Bob Edme/AP
Hooded police officers lead Mikel de Garikoitz Aspiazu Rubina, under orange blanket, after
he was arrested in Cauterets, France, along the Spanish border, Monday Nov. 17, 2008.

Arrest of Commander Could Signal Weakening ETA

November 17, 2008 12:36 PM
by findingDulcinea Staff
The arrest of ETA operational commander Mikel de Garikoitz Aspiazu Rubina in southern France Monday comes as the separatist group struggles with its identity.

ETA Commander Arrested in France

French and Spanish police arrested Mikel de Garikoitz Aspiazu Rubina, 35, on Monday in the mountainous region of southwestern France near the country’s border with Spain. Known under the alias of “Txeroki” or “Cherokee,” the operational commander of Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (ETA), or Basque Homeland and Freedom, is believed to have been involved in the killing of two Spanish guards in December 2007. He is also accused of initiating the Dec. 2006 Madrid car bombing that killed two and “wrecked peace talks with the Spanish government,” Reuters writes.

According to the Spanish media, Aspiazu Rubina was one of the most wanted members of ETA. He has taken a hard-line with peace talks between Spain and ETA, opposing ceasefire agreement from March 2006, the Associated Press reports.

“This is a big step forward,” Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero said. “The terrorist gang ETA is going to suffer very, very deeply from this blow.”

The commando’s arrest is considered the greatest step in the fight against the rebel group since ETA’s reputed leader, Francisco Javier Lopez Pena, was detained near Bordeaux, France, in May.

Aspiazu Rubin’s arrest may be a sign of a weakening ETA, according to Time magazine. There is allegedly a growing rift between hardliners and moderates in the organization, and the loss of one of the hardline leaders might have ripples for the organization’s future.

“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 Madrid-based Juan March Institute. “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.”

Sánchez-Cuenca went on to tell Time, “In the sense that these were the hardest of hardliners,” and also said that “the absence of Txeroki and Thierry could work to the favor of those who want to work within the political system.”

ETA’s Fight for Autonomy

The end of September saw a trio of bombings in the north of Spain, leaving 11 injured and one Spanish solider dead, in what some felt was a response to a series of high court decisions regarding the future of their political parties.

Actively seeking total independence from the Spanish state, ETA has long been at odds with the national government.

Although the Basque region retains more autonomy—over taxes, law enforcement and education—than any other region in the country, ETA has pressed for an independent state, which would include seven regions in Northern Spain and Southern France.

Labeling them a terrorist gang, Prime Minister Jose Luis Zapatero pledged swift action against the group, signaling that his inaugural pledge to pursue peace talks with the group was no longer an option.

Zapatero won office in 2004 after the government of Jose Maria Aznar had blamed ETA for the train bombings in and around Madrid.

Ultimately revealed to be the work of al-Qaida, the bombings served to solidify public mistrust of the Aznar government, and seemed to have a calming effect on ETA, who appeared to distance themselves from violent acts.

The lull in violent activity culminated with an official cease-fire and the initiation of official peace talks.

The majority of the bombings carried out by ETA have been preceded by phone or mail warnings, meant more to remind law enforcement of the their capabilities than to cause injuries.

Reaction: An attempt at peace fails

However, after peace talks disintegrated in late 2006, an ETA bombing at the Madrid Barajas International Airport signaled a return to the group’s violent past.

This most recent spate of violence has been attributed to a move by the national government to weaken the organization’s influence, seen recently with a Supreme Court ruling that forbade two regional political parties accused of being arms of ETA.

The motivation behind the court’s decision relates to the belief that the new parties are simply rebranded versions of Batasuna, ETA’s banned political arm, similar to the Irish Republican Army’s Sinn Fein.

The ruling follows a similar decision that ruled a regional referendum addressing self-determination as unconstitutional.

Background: A history of uncertainty and force

Emerging from a student-led wave of protest against the government of Francisco Franco, which had outlawed the Basque language and many regional traditions, ETA led a charge to defend what they saw as an attack on their cultural identity.

Preceding similar efforts in Catalonia, ETA’s efforts grew increasingly more violent, resulting in the deaths of over 800 people and countless injuries since the group’s inception.

ETA’s actions have varied, but mostly the group has focused its attacks on law enforcement, especially the country’s national police, the Guardia Civil, a force symbolically linked to the Franco government.

They have also focused their attention on the country’s many tourist destinations, most recently placing a series of bombs along Spain’s southern Costa del Sol in August of this year.

Public opinion of the group has varied through the years, hitting a low point in 1997 when ETA kidnapped a 29-year-old local politician, Miguel Angel Blanco. After demands to release several hundred ETA prisoners were refused, the group executed Blanco, triggering a mass protest against violence with more than 6 million Spaniards taking to the streets.

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