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Remembering March 11: The Madrid Bombings and Their Effect on Spanish Government, Society and the Antiwar Movement

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We look at the March 11, 2003 bombings that killed 192 people in Madrid. We speak to a videographer who captured it all on tape, a survivor of the bombing, and a commissioner investigating the attack. [includes rush transcript]

Last March 11th, just three days before Spain was to hold presidential elections, three separate explosions shook Madrid in the early morning. As people were heading to work and school, the blasts ripped apart three commuter trains and killed almost 200 people. Thousands more were wounded. The victims were from all walks of life: students, immigrant workers, parents taking their children to daycare, civil servants heading to their offices, and so many others. The images of the smoldering trains soon went around the world, and within minutes the experts were talking about simultaneous terrorist attacks.

Within a few hours, Spanish prime minister Jose Maria Aznar had called all the major media executives in the country and told them that ETA, the Basque separatist group, was to blame. Such was the conviction expressed by the president that Spain’s largest newspaper, the left-leaning EL PAIS, published a special edition on the day of the attacks with the title ”ETA massacre in Madrid.”

But in the first few hours after the bombings, another version began to circulate in the alternative media: all initial evidence was pointing to Al Qaeda. While the state-owned media advanced the government’s version, just a few outlets began to feed information to the public that pointed in a radically different direction. A van had been found parked at one of the stations containing a tape that had verses of the Koran, as well as identical detonators to one found in an unexploded bomb in one of the trains. A cell phone found next to the unexploded bomb had led police to several Moroccan immigrants already under investigation for ties to Al Qaeda groups. Several arrests had been made. As the evidence pointing to radical Islamic groups mounted, Aznar’s government continued to press its case against ETA.

The day after the bombings, a massive demonstration that had been promoted by the government to protest the attacks turned into a spontaneous antiwar event that condemned both the bombings in Madrid and in Iraq. Finally, on the eve of the elections, thousands of people congregated in front of the headquarters of the governing political party, the PP. They demanded to be told the truth.

The next day, Aznar’s party was ousted from office. Voter turnout was unprecedented, reaching a historic 70 percent.

Today we take a look at what happened on those days. Why Aznar’s government tried to mislead the Spanish public. And we look at the two investigations currently underway: one judicial, conducted by the courts, and one political, carried out by the March 11th commission.

Next week, former prime minister Jose Maria Aznar is scheduled to testify before the March 11th commission in Madrid. This congressional group, which is similar in some ways to the September 11th commission established in the United States, was created to find out how the attacks were planned, and what if anything could have been done to prevent them. The commission is also seeking to find out whether the Spanish government withheld from the public critical information that pointed to Al Qaeda, while insisting that the Basque separatist group ETA was the main suspect.

  • Jesus Ramirez, representative of the Association for the Victims of March 11. Jesus was critically injured in the bombings and spent several days unconscious in intensive care. He is still receiving medical care for his injuries.
  • Gabriela Gutierrez, filmmaker who shot “Four Days in March.” Many of the survivors of the bombings have thanked the filmmakers, they say that the film has helped them to understand what happened that day.
  • Uxue Barkos, a member of Spain’s March 11th Commission.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We turn to Jesus Ramirez, representative of the Association for the Victims of March 11. Jesus was critically injured in the bombings, spent several days unconscious in intensive care. He’s still receiving medical care for his injuries. We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Former Democracy Now! producer, Maria Carrione will be translating for Jesus. Thank you, Maria. Maria lives here in Madrid. Well, Jesus Ramirez, tell us about that day.

JESUS RAMIREZ: That day I went to work like every morning. I’m a very routine man, very much a man of routine. I took the train around 7:30 as every day. And a little bit after getting inside the train, I felt the first explosion. I thought it was something wrong with me. I didn’t think it was a bomb exploding. But about two, three minutes after, the second bomb exploded. It blew my ear drums, and I lost consciousness with that explosion. I only remember that when I got to the hospital, some people who I haven’t been able to unfortunately be able to thank, who were dressed this some sort of a yellow vest, they asked my name. They asked for contact information, a telephone number. I gave them my home and office numbers. Then I lost consciousness again and I did not come out of it for ten days after. In those days, I have a total and absolute void.

AMY GOODMAN: So, you went — you lost consciousness when the prime minister was Aznar? And you woke up in a different Spain?

JESUS RAMIREZ: Exactly. The first thing that my elder brother told me was that another party had won the election. The Socialist Party had won. The truth is, in my state, I didn’t believe it, but the truth is that there is an enormous void. I lost consciousness in one society and really woke up to a different one.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, let’s talk about that gap of time, and let’s do it with Gabriela Gutierrez. You made the film, Four Days in March. Many survivors have thanked you for filling in the gaps in the period that they had lost consciousness. What happened on that morning of March 11? How did you end up doing the filming?

