The way he saw it, he had four options — and he had discarded the first three. He wouldn’t pay, he wouldn’t negotiate, he wouldn’t flee.
It was April 1980 in San Sebastián, summer was on its way and Real Sociedad were top of the league — within touching distance of a first-ever title. Life was good, or at least it should have been, but Juan Alcorta, a 60-year-old local businessman, had been preoccupied of late, ever since the letter had arrived. The envelope bearing that unmistakable stamp — a snake wound around an axe alongside the motto “ETA bietan jarrai“, “ETA keep on both” — the serpent symbolising the political struggle and the axe the armed.
That axe had been sharpened of late. Spain was transitioning into a modern, western democracy at last but ETA’s violent pursuit of Basque independence had become more bloody than ever. Over a quarter of all ETA killings occurred in the period between 1978 and 1981.
Such an onslaught required resources and the most common ETA tactic was to look amongst their own, targeting businesses small to large throughout the Basque Country demanding the payment of a ‘revolutionary tax’.
Alcorta was, in many ways, a classic target. A successful businessman, he was the founder and president of Bankoa bank, Koipe – an olive oil brand and Savin – a group of wineries that mass-produced even now recognisable supermarket brands such as Campo Viejo. There was even an Alcorta wine brand which continues to this day — their latest label designs paying homage to its founder’s personality.
And a notable personality he was around the beautiful beach resort of San Sebastián in the 60s & 70s. Well-known and well connected to say the least. His brother, Patxi, was a bar owner popular with the sportsmen and celebrities that flocked to his establishment ‘Irutxulo’, the place to be in the Old Town. Revellers invariably left happy, merry from the hospitality and the good Basque wine — the lucky few with Patxi’s trademark gift, a classic Basque beret, perched upon their heads.
Patxi had also invented a unique tradition that still survives on match-days in San Sebastián. To allow the fishermen in the Bay of Biscay to follow la Real at sea, he struck upon the idea of launching fireworks after each goal — one if the away side had scored, two if la Real had. Local police, unimpressed, regularly fined Patxi until the tradition caught on and continues to this day.
With his business acumen and popular in the social circles of the day, Juan Alcorta was in ETA’s eyes a ‘bourgeoisie’ and as such a more than legitimate target for the revolutionary tax. Indeed, according to Alcorta, that was the sole justification contained within their demand for a payment of 20 million pesetas — a sum equivalent to around €600,000 today.
These extortionate demands were certainly not rare. Mikel Segovia of El Independiente reports that around 10,000 such threats had been made to the Basque business world up until the point that ETA declared a ceasefire in 2010. Despite their ubiquity, the effect on the recipient was usually to push them into a pensive solitude — weighing up their options in silence and hiding the threat from their families, business partners and even close friends.
If the price of compliance was high so too was the potential price of refusal. By the time ETA had laid down their arms for good they had murdered 33 local businessmen and kidnapped a further 86. Alcorta would have been only too aware of the mortal danger. Horrific stories such as that of Angel Berazadi, the first businessman to be murdered by ETA, his body bound and dumped — rosary beads in hand — on a rural road after almost three weeks of captivity in April 1976 were not uncommon.
Alcorta, however, had weighed up his options and had chosen the last, the only thing that remained was to draw a line under his silent suffering and send his response.
On Tuesday the 29th April 1980, seven separate newspapers published throughout the Basque Country and Navarra carried an open letter from Alcorta to ETA.
“I find the idea of having to pay to save your life revolting.” he wrote. “I’m not a hero – I don’t want to be. I know that with this decision I’m endangering the years I have left to live. But there is something in my conscience, in my way of being, that I prefer anything to giving in to the blackmail which is destroying my land, my people and my country. We have always said that we Basques are not cowards. And as a good Basque, I do not want to be a coward.”
“I have four alternatives in the face of the threat that is literally stated in the letter:
First: Pay up and go on living (for now).
