Spain's most wanted terrorist was arrested early Monday morning in southern France. French police raided an apartment in the Pyrenees town of Cauterets and captured Garikoitz Aspiazu, the military leader of the Basque separatist terror group ETA, who goes by the nom-de-guerre 'Txeroki.' The arrest comes, evocatively, at a time when rumors are running high of a breach between hardliners and moderates within ETA's political sphere.
"If this had happened in the 1980s, when ETA was stronger, it would have been an important arrest, but not a crucial one," says sociologist Ignacio Sánchez-Cuenca, ETA expert at the Juan March Institute, a Madrid-based think tank. "But there have been a lot of important arrests recently, which means that whoever replaces Txeroki won't have much experience, and that, in turn, will make them even weaker." (See Pictures of the Week.)
Beyond being yet another sign of the group's much-heralded decline, however, the arrest also could also work to the advantage of those nationalists seeking to break with ETA's violent tactics. Txeroki was the hardest of hardliners. Thirty-five years old, he moved across the border to France in 2002, and rose quickly through ETA's hierarchy. He is believed to have ordered the December 2006 bombing of a car park at Madrid's Barajas airport, which killed two people and put a definite end to the ceasefire the group had declared earlier that year. Other ETA members now in police custody have testified that he personally pulled the trigger on two Spanish Civil Guards assassinated in the French Atlantic seaboard village of Capbreton in January 2008.
Yet from the beginning of his leadership, there were signs that Txeroki did not command the undissenting loyalty of his entire circle. Even the fellow hardliner, Francisco Javier Peña (alias Thierry) who represented ETA in its peace talks with the Spanish government, reportedly angered Txeroki by cutting funding to the military wing in an effort to prevent an attack prior to the start of negotiations. Arrested himself May, Thierry is also believed to have opposed the Barajas bombing on strategic grounds.
This is not to suggest that there are pacifists lurking within ETA's midst. "The difference between Txeroki and Thierry could be that while the former believes in killing all the time, the latter only wants to do it on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays," an anonymous source within the national police told El País newspaper.
But with one more violent leader behind bars, those pro-independence supporters who might consider politics rather than terror the better tactical option have a little more room to maneuver. "In the sense that these were the hardest of hardliners, " says Sánchez-Cuenca, "the absence of Txeroki and Thierry could work to the favor of those who want to work within the political system."
Certainly there is political momentum among the leftist advocates of Basque independence known as the izquierda abertzale. Although Batasuna, the now illegal party affiliated with ETA, won't be running in March 2009 regional elections, its supporters have a new option. Earlier this month, the left-leaning nationalist political party Eusko Alkartasuna (EA) which had previously belonged to a coalition with the ruling Basque Nationalist Party, announced that it would run on its own. Having already received the support of a former secretary of the Batasuna-linked trade union LAB, ETA could well draw votes from radicals that might otherwise have been disposed to abstain at ETA's urging. (See pictures of the recent U.S. election.)
In the meantime, the newly headless group will likely only grow weaker. "More and more, the structure of ETA is eroding," says Sánchez-Cuenca. "It's not clear anymore who is making the decisions." Thus there is cautious hope that Europe's last anachronistic terrorist grouping, which has more than 800 deaths to answer for over the last forty years, may finally be heading towards the obsolescence of Northern Ireland's IRA, Germany's Red Army Faction and Italy's Red Brigades. But such hopes have been cruelly dashed before.
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