GABRIELA GUTIERREZ: Well, actually, this documentary was produced by a group of four, and we were participating in a documentary cause that was directed by Michael Rodriguez. He’s a teacher at Columbia University. So we had the cameras and everything prepared, because that weekend we were going to start shooting an exercise in the documentary course. So when this happened, obviously at the beginning, was great confusion, and afterwards what anybody does with a camera in your hand, you just go out to film. Purposely we did not get near torture or the victims, because as we work in this we feel that the treatment that the suffering takes on television many times is not correct. You can never — the grief and the suffering is too big, so what we did is we avoided that scene and we just went out to the streets to interview people in bars, cafes, and spent time in the demonstrations or meetings that were held in the street. We never thought that things were going to go building up as they did and that the manipulation was going to start building up on top of this suffering. We could not imagine it. So, we started on Friday thinking that it was going to be Thursday and Friday, and we continued Saturday and Sunday and non-stop those four days.

AMY GOODMAN: Right through the elections.

GABRIELA GUTIERREZ: Right through the elections. I think many victims have thanked us because the images that we have from the street were not shown on the public television, because the manipulation on those medias were also very big.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, tell us what they were doing, the media.

GABRIELA GUTIERREZ: The media only gave what the government was saying, and they only showed the demonstration that took place on Friday night. And that was very led towards the constitution in certain parameters, but the demonstrations that took place in front of Partido Popular of the governing then. They did not show them on television.

AMY GOODMAN: The protests against Aznar’s party.

GABRIELA GUTIERREZ: Yes. This started Saturday 6:00 and continued all through Madrid and then in other cities in Spain until 4:00 in the morning. And it was thanks to this enormous pressure from the citizens that the Spanish government had to start saying, we are detaining some Moroccan citizens, because they have not — what people were seeing on the public channel was: we think it’s ETA, we think it’s ETA, we think it’s ETA.

AMY GOODMAN: La SER. We just spent the morning at a radio station that seemed to be the only one that was regularly reporting against what everyone else was saying, that it was al-Qaeda, and more and more informants came to them since they had broken the crack, broken the sound barrier. People within police talking about the fact that they believed it was al-Qaeda, and not what Aznar was saying?

GABRIELA GUTIERREZ: Absolutely. It was incredible, and the manipulation was so strong on top of the suffering that it was something disgusting. I think that’s why the SMSs and internet mails spread like fire. People went out to the street thanks to that. It was, like [inaudible]said, they were very brave. Also, [inaudible] from Catalonia, and then all of us had to go to other international broadcasters and internet to get what the investigation was leading to. And that cannot happen, you know.

AMY GOODMAN: Gabriela Gutierrez, filmmaker who shot Four Days in March. It hasn’t been shown on television, but in independent film cinemas, it has been shown. And Jesus Ramirez, representative of the Association for the Victims of March 11.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re joined by Uxue Barkos, a member of the Spain March 11 Commission, similar in the United States to the September 11 Commission. You are in the midst of investigating what is happening? What have you found?

UXUE BARKOS: Primarily, an absolute lack of an ability to confront a situation of threat of these dimensions. The police — Spanish police and other forces, were not able to react to such an incredible threat. And we’re looking at two different lines. The first is: What are the political responsibilities for not having detected such an amazing, incredible threat? And, most complicated part that we’re investigating to prove, is what responsibility did the political party in power have in misinforming the public between the day of the attacks and the elections.

AMY GOODMAN: What about that? What about first blaming ETA? In fact, didn’t the Prime Minister, Aznar, convince the United Nations to condemn ETA?

UXUE BARKOS: Not only the United Nations, yes, that happened, but also the government of Aznar also sent a missive, a telegram, to every single embassy — Spanish embassy abroad. So that these embassies would say — only give this line that ETA was to blame for the attacks, when they could not even say that at home yet. In Spain, what they were saying was, that was the prevalent theory; but then after a few hours, that changed for everybody. It’s a question of telling the truth, of being honest, of not trying to twist and manipulate reality for political reasons, which is essentially what happened.

AMY GOODMAN: Uxue Barkos is a member of Spain’s March 11 Commission. Yesterday, the Prime Minister — the former Prime Minister, Aznar, was supposed to testify, but he’ll be doing that next week. What will you ask him?

UXUE BARKOS: It’s a very difficult questioning, because those responsible at the Partido Popular, the P.P., are very set in their thinking about demonstrating some sort of link between ETA and Al Qaeda. And although this is definitely just a screen that’s being put up, if we look at the real investigation and the data obtained by the police and the judges, it looks actually like the screen might be working on a media level. I’m very clear that we must interrogate the former President Jose Maria Aznar. On the political responsibility of who. — a person who was not able to see or warn us about the threat of islamic terrorism here in Spain, a Spanish state.

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