The Great Rupture

Mercedes Cabrera Calvo-Sotelo

6 mins - 11 de Marzo de 2024, 10:45

Twenty years ago today, on 11 March 2004, the biggest attacks in our history took place in Madrid. It was barely past 7:30 in the morning, a rush hour when hundreds of people were on their way to the city centre, when a succession of explosions went off at the Atocha, Santa Eugenia, and El Pozo train stations, blowing up several train carriages.  Hardly an hour later it was known that more than a hundred people had died and an untold number were injured. Madrid collapsed. Fear and sadness gripped the streets. In the end, 192 people died and around 2,000 were injured.

All the media interrupted their usual schedules and there was a succession of public statements by political leaders. There was unanimity in attributing responsibility to ETA. The only dissenting voice was that of Arnaldo Otegui, leader of the izquierda abertzale, who denied it: neither the objectives nor the modus operandi could be attributed to the terrorist group. The government’s first appearance, that of Interior Minister Ángel Acebes, did not come until 13:30. He had no doubts about ETA’s guilt. Shortly afterwards, at the time of the news, it was President José María Aznar who appeared to express his solidarity with the pain of the victims: “We will succeed in putting an end to the terrorist group with the strength of the rule of law and with the unity of all Spaniards”, he said, while announcing three days of mourning and the holding of a demonstration the following day, under the slogan “With the victims, with the Constitution, and for the defeat of terrorism”

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It was an unprecedented demonstration, with the royal family, all the political and trade union leaders, representatives of the economy and the media, and hundreds of thousands of citizens in attendance. In the pouring rain, voices were heard asking “Who did it? All the press, with the exception of La Voz de Galicia, had seconded on their front pages the attribution of the attacks to ETA. Later it became known that the editors of the newspapers had received a call from Aznar. But the news coming from outside sowed doubts.

Solidarity with the victims was buried in the political battle. The attacks had taken place three days before a general election. The polls predicted a new victory for the Popular Party, although it might lose its absolute majority. Only a few voices insisted that the gap with the Socialist Party was narrowing. Between 11 and 14 March, Aznar’s government, which had not made the slightest gesture to reach a consensus with the rest of the political forces on a joint response, stretched the attribution of the attacks to ETA until it had no choice but to acknowledge the opening of “other lines” of investigation. The Moncloa had come to the conclusion that ETA’s authorship favoured them electorally, since the fight against it had been one of the cornerstones of their political action. If, on the other hand, it was Islamist terrorism, the large mobilisations that had taken place against Aznar’s decision to join the Iraq war could have negative effects.

At 8 p.m. on the day of reflection, Minister Acebes confirmed the arrests of five suspects, three Moroccans and two Indians. It was heard on their radios and telephones by those who, connected via SMS, had gathered outside the headquarters of the Partido Popular in Calle Génova. “Before voting, we want the truth”, read a banner. At 21:15, the Popular candidate, Mariano Rajoy, came out to denounce the “illegal demonstration”, accusing some “political party leaders” of trying to influence the electorate. Fifteen minutes later, Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba, a member of the PSOE’s electoral committee, appeared on television screens, except for TVE, to deny any involvement and claim that Spanish citizens “deserved a government that did not lie to them”.

On 14 March, while the press confirmed Al Qaeda’s responsibility, the Socialist Party won the elections. The following day, El País published an editorial entitled ‘De la mentira’ (Of the lie): one of the reasons for the ‘electoral reversal’ lay in the ‘sensation of manipulation and deception’ that the electorate had perceived. Four days later, Aznar’s government, in office, delivered a set of documents to the media under the title: “11M: the whole truth, in real time”. It justified its actions by exhibiting reports received from both the police and the National Intelligence Centre. On 3 April, as a result of the effective advances in the police investigation, those who turned out to be the material authors of the attacks, surrounded in a flat in Leganés, blew themselves up in a collective suicide.

The Popular Party did not explicitly deny the legitimacy of Rodríguez Zapatero’s government, but it did not accept defeat. It insisted on defending what had been done, without stopping to consider the bars. The Socialist victory had been made possible by the attacks and by the manipulation of certain media, mainly El País and the SER channel. In the days that followed, there was no hesitation in questioning the actions of some members of the security forces and in looking for “intellectual authors” who were “neither in remote deserts nor in distant mountains”, as Aznar said in the commission of enquiry that was opened in the Congress of Deputies. The conspiracy theory was set in motion, cheered on by media outlets such as El Mundo and COPE, and was maintained without any proof, even in the trial that took place three years later.

It was a legislature of very harsh “tension”, in which consensuses were broken and terrorism was used for the first time as a political weapon, breaking the pact that, at the behest of Rodríguez Zapatero, still in opposition, had proposed to the Popular Party. The unanimous condemnation and solidarity that the attacks had aroused resulted in a profound rupture caused by a big lie for which no apology has ever been asked.
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