The forty year reign of Spanish dictator General Francisco Franco came to an end with his death in November 1975. In his final year Franco oversaw a brutally enforced state of emergency in two provinces of the Basque Country during which thousands were detained without trial and systematically tortured, the Basque public was terrorised by the official armed forces of the state and its proxy gangs, and the media was heavily censored. It culminated in the execution of five militants — two members of the Basque revolutionary armed group ETA and three members of the Spanish Maoist group Revolutionary Anti-Fascist Patriotic Front (FRAP). It was a particularly violent and repressive end to a brutal 40 year dictatorship.
State of Emergency
The year opened with much speculation about the impending death of the ageing dictator who had been gravely ill for some time, and the possibility his demise might offer for political change in a State that denied even the most basic civil rights — the right to vote, to free association and to free assembly.
In the Basque Country the regime’s response to the annual Aberri Eguna (Day of the Basque Homeland), an event inspired by the 1916 Easter Rising in Ireland and celebrated every Easter Sunday since 1932, indicated that there was no change on the horizon. That year’s celebration was to take place on 30th March in the historic town of Gernika; bombed in 1937 by Franco’s Nazi allies the German Condor Legion, resulting in the deaths of over 1,500 people and the almost total destruction of the town.
However as was customary, the regime banned the assembly. From early on Easter Sunday hundreds of members of the paramilitary Guardia Civil blocked all roads leading into Gernika refusing entry to an estimated 15,000 people. Undeterred by the heavy military presence, 5,000 Basques managed to breach the cordon by avoiding the main roads and walking through mountain routes.
The unfurling of the Basque national flag the Ikurriña, a symbol banned by the dictatorship, led to a violent police assault and up to 100 arrests. Among those arrested were two Flemish members of the Belgian parliament who had travelled to show solidarity with the Basques.
Three weeks later ETA struck a significant blow against Franco’s secret police, the notorious and hated Brigada Politico Social. Originally established during the Spanish Civil War its function was to suppress all forms of political and social dissent and it had a fearsome reputation for torturing those unfortunate enough to fall into its hands.
On the morning of 23rd April 1975 Inspector Juán Ramón Morán took his usual short train journey from his home in Sopela to police headquarters in Getxo, a coastal district sixteen kilometres from Bilbao. As he stepped from the train at Algorta station he was met by two members of ETA who shot him at close range.
The ETA statement claiming the attack denounced Morán for his repression of the Basque people and for the 1973 killing of popular ETA leader Eustakio Mendizabal Benito. Morán’s funeral took place the following day in Algorta and was the occasion for a show of strength by the Spanish right.
As his coffin, draped in the Spanish national flag, was borne shoulder high to the cemetery the crowd of several thousand began singing the fascist anthem Cara al Sol (Face to the Sun), cheering for Franco and calling for vengeance. The following day, 25th April, the regime responded by declaring a state of emergency in the Basque provinces of Bizkaia and Gipuzkoa.
All legal precepts were immediately suspended. Over the following months approximately 3,000 Basques were rounded up, held indefinitely and systematically tortured in police custody. Such was the volume of detainees that at one point the Bilbao bull-ring was turned into a temporary detention camp. There were widespread reports of torture.
Notwithstanding the 1953 concordant between the Vatican and the fascist regime the Catholic bishops were moved to publicly denounce the treatment of Basque clergy and public “neither the defence of the noblest ideals nor even the defence of public order can justify, according to Christian doctrine, the recourse to violence that undermines the fundamental rights of human beings,” they said in a statement.
An Amnesty International delegation led by US lawyer Thomas Jones visited the Basque Country in July and issued its report the following month. It provided details of “widespread torture, severe and systematic beatings with a variety of weapons, of beatings on the soles of the feet, burning with cigarettes and of near drowning by being submerged in water while suspended upside down.” Amnesty described the report as conclusive and appalling evidence of systematic torture of Basque detainees.
In addition to the widespread arrests and torture there was a clampdown on the media. All press coverage of political events in the Basque Country was banned and only official state media reports were permitted. The Interior Ministry issued a decree that all news coming from Bizkaia and Gipuzkoa would be treated as official state secrets. Journalists were routinely arrested for reporting on the state of emergency and publications deemed to have breached the ban were seized.
In order to circumvent the ban the Basque nationalist movement distributed propaganda material clandestinely and issued reports to international journalists. At one point Basques were encouraged to listen to the BBC as it was said to carry impartial reports and leaflets were distributed providing the wavelengths and times of BBC broadcasts.
