelve years of his life—had clearly taken his toll on him, but Otegi still spoke with enthusiasm and conviction, in Spanish that is peppered with Basque words. It took a minute for me to remember that he was also someone who violently kidnapped at least one person.
Otegi said that his thinking about the use of violence has changed slowly over time: ¨Drop by drop,¨ he said. ¨like irrigation.¨ This thinking started as something very personal, he quickly added, as if struck by a sudden moment of clarity. It grew when he realized that others in the movement were coming to the same conclusions. Herri Batasuna tacitly supported E.T.A.’s actions, he said, but became increasingly clear to him that a peace deal could be struck. Otegi was involved in the Lizarra Pact and the negotiations that led to the first ceasefire in 1999. When E.T.A. broke that ceasefire was when he decided to work with Eguiguren directly.
Otegi told us that it wasn’t until years later when his thinking changed completely, when he was sent to prison the second time in 2007. He had been convicted for ¨praising terrorists¨ under one of Spain’s obscure political speech laws. While serving his fifteen-month sentence, he spoke to other incarcerated former E.T.A. members and slowly realized that a more drastic change was needed to achieve peace. Soon after he got out, the izquierda abertzale made what he called the ¨great turn¨: the movement collectively renounced the use of violence as a way of reaching political goals.
¨We still believed that there were no democratic ways with which to achieve [Basque independence], but that doesn’t make using violence legitimate either,¨ Otegi said. ¨We couldn’t keep using a strategy that creates more suffering, and is both politically inefficient and reproachable.¨
As Otegi spoke, I wondered what the other side would say about his role as peacemaker, given his history. Days later I called Borja Semper, a spokesperson for the right wing People’s Party (PP) in the Basque Country. Semper first started in politics at nineteen as a local representative in Irun. It was common then, he said, for the parties in the Basque Country that did not want independence to recruit representatives who were very young, often still teenagers. ¨Nobody else dared to place themselves on the ballot.¨ Younger people were the ones willing to take the risk.
E.T.A. tried to kill Semper three times: First at university when he was twenty-one, and on two other occasions using explosives. He has had bodyguards since he was nineteen. Semper does not believe Otegi’s intentions were anything but practical, just a response to a lack of public support. ¨Why is it that five years ago assassinations were considered effective, and not now?¨ he asked. ¨If they had killed me in ’95, Otegi would have given a press conference justifying it, politically and socially. What has happened here that assassination is no longer politically acceptable.¨
Later by phone, Otegi maintained that neither he, nor Herri Batasuna nor other parties in the izquierda abertzale have ever celebrated or justified an assassination, by E.T.A. or others. He says this is typical rhetoric from parties that try to discredit them.
Whether the decision to abandon armed struggle was practical or moral, E.T.A. soon followed suit. In 2010 the armed group announced another ceasefire, and a year later made a second announcement, calling it ¨permanent¨ and ¨general.¨ This time around, Otegi noted, there have been no attacks since.
The Basque Country is perpetually rainy. From the cramped cobblestone streets of Elgoibar you can see the town’s factories nestled along the steep walls of the valley. Basque industry is historically vertical. Here, iron was mined and then made into steel, which was then made into machine parts and ships, which were insured by large Basque banks and then used to catch the Atlantic cod, tuna and hake that fed the miners. Even now, as Europe still recovers from the economic crisis, the Basque Country has an unemployment rate that is about half that of the rest of Spain.
Arnaldo Otegi often told me his interest in an independent Basque Country is also economic, arguing that people here are constrained by a bad Spanish economy and worse Spanish economic policy. When we met in Txillarre, he added that Basques would live noticeably better post independence. But for all that to happen, the conflict has to end.
This month, Otegi marked one year since his last time in prison. In October 2009, just before the izquierda abertzale’s ¨turn¨ away from violence, Otegi was again convicted of terrorism charges. Otegi said his crime was trying to resurrect a banned political party to represent the izquierda abertzale, this time with no violence. Madrid claimed he was collaborating with E.T.A. Otegi was in prison for six and a half years and has been barred from holding elected office for the next ten.
Since then, the peace process has stagnated. Spain’s current president, Mariano Rajoy, has refused to negotiate with the armed group. Meanwhile, the Spanish police have nearly crippled the organization, periodically arresting members and finding caches of weapons and explosives. E.T.A experts say there are only a handful of members left, and increasingly few weapons deposits.
Otegi is convinced that neither the Spanish nor the French government has an interest in E.T.A. disarming, and that the last step for the disarmament of E.T.A. won’t involve police, but civil society. Last December, French, and Spanish police arrested five people who, Otegi said, were trying to secure and destroy some of E.T.A.’s remaining weapons.
At first I didn’t pick up on Otegi’s repeated references to ¨civil society¨ being involved in the disarmament. But less than a week after we spoke, E.T.A. made another announcement via the French newspaper Le Monde: the armed group would be handing in all of its weapons, most of which were hidden in France, to a group of activists in the French Basque country, who would then transfer them to French authorities by April 8th. The day of the announcement, I watched Otegi give a press conference, calling the effort a huge step. E.T.A., Otegi told journalists, has given the responsibility for disarmament to a group of activists and civil society in the French Basque country. A Spanish government spokesperson offered little comment: ¨Let’s see what they do. They are a terrorist group.¨
On April 8th, during a ceremony in the French-Basque city of Bayonne, local activists handed in to French authorities inventoried lists of E.T.A.’s remaining weapons. Many in Spain breathed a sigh of relief, as the decades-long conflict came one step closer to ending. Still, the fight continued for some: the move was hailed by Spain’s ruling party as ¨propaganda pyrotechnics.¨ Some Spanish press doubted the whether or not weapons were even handed over. Even a former president jumped back into the fray, calling for negotiations.
For Otegi, the conflict is now mostly among the politicians: ¨The Basque society,¨ he told me, ¨they’ve already moved on.¨