The placards held aloft by the elderly marchers in Bilbao’s Albia Gardens are neatly matched, each with an identically sized photograph in a green frame on a painted wooden stick. Some 50 protesters walk slowly in two disciplined lines under the towering plane trees of this well-tended city centre square. They are mostly stern-faced women, though one old man has a black Basque beret stretched across a balding head. It is a peaceful protest, largely ignored by the office workers and shoppers resting on the square’s benches. The faces on the placards, however, are a reminder of violence. They are the faces of Eta – the Basque separatist group that has killed 800 people in bombings and shootings over the past four decades.
The people in the photographs are jailed sons, daughters, husbands, wives and siblings. The older, grainy black-and-white pictures are mostly of men, some with the hairstyles and bushy moustaches of the era in which they were jailed. The more recent ones, the younger faces, include many more women. They are among the 750 people now in prison for Eta-related crimes. Others are still at large, keeping Europe’s last blood-soaked separatist conflict alive in the western borderlands of Spain and France. And increasingly, they are women.
Somewhere across the French border, Eta’s clandestine leadership is being reformed after a series of arrests. This very morning the group has claimed its latest victim. Inspector Eduardo Puelles, a senior anti-terrorist police officer, has been burnt to death in the Bilbao suburb of Arrigorriaga, after a bomb attached to the underside of his car turned it into a ball of flames and molten metal. Neighbours who heard his cries said there was nothing quick or easy about his death. “Get me out of here! Get me out!” he had screamed. Police believe his murder may have been ordered by one of two women, Iratxe Sorzabal or Izaskun Lesaka, who are thought to hold senior positions in Eta’s increasingly fragile military apparatus.
We are just a few blocks from the city’s ultra-modern, glittering, titanium-clad Guggenheim Museum, but in the Albia Gardens time seems to have stood still. A conflict that emerged under a long-disappeared dictatorship rumbles on, claiming lives and filling jails. As the protesters march around the square to complain that their sons and daughters are held in prisons far from home, Puelles’s charred corpse lies 100 yards away in the morgue. It has been brought from a car park by the red-brick tower block where Puelles, a native Basque, lived with his wife and two sons. The proximity of the victim and those campaigning for members of the group that killed him is a reminder that the Basque Country is a small place. Some 2.2 million people live in the three provinces that form Spain’s largely self-governing region. “This is a small corner of the world and we all know everyone,” explains Puelles’s brother, Josu, another police officer. Indeed, speculation about how Eta managed to target such a senior anti-terrorist officer soon points to his neighbours. “He dressed very shabbily, but they must have known he was a policeman,” says Maria Valentin, as she steps out of a neighbouring block of flats under an umbrella to keep off the famous Basque drizzle, the txirimiri, that comes in off the nearby Bay of Biscay. The police officers in white forensic suits who are sifting through the wreckage of Puelles’s Renault Megane are not a new sight for her. Eta’s kill-rate has fallen dramatically over the past two decades, but this working-class neighbourhood is still one of its favourite hunting grounds. “They killed another policeman just down the road a few years back,” Maria explains. “You don’t solve anything like this. Why can’t people just talk?”
For most Spaniards, Eta members are blood-thirsty, cold-hearted terrorists. “They haven’t achieved anything by murdering my husband. They don’t defend anyone’s freedom, in fact they just restrict it,” Puelles’s widow, Paqui, told a crowd of 25,000 people who marched through Bilbao to express their revulsion the day after his murder. “This is the only thing they know how to do: kill, kill and kill.”
To the people holding up photographs in Albia Gardens, however, their sons and daughters are not murderers. They are “political prisoners” or “patriots”. German Urizar holds up a photograph of his 27-year-old daughter, Amaia. Urizar also has a son in jail. Eta’s lethal campaign began 41 years ago, and 69-year-old German has been coming here every week for 22 years to show his solidarity. “The boy was part of a comando [Eta’s active service units], though he didn’t kill anyone,” he explains. “My girl didn’t do anything but they still gave her a five-year sentence. The number of girls has increased a lot.” The police claimed that Amaia was the girlfriend of former Eta military chief Garikoitz Aspiazu, alias “Cherokee”, and that she helped recruit new Eta members.