On the streets the Spanish state’s armed forces, official and proxy, the latter in the form of the shadowy Guerrilleros de Cristo Rey (Warriors of Christ the King), were unleashed on the Basque public. The Warriors of Christ the King who had close ties to the Spanish police specialised in machine-gun and bomb attacks on the homes and businesses of those deemed to be sympathetic to Basque nationalism.
In early May it was reported to have “have run wild in the Basque Country.” Respected defence lawyer Pedro Yberra Guell who had regularly defended members of the Basque independence movement was attacked and badly beaten up on the street.
During one week in May some 31 gun and bomb attacks were carried out by the gang, including attacks across the border in Biarritz and Baiona where many refugees from Bizkaia and Gipuzkoa had fled. Following its unsuccessful attempt to blow up the Basque refugee headquarters in Donibane, the Warriors of Christ the King issued a statement declaring that “as subversion extends beyond our frontiers we will combat it with force wherever we find it.”
The official state forces also played their part in terrorising the civilian population. On 23rd May eighteen year old university student Koldo Arriola was celebrating the end of term with friends in the Bizkaian town of Ondarroa. As they made their way home in good spirits singing Basque songs, they passed the imposing Guardia Civil barracks in the centre of the town.
As was routine for Basques encountering Guardia Civil at night they were stopped and harassed. However, events took a more sinister turn when young Koldo was bundled inside the barracks.
Moments later a shot rang out. The next morning his parents received a telephone call informing them that their son was dead and that his body should be collected from the barracks. He had been shot once in the chest. Koldo was among six people shot dead by Spanish forces during the three month state of emergency, which included a German woman shot at a police checkpoint in Donostia.
The Guardian newspaper summarised the condition of the Basques as follows:
“The Basques struggle for independence has a long history of which the last chapter has been one of the most poignant. Having acquired peacefully a large measure of autonomy from the Republican government during the Spanish civil war the Basques lost it again when Guernica was destroyed by the Germans and the fascists won. Now they have a state of emergency which deprives them of their freedom of speech, association, and assembly, allows the police to search their houses, and cancels habeas corpus.
Under these powers between 2,000 and 4,000 Basques have been detained since 25th April. A large number of Basques, including priests have been tortured or maltreated in custody. This is the sort of legacy of cruelty, oppression and injustice by which General Franco will now be remembered after all.”
Police repression did not however go unanswered. Following the killing of Koldo Arriola a 48 hour general strike was called and widely supported. Meanwhile ETA took direct action against the Guardia Civil. During the state of emergency all trains travelling through Bizkaia and Gipuzkoa were required to carry armed Guardia Civil or police.
In one particularly audacious attack in early June two ETA members boarded the Donostia to Bilbao train wearing long raincoats under which they each concealed a sub-machine gun and a pistol. They fired on the two Guardia Civil killing one and injuring the other before ordering the driver to stop the train at Rekalde where they alighted and made their escape in a waiting car.
According to one newspaper report, “the Basques are among the best organised and most sophisticated of the regime’s opponents…. If they resort to violence the government cannot really complain. In a police state democratic protest is impossible. There is nothing else the Basques can do to state their case.”
The regime’s response to such actions was to exact revenge on those who dared challenge its authority — its intent to spread fear amongst the wider population. The spectre of the medieval garrotte, a particularly cruel form of execution, loomed. In late August the trial of two Basques, Ángel Otaegi and Jose Antonio Garmendia, charged with the killing of a Guardia Civil corporal in Azpeitia the previous year, opened in Burgos.
Ángel Otaegi was born in 1942 just three years after the end of the Spanish Civil War in the rural Gipuzkoan town of Nuarbe. He left school at fifteen and went to work at a local tool making factory. In later years he worked on the fishing boats of nearby Getaria. Otaegi had a keen interest in sports of all kinds including Basque pelota, football and cycling. At the age of twenty he joined ETA and was involved in its propaganda department printing and distributing leaflets before his arrest in 1974.
During the arrest operation Otaegi’s comrade Jose Garmendia was shot in the head by police and subsequently underwent a frontal lobotomy. His lawyers argued that he was “mentally defective” and not fit to stand trial. The regime was unmoved and the two accused men were arraigned before a military court of five army officers presided over by an army colonel. Garmendia was reported to have sat quietly in the tiny courtroom with “wide open eyes and a glazed look.”
The defence called a number of eyewitnesses to the shooting who stated that neither Garmendi nor Otaegi were identifiable to them. While Otaegi admitted to being a member of ETA he stated that he was part of its propaganda department and had never handled a gun. The trial lasted a mere five hours.
Both men were found guilty and sentenced to death by garrotting. Following the announcement there were widespread protests. Tens of thousands of workers came out on strike defying a decree issued by Franco that public support for urban guerrillas was punishable by heavy fines and a possible twelve year prison sentence. At a demonstration in Donostia 23 year old Jesus Mari García Ripalda was shot dead by police.