Second: Negotiate, beg for a discount through intermediaries
Third: Escape, flee.
Fourth: Not to pay, not to negotiate, not to run away and to continue living (a lot or a little, I don’t know), although with undoubted anguish, obviously.
I have decided on the fourth”
Alcorta’s powerful letter continued on, urging Basque society to focus and take measures against ETA’s extortions. After a delightful detour where he contested the label of a bourgeoisie he concluded with a flourish.
“ETA: I will continue to live as I have always lived. You will see me at the companies that I am responsible for. You will see me at Atocha applauding la Real. You will see me at a game of pelota. You will see me in some popular society having dinner, happy, with my friends. But perhaps, with a gesture of sadness and tiredness that I didn’t have until now. That you already have achieved.”
“So, you won’t have to look for me, as you say in the letter. I think I must go on with my normal life, so perhaps, and unfortunately for me, it will be very easy for you to find me.”
Five days later, Alcorta was true to his word. He was pictured by several newspapers at Atocha as la Real cruised to a 3-1 win over Malaga that maintained them on top of the league with just two rounds of games remaining — still unbeaten and with a historic first title within their grasp.
The following week, however, la Real faltered disastrously — losing 2-1 at Sevilla to a team that finished the game with nine men. That loss handed the league on a plate to Real Madrid, who duly took care of formalities clinching the title in the final week.
It was a shattering blow for la Real — one still dwelt upon. But just like Juan Alcorta, this superb la Real side was going nowhere. In the following two seasons they gave Alcorta much to applaud with back-to-back titles. The first of which iconically clinched by Jesús María Zamora’s last gasp equaliser in the pouring Gijón rain.
More epic nights in Atocha were to come with Celtic and Sporting Lisbon put the sword in a European Cup run that ended agonisingly with a late semi-final loss to the eventual champions in Hamburg.
La Real’s two year title reign was ended by neighbours Athletic Club who extended what was a golden era of Basque football with back-to-back championships of their own.
That la Real side would live long in the memory – an incredibly talented team that supplied the spine of the Spain side that hosted the World Cup in 1982. Title clinching hero Zamora featuring in Spain’s opening match alongside club-mates Luis Arconada in goal, Periko Alonso — father of future World Cup winner Xabi — in midfield, Jesús Satrustegui and Roberto Lopez Ufarte in the forward line.
Indeed for all the mayhem that ETA were causing it was somewhat of an irony that Spain when hosting the world, would open the tournament with a Basque contingent making up a majority of the starting line-up (Bilbao native José Ramón Alexanko, then of Barcelona, joining the five from Real Sociedad).
Alcorta would live on too. Uncertain of how much time his decision would afford him he must have savoured those glorious days and nights in old Atocha applauding la Real at their peak. ETA’s threats, thankfully, never came to pass and Alcorta lived another twenty-four years — sadly succumbing to Alzheimer’s on the 12th December 2004 at the age of 84.
By some quirk of coincidence or fate, on the night of his death, another talented incarnation of his beloved la Real were in Madrid to face a malfunctioning Real Madrid side. With the two teams level at 1-1 in the 88th minute the game was suspended due to a bomb threat. The Basque separatist newspaper Gara, had received a warning call from ETA who had been active in the Madrid area around that time. The stadium was swiftly evacuated, with the surreal sight of players — still in full kit — waiting in the streets around the Santiago Bernabéu.
Bizarrely, la Real had to return to Madrid a month later to complete the six remaining minutes of game. Real Madrid — now with a different manager in charge— found a winner from the penalty spot in a frenetic sprint finish.
Alcorta was finally at peace. ETA, sadly, were still causing problems.
A full translation of the letter is available here.
Several sources were useful in putting together this article.
“Creo que me van a matar”, la historia no contada del empresariado vasco ante ETA by Mikel Segovia in El Independiente
Mi abuela y diez más by Ander Izagirre