Eta supporters choose their words carefully. Public backing for terrorism is punishable by a prison sentence, but the 100,000 or more votes regularly garnered by political groups identified with Eta suggests a small but obstinately solid support group. Occasionally, however, the guard slips. “Why have we killed some enemies of our people? Because they obliged us to,” is how Manuel, the uncle of Irantzu Gallastegui, a woman who took part in the infamous kidnapping and killing of a young Basque town councillor, Miguel Angel Blanco, put it recently. “Who says that it isn’t human to use violence?” Manuel says. “Don’t think that we enjoy it or that we kill just because, or out of pleasure. Eta does it out of a sense of patriotic duty.”
The letter left behind for his father by Asier Borrero, an Eta member captured a couple of weeks after Puelles’s death, gave his reason for leaving home and joining the group. “I know I am betraying you as a son by leaving you,” he wrote. “But it is better this way, because I am not going to stop fighting for our people.”
Today, Eta’s leadership is based mostly over the border. A poster showing six of its members adorns the walls of police stations across southern France. “These people are dangerous and likely to be armed,” it warns. Four are men, who have been captured since the poster was printed 15 months ago. The two still at large are women: Iratxe Sorzabal and Izaskun Lesaka, all that remains of the group that police believe ran Eta’s front-line militants. Details of the two women’s roles today are unclear. “Things are so confused at the moment that we don’t really know who does what,” admits one source close to the Basque regional government’s police force, the Ertzaintza.
The balance of sexes reflected in the poster, however, is a sign of profound change in a group with Catholic, conservative roots. “The imprint of Catholicism has been considerable,” explains Jesus Casquete, of the University of the Basque Country. “You can’t compare them to the Red Brigades or the Baader Meinhof gang, where women had considerable roles of responsibility.” But this is changing. In the fortnight following the murder of Eduardo Puelles, police carried out four separate operations against Eta, arresting 10 suspected members. Half of them, including two of the three members of a new comando unit caught with 75kg of explosives, are women. One, Itziar Plaza, is said to be a senior military commander. Recent recruits include female students, journalists, nurses and even infant school mistresses.
I meet Oihana Lizaso in the cafeteria of a hotel near the Albia Gardens. Six years ago police arrested Oihana and her boyfriend, Jokin Errazti, at a shopping centre in their home town of Usurbil. A search through their garage revealed 25kg of explosives, detonators, a grenade, a James Bond-style Walther PPK pistol and a Mat sub-machine gun. Oihana served five years in jail for collaborating with Eta. Her boyfriend will serve 17 years. Oihana’s Spanish is not entirely fluent. She thinks in Euskara, the ancient Basque tongue that is possibly Europe’s oldest, and is still the first language of one in six Basques. Women no longer merely follow boyfriends into Eta, she says. “It is a personal decision.” Like many people in Eta’s orbit, she uses the word “impunity” frequently – to describe the way she thinks the Spanish authorities treat separatists. “People see the impunity. They see things happening in their towns or villages,” she says. Does she think Eta is machista? She laughs. “There is machismo everywhere, but we also have feminism in the Basque country.”
Eta was once a man’s world. Industrial workers, middle-class Marxists and Basque-speaking farmers from tiny villages high up in the green, steep-valleyed hills of Goerri came together in an anger initially stirred by dictator General Francisco Franco – and largely left their women at home. For years, the public role of women was mainly as tough, grieving mothers at the gravesides of male activists. “They were seen as the keepers of the flame,” says Jesus Casquete. Eta’s founders wanted “peaceful women dedicated to cultural and humanitarian work; violent men who await only a little more strength and an order”. Only a handful broke the mould.