A second trial involving a Basque militant opened on 19th September. Twenty one year old Juan Paredes Manot was accused of shooting a police officer during a bank raid in Barcelona. Given his diminutive stature Manot was known affectionately to his friends as Txiki (Small). Born in Extremadura in the south of Spain his family emigrated to the Basque Country in search of work when he was ten years of age, settling in the coastal town of Zarautz near Donostia.
As a teenager Txiki was said to have been an enthusiastic mountaineer and through his local mountaineering club became involved in the Basque nationalist youth movement. He joined ETA in 1973 and following a split in the organisation in 1974 he went with ETApm (politico-militar).
Txiki was arrested in Barcelona in early August alongside Pedro Iñaki Pérez Beotegi (known as Wilson) a senior ETA member involved in the 1973 assassination of Spanish Prime Minister and key Franco ally Carrero Blanco. During his detention Txiki was severely tortured by police. A lawyer who was visiting another client at police headquarters in Barcelona reported seeing him being taken from an interrogation room soaked in blood. His trial before a military court martial was, like that of his comrades Garmendi and Otaegi, a farce.
Txiki testified that he was in France at the time of the bank raid in Barcelona and eyewitnesses provided conflicting accounts and descriptions of the man who shot the police officer, with one stating that he was very tall and blond! Regardless, the military court returned a guilty verdict and Txiki was sentenced to death.
Franco’s desire for vengeance was not yet satisfied. Two separate military trials of ten members of the Spanish Maoist group the Revolutionary Anti-Fascist Patriotic Front (FRAP) for the killing of several policemen in Madrid took place in September. All denied the charges and accused police of extracting confessions by torture.
There was international outrage at the conduct of the trials. During the course of one trial the presiding military officer dismissed the defence team and replaced them with army officers. Not surprisingly all ten were found guilty and eight were sentenced to death, including two pregnant women. According to Spanish law pregnant women sentenced to death could be executed 40 days after giving birth.
By late September a total of eleven militants awaited execution, three members of ETA and eight members of FRAP. By this time Franco was in failing health and was reported to be close to death. It was not to deter him from deciding the fate of these young men and women. All death sentences had to be formally approved by the Spanish cabinet which met on 26th September amidst a storm of international protest on the streets; in prisons where ETA members staged a hunger strike; and among influential international figures — pleas for clemency coming from the Pope, the European Commission and numerous heads of state.
Prior to the cabinet meeting a Spanish government spokesperson informed the media “the Spanish cabinet will be unmoved by international protest, General Franco is in sympathy with police and army officers demanding vengeance on the terrorists.”
The ageing dictator would have his vengeance and while the international pressure had partially succeeded Franco did not wish to appear weak. Six of the eleven death sentences were commuted to life imprisonment. Amongst the sentences commuted were those of ETA member José Antonio Garmendia and the two pregnant women members of FRAP Concepcion Lopez and Maria Jesus Dasca Penellas.
However, five death sentences were confirmed: ETA members Ángel Otaegi (33) and Juan Paredes Manot — Txiki (21) and three of the FRAP members Ramon Garcia Sanz (27), José Luis Sánchez Bravo (22) and José Humberto Baena Alonso (24). Sentences were to be carried out at 8.30am the following day 27th September by firing squad rather than garrotte.
The three FRAP members were executed in Madrid and Ángel Otaegi in Burgos. Meanwhile harrowing details of Txiki’s execution emerged. Txiki spent the night before with his brother Mikel who described him as being calm and defiant, urging his comrades on the outside to continue the struggle for independence “as the only way to end the exploitation of man by man.”
He gave Mikel a photograph as a memento for his younger brother and sister on which he inscribed a quote from Ché Guevara “Tomorrow, when I die, do not come to me to cry. I will never be underground, I am the wind of freedom.”Those words would later be inscribed on Txiki’s tomb.
On the morning of the execution Txiki was taken by armed escort to the cemetery in Barcelona which was surrounded by heavily armed Spanish troops. He was tied by hands and feet to a wooden post. Refusing the offer of a blind fold he faced a firing squad of six Guardia Civil while defiantly singing the Basque anthem Eusko Gudariak (We are Basque Soldiers).
The initial burst of shots from the firing squad did not kill Txiki and as he writhed in agony the captain of the firing squad stepped forward and fired a shot into his head. He was buried in Barcelona cemetery. A year later after an exhaustive campaign by his family his body was returned home and he was buried in Zarautz cemetery.
