An Eye for an Eye: ETA Terrorism and Democracy in Post‐Franco Spain

Presenter(s): Rachel Armstrong

Advisors: Prof. Nicholas Breyfogle (History), Dr. Jeffrey Lewis (International Studies)

On February 6th, 1981, engineer José Maria Ryan was found in the woods. He had a bullet in his neck and a mouth full of cotton. Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (ETA) “Basque Homeland and Freedom” claimed responsibility. Three days later, 200,000 Spaniards gathered in the streets to protest ETA’s violent act. By February 13th, a suspected ETA member named José Arregui Izaguirre was tortured to death in a Madrid prison. Outraged at the government’s brutality, 110,000 protesters flocked to the streets. Spain, newly democratized in 1975, was straining under the weight of a two‐decade long terrorist insurrection. While the nation endeavored to consolidate a “government by the people”, elements of the fascist regime remained. The government countered ETA’s violence with like‐minded brutality. In early 1981, Spain’s cycle of reactionary violence was met with backlash by the population. A month later, right‐wing Civil Guard members, nostalgic for the stability of General Franco’s authoritarian rule (1939 ‐ 1975), stormed parliament in a coup attempt. The plot failed, but it highlighted the fragile state of Spanish democracy. Both ETA and the government opposed a restored dictatorship, but years of retaliatory torture, assassinations, midnight kidnappings, and secret arrests had unintentionally weakened the fledgling democracy. By the end of 1981, ETA violence plummeted. This study examines the relationship between political structure and terrorist violence in the context of Spain’s democratic transition. The research predominantly draws upon the qualitative and quantitative analysis of two original‐text newspapers collected in Spain. Secondary source books and articles form the historical and conceptual framework of the project. Although counterintuitive, democratic governments can perpetuate terrorism through hardline counter‐terrorism crackdowns. As evidenced in Spain, the use of authoritarian practices by democratic states delegitimizes the government, alienates the people, and renews the terrorists’ resolve.

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