Madrid Train Bombings: A Page Unturned - OZY | A Modern Media Company

Madrid Train Bombings: A Page Unturned

By Andrés Cala


Because not everyone believes the official line.

Eloy Morán was flipping through a newspaper on his way to work when his train stopped outside Atocha Railway Station, Madrid’s busiest, as it often did. He can remember looking at his watch at 7:40 a.m. and closing his eyes for the final approach. Everything was quiet … until he heard a ferocious explosion. 

It was March 11, 2004, just three days before Spain’s general elections, which the ruling conservative Popular Party appeared to have in the bag, when a homegrown terrorist cell of radical Islamists — loosely tied to al-Qaida — detonated 10 bombs on four trains within three minutes of each other. The attack killed 191 and injured another 1,800, and it remains Europe’s second-worst terrorist attack after the Lockerbie plane bombing.

“You would think there would be a lot of noise, people shouting and crying,” Morán, a 66-year-old former interior ministry employee, recalls. But nobody uttered a word. He couldn’t move at first and didn’t understand what had happened. When Morán finally opened his eyes, he couldn’t see anyone, even though the wagon was packed. “It was just iron, silence and destruction” for about 10 minutes before he started hearing voices, he recalls.

I don’t know of any other case in which victims are so divided.

— Ignacio Sánchez-Cuenca, sociology professor at Complutense University of Madrid

He lost vision in his left eye and hearing in one ear. The psychological scars remain, but the worst, he says, is that “they accuse me of being crazy.” Like many Spaniards, Morán still believes there was a huge cover-up after the operation. “I can’t turn a page,” he says, claiming that the official version of what happened is a lie.

Some believe the Basque terrorist group ETA was the real culprit and that political interests were behind the attack — a conspiracy theory that took shape within hours of the blasts when then-Prime Minister José María Aznar squarely laid blame on the group fighting for Basque independence. Three days later, the ruling party candidate, Mariano Rajoy, who also blamed ETA ahead of the vote, narrowly lost the election. (In 2011 Rajoy, who has changed his tune, was elected prime minister and remains in office.) 

The wreckage of a commuter train sits at the Madrid station of Atocha after a bomb exploded.

The wreckage of a commuter train sits at the Madrid station of Atocha after bombs exploded during the 2004 terrorist attack.

Source Sergio Barrenechea/Corbis

The main opposition Popular Party continued promoting the conspiracy theory, echoed loudly by the conservative press, and that injected even more uncertainty into the fray. Its campaign sought to discredit courts, police, intelligence services and the victors, the Socialist Party, which it accused of conspiring to cover up ETA’s role, even after four of the suspects blew themselves up on April 3, when the police cornered them. 

ETA denied any role, and Islamic terrorist cells claimed responsibility in the name of al-Qaida. Osama bin Laden had threatened to punish Spain months earlier over its military support for the U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. Since then, foreign intelligence services, multiple investigations and various courts have corroborated that jihadists acted alone. And the conservative interior minister formally announced last year that the case is closed, for now, but his qualified statement did little to put any politically fueled rumors to bed.

Ignacio Sánchez-Cuenca, a sociology professor at Complutense University of Madrid, says Spain’s case is unique in how the attack was politicized and how that clash was transferred to the victims. “I don’t know of any other case in which victims are so divided,” he says.

Of the victims’ associations, one fully accepts the judicial findings while the other, the one for which Morán serves as treasurer, believes there is more to the story. Their suspicions are echoed throughout some conservative sectors of society — including many prominent politicians and media personalities. The debate and the victims’ pain resurface every year around the anniversary of the bombing, with many grappling with the “lingering question about whether the state deceived them,” Sánchez-Cuenca says.

Morán received an early retirement and dedicates most of his time to helping other victims. “We can’t close [that] chapter,” he says. But with the conspiracy theory not losing much political momentum, such peace of mind can only come when skeptical survivors agree to accept the official line and turn the page.

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