Detail from police photo of Iratxe Sorzabal, a presumed leader of ETA.

ETA’s deadly Amazons

July 31st is the 50th anniversary of the creation of ETA, the Basque nationalist movement that in pursuit of a seperate state straddling the borders of Spain and France, has claimed the lives of over 800 people. The Observer reports that the movement, reportedly weakened since the abortive ceasefire of 2006, is now in a period of reconstruction, with women at the helm.

Published on 29 July 2009 at 13:38
Detail from police photo of Iratxe Sorzabal, a presumed leader of ETA.

Today, Eta's fragile leadership is based mostly over the border in France. Two of its “Most Wanted” members are women: Iratxe Sorzabal and Izaskun Lesaka. This, writes author Giles Tremlett in the Observer, “is a sign of profound change in a group with Catholic, conservative roots.” Although present in Eta since the beginning, women have traditionally played a background role. The ascension of Sorzabal and Lesaka is however is “proof of how far Eta women have come since then.”

Sorzabal, 37, is considered by experts to be among Eta's hawks, and may have ordered the June 19th assassination of Inspector Eduardo Puelles, a senior anti-terrorist police officer. Lesaka, 34, may be even more senior in the Eta hierarchy. As historian Carrie Hamilton implies, the route to leadership is only possible through “active” service.

Between 2002, when only 12% of Eta-affiliated prisoners were women, the figure by 2009, has risen close to 25%. If latest arrests are a fair indicator, the proportion is now nearer a half. This new trend seemed to emerge with the death of Olaia Castresana, a 22-year-old infant-school teacher from San Sebastian, killed by a bomb she was attempting to plant in the eastern resort of Torrevieja in 2001. Hailed as a martyr, police afterwards noticed a surge in the number of Eta women.


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At 50, isolated ETA won't settle down

With its July 29 bomb attack in Burgos, which has injured 50 people, Eta has marked the 50th anniversary of its foundation on 31 July, 1959. Writing in El País, Fernando Reinares, a political science professor and terrorism specialist at Juan Carlos I University, explains that members of Eta are motivated by "a nationalism that excludes other ethnic groups (...), and further promotes intolerance and seeks to justify violence."

Eta members also take advantage of "a safe haven in France," where they can hide out after committing terrorist crimes, and a degree of "social prestige" among certain milieux of the Basque population. Young recruits are attracted to the group for "emotional" reasons — a sense of frustration, and "a hatred of Spain and everything that is defined as Spanish" — and their participation in acts of terror is also a reflection of "a sub-culture of violence" in which they have grown up. A need to "affirm their Basque identity (...) within the framework of social network that is based on bonds of friendship or family ties" is also a fundamental criterion. But for all that, concludes Reinares, today, the terrorist group amounts to little more than "a hundred pistoleros, who are largely ignored by society in general."

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