A Rationale for Murder

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In the practical sense, it is terrifyingly easy for a person to go into the street and kill a stranger. All that is needed is a gun and the element of surprise. In the human sense, the act may be a little harder, but an obsession with the idea that this one death could help end a greater injustice helps to put conscience on dry ice.

Jose Luis Ruiz Casado fell victim to this ugly rationale last Thursday. As he left his apartment in the Barcelona suburb of Sant Adriá de Besós at 7:40 a.m. to go to work, two men approached. They shot Ruiz in the back of the neck and fired another bullet into his head as he lay on the ground. They drove off in a stolen white Renault 19, leaving Ruiz crumpled on the pavement, his dark suit patched with his blood.

Most of Spain knew such a killing was coming; it was una muerte anunciada. The Basque terrorist group ETA has in recent weeks suffered heavy blows to its organization from a series of arrests in France and Spain. These were preceded by the loss of four of its members last month when the car in which they were transporting a bomb blew up in Bilbao, which would rather be known for its shiny Guggenheim Museum. ETA was widely expected to show that it had not lost its capacity to strike anywhere in Spain in the name of a separate Basque nation. That bloody crusade — appropriately, ETA's flag shows a snake wrapped around an ax — has cost 800 lives in the past three decades.

Ruiz was not, however, a completely random candidate for assassination. The 42-year-old father of two young children was a local councilor for Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar's Popular Party, which governs Spain. Aznar's stance against ETA has been consistent: without a permanent cease-fire, there can be no talks about anything, let alone independence, which in any case the majority of the 2 million Basques have not pursued via the ballot box. While a high percentage of Spaniards support Aznar's line — he was re-elected with a majority in March — ETA violence has spiraled since the group ended a unilateral 14-month truce late last year.

Ruiz was the 11th Popular Party official to have been murdered since early 1995. So far this year, ETA has killed 13 people, not all of them politicians. One of the victims was Jose Maria Korta, a nationalist businessman described by one of his friends in Bilbao last week as "Basque to the marrow." Korta's crime was to have called on Basque businesses to refuse to pay the "revolutionary tax" ETA extorts from them to finance its attacks.

Despite the ease with which it murdered Ruiz, there is little doubt that ETA's capacity to kill has been reduced, at least temporarily, by the latest string of arrests. One of the most spectacular came on the night of Sept. 15, when police in France closed in on a villa in the southwestern town of Bidart and nabbed Ignacio Gracia Arregui, 44, who is believed to have run much of ETA's campaign since 1992, including an aborted attempt by a sniper on the life of King Juan Carlos in Mallorca in 1995. Arregui's arrest was immediately followed by the roundup of 15 other suspects in the same area. Among them is Angel Pikabea Ugalde, 43, said to be responsible for stockpiling arms and explosives in France. Another is Jose Luis Turrillas Aranzeta, also 43, believed to be the head of ETA's larger logistics structure.

Last week the autonomous Basque police, the Ertzaintza, had their own breakthrough when they found an apartment north of Bilbao that was the base of the four bomb carriers who blew themselves up last month. The Ertzaintza said "abundant" documentation was found, plus a workshop for making the limpet bombs ETA likes to attach to the undersides of victims' cars.

A bigger blow long-term may have been the Sept. 13 arrests in Spain — on orders of the country's best-known judge, Baltasar Garzón — of 20 people belonging to the pro-independence group Ekin. Spanish police allege some of its members are top ETA strategists and fund raisers. Eighteen of those arrested have been charged with belonging to an illegal organization.

Meanwhile, the government in Madrid is in the process of toughening its antiterrorism measures. Justice Minister Angel Acebes plans a new law aimed at the youths ETA uses for lower-level attacks, what in the Basque language is called kale borroka, or street violence. This occurs almost daily in the Basque region, with masked youths hurling fire bombs and smashing shop windows. Under the projected law minors aged 14 to 18 could be held in internment centers for up to 10 years. Other proposals would make it a crime to justify terrorism or to humiliate its victims.

But the idea that the government can fight ETA's fire with some of its own is not convincing to many opponents of terrorism, particularly within the Basque region. Xabier Arzalluz is president of the nonviolent Basque Nationalist Party, a former ally of the Popular Party in the Madrid parliament. He and Aznar are now bitter enemies because Arzalluz favors dialogue with ETA's political representatives. History shows, said Arzalluz after Arregui's arrest in France, that captured ETA leaders are promptly replaced by someone picked beforehand for such an eventuality.

ETA also has a deep well of recruits among the region's high number of unemployed youths. It was probably not by chance that of the four "commandos" blown up by their own bomb in Bilbao, only one was a veteran; the others were young cachorros, or puppies, in their early 20s, learning the terrorist trade. Before they got that far, it is likely they would have been educated in kale borroka.

A young Spaniard who went to university in Bilbao and has lived there for seven years says he can understand the frustration of many Basques. He notes that unemployment is as high as 40% in some areas, adding, "I think we haven't really respected their culture, historically and even today." A 24-year-old economist in an office in Bilbao says he abhors violence, but most of his young Basque friends think "the solution is to talk, as Tony Blair did with the I.R.A." He admits: "It's very difficult to sit down and talk with an assassin, but I think this is the only solution."

The Madrid government insists that talking with ETA's representatives would be unacceptably repugnant — what Albert Camus called "siding with the pestilence." Faced with such obduracy, ETA has little trouble sending, if not a veteran, then a cachorro to put a bullet into the head of a man who has just kissed his wife and children and is heading for a day at the office. A stranger in the street.

With reporting by David Cemlyn-Jones/Madrid and Bruce Crumley/Paris