Iratxe Sorzabal and Izaskun Lesaka are proof of how far the women of Eta have come since then. Sorzabal, now 37, is a former teacher who has been associated with the group for more than a decade. She was jailed in France for two years in 1997, after she was caught with two armed Eta men at a farm belonging to Breton separatists. “Dear Basque Country,” she wrote, in a letter sent by four women prisoners to a separatist newspaper in May 1999, “It has been too long since we were forced to escape, fleeing the horror, but without ever abandoning you, despite the tears of having to leave.” She complained of being exhibited like a hunted animal, but added, “You know full well that even like this they cannot shut us up or take away our dignity, or force us to renounce our identity.”
Sorzabal went on hunger strike for a month, to protest against plans to extradite her to Spain when her prison spell ended. The protest failed and in November 1999 she was sent across the border. She was not, however, arrested. Sorzabal became, instead, a teacher of Euskara in the border town of Irun. She also became spokeswoman for a prisoners’ campaign group. In 2001 she was finally arrested by the Guardia Civil anti-terrorist police in the seaside city of San Sebastian. A judge set her free: there was insufficient evidence to uphold claims that she was an Eta comando member.
Sometime later, Sorzabal fled back to France. While many of her fellow “most wanted” activists have since been arrested, Sorzabal has had a series of miraculous escapes. She has also left a few clues about her clandestine existence. In February, she and Eta’s then head of military operations, Iurgi Mendinueta, crashed a car they had stolen in the French village of Allègre, in the Haute-Loire. Before they fled, they dug a hole nearby to hide a laptop. It held a photograph of Sorzabal with a young child. Was the child hers? She would not have been the first female Eta operative to have raised children with false names in small French towns.
Inevitably, Sorzabal’s experiences in prisons and police stations have hardened her. Experts place her among Eta’s hawks – those who believe the killing must continue if the dream of a separate Basque state, made up of four Spanish provinces and part of southwest France, is to happen. (That is something which, even in the most optimistic interpretations of Basque history, has not existed for five centuries.) She is now among those best placed to take over Mendinueta’s post and rebuild the comandos. Time will tell whether she was involved in the order to blow up Eduardo Puelles.
Izaskun Lesaka, 34, may be even more senior in the Eta hierarchy. She fled Spain seven years ago, when police began rounding up members of pro-Eta youth movements. She had been prominent in these groups, which were blamed for a now defunct campaign of streetfighting known as the kale borroka. “They are Eta’s recruiting ground,” said one source who works with the Ertzaintza police. By the time a judge issued a search warrant, Lesaka had disappeared. A French court later found her guilty, in her absence, of recruiting members of a terrorist gang. Recent information about her is scarce. Some reports claim she is the author of Eta’s communiques and one of three people (the others are men) who exercise political control over the group, and give orders to those operating the comandos
Only a few women have risen so high in the ranks. As they have become vital to the bombers and pistol shooters, however, the road to the top has been cleared. “The route to leadership is through being involved in active comandos,” says Carrie Hamilton, a Canadian historian who has spoken to many former Eta women. “It is inevitable that, at some point, some would take on leadership positions.”
Statistics and anecdotal evidence show that the situation has changed rapidly. In 2002, only 12% of Eta-affiliated prisoners were women. By 2009 that figure has risen close to a quarter. If the latest arrests are an indicator, the proportion among recent recruits is nearer a half. Not everyone is surprised. “You must remember that when Eta called a ceasefire in 2006, it was a woman who read out the communique,” says Beñat Zarrabeitia, of Etxerat, a group representing prisoners’ families. “And in the previous ceasefire, in 1999, they named Belen González Peñalba, a woman, as one of their negotiators.” Women have, in fact, been present in Eta’s history since the beginning, though almost always in background roles. They ran safe houses, hid activists, trailed targets or stashed arms. They tracked politicians or police officers to mass, sitting demurely in the back rows of the church. The front-line stuff, of planting bombs and shooting people, was largely a man’s thing.
The first women to join comandos found their gender an obstacle. One anonymous Eta gunwoman recalled the first time she and a female friend were sent out with pistols. “We said: ‘Well, depending on how we do it tomorrow, they will accept us or not.’ And that was because we were women. You have a lot more to prove when you are a woman,” she told the anthropologist Miren Alcedo. Indeed, early gunwomen gained a reputation within Eta as more bloodthirsty than the men.
