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A time to forgive and forget?

Veteran terrorist 'Txelis,' jailed in 1992, says he wants to meet the family of 'Yoyes,' herself a former ETA chief, murdered on his instructions 25 years ago

On September 10, 1986, while walking through a crowded fair with her three-year-old son in her home village of Ordizia, María Dolores González Cataraín, better known as Yoyes, was approached by an ETA gunman who fired three shots into her head at close range, killing her instantly.

Yoyes was the leader of ETA during the mid-1970s. But after her arrest in 1978, and subsequent exile in Mexico, she lost her belief in the armed struggle, and by 1980 had left the organization, saying she preferred to pursue the cause of an independent Basque Country through political means.

Now, 25 years later, one of the men who ordered the execution of Yoyes, José Luis Álvarez Santacristina, otherwise known as Txelis, wants to make a personal apology to the family of Yoyes. He was arrested in 1992, and expelled from ETA in 1998 for calling on the organization to end its campaign of violence.

Álvarez Santacristina is currently serving a 30-year-prison sentence, but having renounced violence is now benefiting from an early-release program.

The execution of Yoyes split the radical Basque independence movement. Many ETA supporters refused to believe that the organization had committed the act, initially blaming the GAL extreme right-wing death squads that the government had illegally organized as part of a dirty war against the terrorist group earlier in the decade.

But ETA's leadership at the time was determined to send out a message to potential turncoats. A press release the next day said that Yoyes had been killed "for trying to split the most vulnerable sectors of the national liberation movement [...] for having betrayed herself and the Basque people [...] and for collaborating with the genocidal plans of the Spanish state's occupation forces."

Nobody walks away from ETA. That was the brutal message that the organization's leadership of the time was sending out loud and clear. And the man responsible for writing ETA's press statements back then was Txelis.

Yet Yoyes was far from alone in having abandoned the armed struggle. Around 200 ETA activists had left the organization since the early 1980s, taking up a government offer of early release. Most of them had returned to their homes in the Basque Country and fitted back into normal life. But Yoyes' case was different. She was able to benefit from the 1977 amnesty that pardoned political crimes committed by members of the Franco regime, as well as activists fighting it. She returned from exile in Mexico in the belief that the Spanish government and ETA would leave her alone.

But Yoyes wasn't just any former ETA member. Although she refused to speak to the media, she became a symbol in many people's eyes of a hope that others in ETA would turn their backs on the armed struggle and pursue their separatist goals through political means. But she must have had few illusions that she would be left alone to get on with her life.

"To walk again in the land where I was born, that I have dreamt of for so many years, and now I am here. This is my place, my country, but there is a storm; it is as though a volcano or an earthquake had stripped mountains of layers away," she wrote in her diary just five days before she was killed.

A few months before that she had made the cover of one of the country's best-selling weekly news magazines under the headline: "The return of the ETA activist." The "storm" she had written of was not about to die down. The publicity surrounding her return was seen by ETA's leadership as a direct threat to its authority.

Before returning to the Basque Country, Yoyes had spoken with Txomin Iturbe, the leader of the organization in the early 1980s. He had guaranteed her safety. But he was arrested in April 1986, and the men who took over the group's leadership: Francisco Mújica Garmendia (Pakito); José Luis Álvarez de Santacristina (Txelis), and José María Arregi Erostarbe (Fitipaldi), decided that an example had to be made of a now unprotected Yoyes. The men tasked with the woman's execution were José Antonio López Ruiz (Kubati), and José Miguel Latasa Guetaria, (Fermín). Four of the five involved are now dissident ex-members of ETA.

Yoyes was a contemporary of Txelis, born just one year before him in 1954. Both had been brought up in traditional, deeply Catholic families, and their vocation seemed to lie in education. Yoyes had moved to San Sebastián when she was 18 to study to be a teacher, abandoning her training after she joined ETA. Txelis first studied in a seminary, and then, after graduating as a teacher of the Basque language, began to study theology and philosophy. He received his doctorate from the Sorbonne-on Ludwig Wittgenstein - and remained in France during the remaining years of the Franco dictatorship, returning to Spain in 1976.

After a decade that saw her rise to the leadership of ETA and spend three years in prison in France, in 1980, Yoyes left the organization, taking up a Spanish government offer of exile in Mexico. There she completed a degree at the National Autonomous University in Mexico City, and worked for the United Nations. In 1984 she returned to Paris, where the French authorities granted her political asylum.

Ideologues, neither Txelis nor Yoyes never took part in any of ETA's attacks. But they were responsible for strategy and tactics. In 1976, Yoyes became the spokeswoman for the recently created KAS, the body tasked with coordinating the different groups that orbited around ETA. In 1978 she briefly took over as the head of ETA's political wing, stepping down when she realized that the organization had no intention of ever abandoning the armed struggle. Txelis took over the leadership in 1986.

In what would turn out to be a major blow to ETA, Txelis was arrested on March 29, 1992 by the French police. Along with him were Pakito and Fitipaldi. In prison, Txelis soon made it clear that he wanted out of ETA. He apologized to the families of those killed by ETA, and within 18 months of his arrest he made a public call for ETA to lay down its arms. In 1997, he repeated his call, and the following year was expelled from the organization for "trying to split the party." His was a far lesser punishment than that meted out to Yoyes for the same crime 12 years earlier.

In January of this year, ETA declared that its four-month-old ceasefire was permanent, and open to verification by international observers. The Spanish government has responded by saying that the offer is too little and has come far too late.

