"The ETA inmate told me he was like a robot when the time came to kill"

Josu Elespe, son of the first Socialist councilor to be killed by Basque terrorists, supports penitentiary benefits for remorseful inmates after meeting with a convicted assassin

Josu Elespe is the son of Froilán Elespe, the first Socialist councilor to be killed by ETA. / JOAN SÁNCHEZ

Froilán Elespe was the first Socialist counselor to be murdered by ETA. He was at a bar in Lasarte, Gipuzkoa on March 20, 2001, when an ETA gunman fired two shots at him. Ten years later his son, Josu, decided to meet with a former member of ETA: a convicted, cold-blooded killer who has now distanced himself from the Basque terrorist organization. The meeting took place at the penitentiary in Nanclares de Oca on November 19.

Question. Why did you decide to have the meeting?

Answer. For a lot of reasons, one of them being curiosity. I wanted to learn how a person becomes a terrorist.

Q. Were you nervous?

A. I was a bag of nerves. I went running early that morning to relieve the tension, but I could have run from my home in Donosti to Nanclares. I put on some music in the car so I wouldn't think much about it. And when I got there, I asked myself, 'What are you doing here?' But I calmed down and went in.

Q. How did that meeting go?

He told me that he was sorry for everything that had happened"

A. We shook hands. The mediator gave us a short introduction and then he began to speak about how he joined ETA, his arrest, etc.

Q. And why did he become a member?

A. For no particular reason. His family had no ties to ETA, its supporters or the Basque radical abertzale left. But he sympathized with the ideology and allowed himself to get caught up in it. One day a friend of his, who was also a member, asked him about the whereabouts of a particular person - in other words, a target. Then he kept doing more and more favors, and the ball got rolling. His life revolved around two activities: taking action and hiding out.

Q. Did he talk about any of his murders?

A. He told me that when he fled to France after committing his first murder, he put on the television and saw the brother of the man he had just killed. He told me that he felt like a bucket of cold water had just been poured over him because he began thinking about his own brother. But the comrade who was with him quickly turned off the television and said, 'C'mon, let's play cards.'

Q. Was he remorseful after other murders?

A. I asked him if he was able to sleep that night or the next, and he said no. He told me that in order to kill, he would not think about anything - his mind was a total blank.

Q. What was his life like?

A. He would receive an order, and he then looked for the best way to take action. Afterwards, he would receive another order, and carry it out. He was like a robot, and he didn't have time to think.

Q. When did he start having doubts?

A. When ETA began killing politicians. He told me he didn't understand it so I asked him why he believed that: was it because it wasn't strategically feasible or just because it was inhumane? He said both reasons. Now he thinks differently and rejects all types of murder. At the time he justified killing police officers and the Civil Guard because they were an occupying force.

Q. What did he learn from his arrest?

A. He told me that after they arrested him, he sat inside his cell and exhaled deeply. The wheel had finally come to a stop. Little by little he came to realize that killing was a mistake.

Q. How did he disassociate himself from the terrorist group?

A. He had a lot of time to think inside his cell. He tried to find someone who had similar second thoughts, but had to be careful because inside the jails, there is someone from ETA who is in charge. They believe that they should all stick together and not relate to anyone else. When he tried, he was threatened and insulted. But he had a lot of support from his family and others who are not linked to this underworld.

Q. What did you tell him?

A. I spoke about my own personal experiences, and how my father's murder affected me, my brother and my mother. I didn't want to go soft on him; I knew that a lot of things I was going to tell him would hurt but he was willing to listen to me. He had never been confronted by anyone who has been affected by ETA. In one way or another, I blamed him for my father's murder even though he didn't belong to the same commando unit and was already in jail when it occurred. But I told him that if he had been free and had received the order to kill my father he most likely would have done it. He sat in silence. After I was finished, we both sat for five minutes, not saying a word to each other.

Q. What did he want to know?

A. He asked me a lot about life outside jail. Since they arrested him 16 years ago, he hasn't been out. He wanted to know if I fed my daughter with her nursing bottle; he has never been able to do that with his own son. His son was about to be born when he joined ETA.

Q. Did the inmate ask for forgiveness at any time?

A. He told me that he was sorry for everything that has happened and was happy to see that I was doing well. He went away looking very nervous and you could see that he was badly affected. I left feeling more at ease with myself. Having a chat with an ETA member who recognizes the damage the organization has caused is a lot more important to me than a generic recognition by a group of prisoners of the injuries they have caused, and who sign it because they have to. The person I met is taking the steps that we are all calling for, and I think he and others like him should receive benefits under the law.

Q. Do you believe he was sincere?

A. I think so. His position is the right one - to recognize the damage caused by ETA without justifying it.

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