The most infamous was Idoia López Riaño, alias La Tigresa, the tigress. It is hard to separate myth from reality in the case of a green-eyed, glamorous gunwoman who police, journalists and some repentant former companions have painted as a man-eating, man-murdering monster. Legend has her cruising discotheques for young policemen for one-night stands and then calmly pumping bullets into others a few days later. In police lore she was said to straddle her lovers while thinking: “I’d love to shoot the bastard in the mouth.” Her love of nightlife, an ability to attract men and the fact that she once picked up a policeman who came to her aid after a traffic accident are among the few hard facts. Her own comando members tired of her indiscipline as they scrambled to safe houses when she failed to return home after an evening out. During one attack in Madrid she was detailed to cover another comando member as he opened fire on a car full of army officers. She could not, however, resist spraying it with bullets first. She is now serving a 30-year jail sentence for 23 murders. “She used to complain that women had to prove themselves twice as much as men,” a former companion-in-arms said.
Over the past decade, however, a new trend has emerged. The first symbol of change was Olaia Castresana, a 22-year-old infant-school teacher from San Sebastian. On weekdays Castresana looked after children under six; at weekends and during the holidays she blew up things, and people, for Eta. A bomb eventually exploded in her hands in the eastern resort of Torrevieja in July 2001. The force of the explosion sent masonry and body parts raining down on a nearby swimming pool. Another of her bombs had killed a policeman a few weeks earlier. Castresana became a new female “martyr”, praised at her funeral by radical separatist politicians such as Arnaldo Otegi, the man many hope will prove to be Eta’s Gerry Adams. “Eta will never be defeated by police measures,” he said the day before Puelles was killed. Castresana’s school sweetheart, Anartz Oiarzabal, a funeral parlour employee who was also her bombing partner, contacted the separatist Gara newspaper while on the run. He placed a death notice to her: “I love you”, it said in large, bold print. Eta later named a comando after her.
Soon, police noticed a surge in the number of Eta women. Some were leading comandos; one, Soledad Iparraguirre, was in charge of all the comandos. Iparraguirre also had a legendary status among Spanish police. She is said to have sworn vengeance after they killed her boyfriend in a shoot-out when she was 20. Anti-terrorist police made her the author of a chilling phrase: “Black shoes and a two-day beard? Kill him, he’s a cop.” As a comando member in the 80s and 90s she became an expert in car bombs, taking part in the murder of 14 people.
Police lost track of Iparraguirre in the 90s. Eventually they learnt that she was in a relationship with the musician and Eta leader Mikel Albisu. He fled Spain after smuggling two Eta prisoners out of jail inside his speaker boxes, after a concert. In 2004, the police finally tracked the couple down to a French farmhouse. They discovered an eight-year-old boy in the idyllic, country home they shared with a French couple near Sallies-de-Béarn. The boy, who attended a local Roman Catholic day school but had also spent two years at a boarding school while his busy parents “travelled”, was their son, known as Pierre. The couple had been living in Sallies-de-Béarn for a dozen years. They were taken for foreigners in a region that attracts bohemians from around Europe.
On the day of Eduardo Puelles’s death, life continues as normal in the world of radical Basque separatism. At the separatist Herriko Taberna bar in Santutxu, a nearby barrio of Bilbao, like-minded radicals gather to drink. Three rows of coloured photos hang on the wall, the 24 people from this barrio alone who are in jail. Seven are women, including recent additions Anabel Prieto and Maialen Zuazo – both arrested last year and accused of killing a policeman in a bomb attack that destroyed part of a Guardia Civil barracks. The photos are not the grim, identity card mugshots that appear in Madrid newspapers but pictures taken by friends of young women, giving the camera their best smile. They leave little doubt about who the heroes are for those who come here. The bar girl admits she knows them, but does not want to talk. “I’m an ex-prisoner myself,” she explains as she fills glasses of beer. “I don’t want to risk trouble.”