It says much about the life of Xabier Lopez Peña, aka Thierry, that virtually the first time he came into full-scale public view, in May 2008, was also almost the last. Over the previous three decades, Thierry was strongly suspected of becoming a key figure in the Basque terrorist group Eta, and it was only when he was arrested along with three other alleged Eta members in a French police operation that the clandestine existence he had led since the early 1980s came to a definitive conclusion.
Photographed shortly after his detention in a flat in Bordeaux in 2008, the heavily-built, wildly gesticulating Lopez Peña – eyes gleaming fiercely behind his glasses and yelling pro-Basque independence slogans at the television cameras – cast a dramatic figure. And his arrest, viewed in some quarters as the most important since that of Mikel Antxa, the head of Eta's military operations, in 2004, coincided with an equally significant watershed in Eta's four decades of armed struggle.
Described by Spain's then Minister of the Interior, Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba, as the “person with the greatest military and political influence” in Eta, Lopez Peña gained his highest profile outside the group in the midwinter of 2006, when he took over as its representative in increasingly tense negotiations with Spain's Socialist government. As the discussions, held in an Oslo restaurant, continued, Lopez Peña is said to have spectacularly hardened the group's stance, switching the talks' focus to Basque rights to self-determination, undermining progress on questions concerning Eta prisoners and allegedly threatening at one point to turn Spain “into another Vietnam”. Other tactics for raising the stakes, according to the government negotiator Jesus Eguiguren, included asking Eguiguren to call up Prime Minister Jose Luis Zapatero and pass him the phone.
Barely a few weeks later, Lopez Peña was thought to be one of the masterminds behind the abrupt end to Eta's nine-month truce when a bomb exploded in Madrid's Barajas airport in late December 2006, killing two Ecuadorean workers. Following the explosion, what had been the longest peace talks at that point petered out a few months later when Eta formally declared the ceasefire over.
Thierry is said to have joined Eta in 1980. He had a spell in prison, accused of criminal association in 1983, and following his release on bail he went permanently on the run. Around eight years later, in 1991, anti-terrorist sources have suggested that Lopez Peña took control of Eta's zulos [hide-outs] for their arm stashes before police surveillance forced him to flee for a year or so to central America.
On returning, by now a senior member of the group, he is strongly rumoured to have become an Eta quartermaster, running logistical operations within one of its key military sectors. His links to Eta once again came to the fore when he received an eight-year prison sentence in absentia in France alongside 15 other activists, as well as being named in Spain in a separate case as an instructor for a younger Eta member in weapons-handling and bomb-making.
But Lopez Pena's alleged rise towards the heart of Eta leadership came at a price. Reports of a prolonged internal power struggle between him and the even more radical Txeroki, Garitkoitz Aspiazu Rubino – currently on trial in France – started to appear soon after the Barajas bombing.
The conflict with Txeroki only ended when Lopez Peña, formally accused of collaboration with an illegal armed organisation in February 2007, was arrested in May 2008. Facing intensifying police pressure and a quickening succession of arrests of leading Eta members – including Txeroki in November 2008, and apparently in no small part because of documentation found when Lopez Peña was detained – Eta then took its tortuous route towards its most definitive ceasefire to date, in October 2011.
Thierry, seemingly marginalised from Eta's leadership after he was accused of hindering further “actions” by the group, remained in prison in France. Suffering from a heart condition, he died from a stroke in a Paris hospital last week, sparking a wave of protests among support groups at the treatment of Eta prisoners. Meanwhile the spiral of separatist violence, in which “Thierry” was so heavily involved, had already ceased.
Xabier Lopez Peña, Eta activist: born Galdakao, Basque Country, Spain 30 May 1958; died Paris 30 March 2013.