The Socialist government of Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero believes it has ETA on the run and has repeatedly said the only meaningful step the group can now take is to lay down arms definitively. ETA has been severely weakened by the continued arrest of activists since it formally called off its previous ceasefire in June 2007. Spanish and French police have captured the group's senior military leader five times over the past three years, forcing it to reorganize continually. In September it said it had halted "offensive armed actions".

Some 550 members of ETA are held in Spanish and French jails, with up to a third of prisoners now calling on the group to give up its campaign of bombing and shootings, which has claimed more than 800 lives over five decades.

At the same time, ETA is under growing pressure from its grassroots supporters to abandon violence. Much of that pressure comes from the leadership of Batasuna, ETA's illegalized political ally. Batasuna leaders such as Arnaldo Otegi and Rafa Díez want ETA to end the violence so the party can become legal again. Before being banned, Batasuna and other parties related to it received upwards of 10 percent of local votes and ran many town halls in the northern Basque region of Spain.

The Spanish government's approach to rehabilitating imprisoned ETA activists has hardened over the last three decades. Yoyes never apologized to ETA's victims, nor did she publicly atone for her past actions and the loss of life. But these days, ETA members looking to return to normal life and end their prison sentences early must do a lot more. The 2003 Penal Code spells out very clearly the steps ETA convicts must take.

Principally, this involves condemning violence and making a written apology to ETA's victims. This is what Txelis has now done. As a result he has been given day release from prison, and has a part time job. He now says that he is prepared to meet the families of his victims to ask their forgiveness in person. So far, none of the families involved have made a decision.

At present there is no official procedure by which men and women like Txelis can meet with the families of their victims to ask forgiveness in person or in writing. For the moment, such communication would have to be channeled through the judge overseeing each individual's case. Upcoming legislation related to the victims of terrorism would pass this responsibility on to the High Court's Victims' Office. The head of that office, Judge Ángel Juanes, believes that "it would be a good idea" if his office were in charge of handling requests by the families of victims who wanted to meet former ETA activists who had renounced violence.

So far, no such meetings have taken place, although a man convicted of murder has written a letter to the son of his victim. The procedure was carried out via the Guipúzcoa provincial court.

Yoyes' sister, Gloria, says that she was surprised to learn that Txelis wanted to apologize for his actions.

"It's been so long, we never thought about it - we never thought something like this would happen. I would have to talk to the rest of the family. We would have to decide if we wanted to see him. But so far, there has been no official or formal request to meet Txelis. But if we were to meet him, my question would be why he has waited this long. Everybody knows us, and where to find us. We have received letters addressed simply to "the mother of Yoyes, Ordizia." Txelis isn't just anybody. Before the killing, he told a friend of my sister, 'Tell Yoyes to be very careful.' That was when we still thought that ETA was not capable of doing something like that."

Gloria says that if Txelis wants to apologize for murdering her sister, then he should do so publicly. "I would never meet with him, but he can apologize if he wants to. They killed her in public, and they should apologize for her murder in public."

"We want to see terrorists' repentance letters," victims' families say

Jailed ETA activists looking to benefit from early-release programs must not only renounce violence, but are also required to formally apologize in writing to the families of the men or women they killed. The apology must also include the families of everybody killed or injured during ETA's five-decade terrorist campaign, which has left more than 800 people dead.

But Ángeles Pedraza, the head of the largest of the 20 or so groups representing the families and victims of ETA's violence, the AVT, says that no families have been contacted by any former ETA members benefiting from early-release programs to apologize for their actions.

Pedraza is demanding that survivors and families of ETA attacks be allowed to see the letters written by repentant ETA activists. At present, this is not possible, but may become possible in the near future through the High Court's Victims' Office. "When we asked to see the letters, we were told that this was not possible because of laws protecting private information, but we are continuing to fight for this," says Pedraza.

"They are in the process of being pardoned, and this is a very important thing, they can't just get away with some overall apology. We'll see if those affected want to read the letter or not, or if there are other ways that they can make amends for what they have done. But we should at least have the right to see the letters," Pedraza continues.

"When my father was killed, the whole country knew about it. Now I want the whole country to know that his killer has asked for forgiveness," says Daniel Portero of the Dignity and Justice group, which also represents victims and families of ETA's terrorism. "They can ask as much as they like, but I will never forgive or forget the killers. Not making their apologies public is protecting them instead of the victims," he argues. Portero believes that the letters should be kept by the High Court.

In November 2010, the different groups representing the victims of ETA terrorism called on the government to make sure that any former terrorist who was part of early-release programs "accept direct responsibility for all harm that he or she, and ETA has caused." It highlighted the importance of a public apology, and the need to provide victims and their families with access to any written statements by former ETA activists.

There is no mention in the victims associations' statement of a personal apology. Few families or victims seem interested in meeting the men and women responsible for destroying their lives and killing their loved ones. The family of Manuel Broseta, an academic and former member of the government murdered by ETA in 1992, has said it does not want to meet Txelis, the man who ordered the killing.

"There is no doubt that it is better for somebody who has done terrible things to ask forgiveness than for them not to repent," says Manuel Broseta's son Pablo. "But at this stage an apology doesn't mean much to me. Our children have grown up without a grandfather. The only thing that interests me now is for ETA to lay down its arms. But a personal apology... that doesn't mean much to me. It's not about hate. But it would just be easier, as well as less emotional, if I didn't have to meet him. It would make no sense. It just brings back the pain of the past."

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