Reaction to the executions was explosive. A 48 hour general strike was called in the Basque Country and an estimated 250,000 workers responded to the call, effectively shutting down the provinces of Gipuzkoa and Bizkaia. In the Bizkaian town of Algorta a large crowd gathered to denounce the executions. Police opened fire on the crowd injuring six people including a sixteen year old boy who was shot in the chest and an elderly woman shot in the leg.
Attacks against police and Guardia Civil were stepped up with six killed in the space of a week. In one ETA attack in the Gipuzkoan town of Arantzazu a Guardia Civil Land Rover, responding to reports of a Basque flag on display in the town, was blown up by a landmine firing it 60 feet in the air and killing three of its occupants.
In reprisal for this attack Inaki Etxabe, a brother of two ETA refugees, was shot dead at his bar in Kanpazar the following night. Etxabe’s bar had been bombed and shot up on two previous occasions earlier that year. His murder was later claimed by the shadowy right wing paramilitary group the Basque Spanish Battalion (BVE) and Inaki Etxabe is considered to be the first victim of the Spanish state’s dirty war in the Basque Country; a war that would escalate in the following years.
In 1978 Inaki’s sister-in-law Agurtzane Arregi was shot dead in a gun attack in which her husband Juan was seriously injured. Later that year ETA leader José Miguel Beñaran Ordeñana (Argala), the central figure in the 1973 assassination of Carrero Blanco, was killed in a car bomb attack. Both attacks were carried out by the BVE. The ‘Dirty War’ was at its most intense between 1983 and 1987 when a total of 27 people were killed between by Spanish state sponsored death squad the GAL.
Meanwhile across Europe Spanish embassies were picketed and attacked. The embassy in Lisbon was ransacked and burned to the ground while the embassy in Dublin was evacuated following a bomb warning. A march of 50,000 in Paris was followed by two nights of intense rioting in the city with the press reporting “virtual continuous running battles in the Champs Elysees area.” In Lyon protesters were attacked by police bringing a formal protest from the city’s sex workers who treated many of the injured and who called on the Pope to excommunicate General Franco.
There were reports of protests and attacks on Spanish embassies and businesses in a number of German cities, as well as in Rome, Brussels, The Hague, Mexico, Bogota, and Ankara.
Trade Union movements also played their part in piling pressure on the Franco regime. In Ireland the Amalgamated Transport and General Workers Union placed a 48 hour embargo on the handling of all Spanish goods and services by sea, land and air.
In a statement the union said its action was “to highlight the revulsion of the trade union movement in Ireland at the judicial murder of fighters for democracy and self-determination.” Similar actions took place in Britain following a call by the Transport and General Workers Union leader Jack Jones at the British Labour Party conference.
At the institutional level Madrid was reported to be “emptied of western ambassadors.” Eight of the nine member states of the European Council withdrew their ambassadors, the one exception being the Irish government. The European Council also called off trade talks with the Spanish government.
Meanwhile relations between the Vatican and the Spanish government became increasingly strained with the Pope stating that he had made three personal but unanswered appeals to Franco for clemency and that he had pleaded with Spain to “avoid the path of murderous repression.” In an unprecedented development the Spanish government withdrew its ambassador to the Vatican in protest at the Pope’s remarks.
Franco was unmoved by international protests and condemnations. At a mass rally in Madrid, in what turned out to be his final public appearance before his death in November, he struck a defiant tone.
Railing against the international pressure on his regime, he fulminated, “All this obeys a left wing masonic conspiracy in the political class acting in an unholy alliance with Communist-terrorist subversion in the social sphere.” Within weeks of his address Franco was dead.
For all his bluster Spain had been exposed to the world as a vengeful totalitarian regime where basic human rights were denied, political detainees rounded up and systematically tortured, demonstrations of public dissent violently repressed, and sham military trials dispensed gruesome forms of vengeance. However, while the dictator was dead the apparatus of his regime remained firmly intact and would reveal itself in the authoritarianism of the new and supposed democratic Spanish state.
Each year on 27th September coinciding with the anniversaries of the 1975 executions of Txiki and Otaegi the nationalist left movement in the Basque Country celebrates Gudari Eguna (Day of the Basque Soldier), an event that remembers all ETA members killed during the course of the struggle for Basque independence and socialism.
Stewart Reddin is a member of the Stoneybatter & Smithfield People’s History Project and was a member of Gernika 80 that organised events in Dublin earlier this year marking the 80th anniversary of the fascist bombing of the Basque town. He has contributed articles to two recent publications on Basque history: Massacre in Gasteiz: The Basque Country’s Bloody Sunday and Gernika 80 Then & Now — 80 Years of Basque-Irish anti-fascist struggles. Copies of both are still available.