Spain: Less-lethal weapons and public order: Athletic Bilbao fan killed by a plastic bullet

Support our work: become a Friend of Statewatch from as little as £1/€1 per month.


During celebrations after the return leg of the Europa League quarter-final between Athletic Bilbao and Schalke 04 from Gelsenkirchen (Germany) on 5 April 2012 in Bilbao, 28-year-old Iñigo Cabacas Liceranzu was hit by a plastic bullet fired by the Ertzaintza (the Basque police force). It caused brain damage and he died in Basurto hospital after spending four days in a coma. The official version of events provided by the Basque Country's (Euskadi) councillor for internal affairs, Rodolfo Ares, was very different from that provided by Cabacas' friends and family. Ares claimed that the Ertzaintza had intervened following calls from the public informing them that someone was badly injured with head wounds lying in an alley next to a herriko taberna (left-nationalist social centre) near to the city's San Mamés stadium. When the Ertzaintza intervened, youths started launching missiles at them and they answered by using public order equipment, including the firing of plastic bullets. The victim's friends and family claimed that he fell after he was struck by a plastic bullet that was fired at his head from close distance. In a press conference held on 9 April, members of the left-nationalist coalition Amaiur explicitly blamed the Basque police force, arguing that Cabacas was "the last victim of the crude police violence" that Euskadi "has suffered over the last few decades" and called for Ares to resign for "concealing and manipulating the facts". Following the autopsy, they added "This is not an isolated event, nor can it be considered an accident. Euskal Herria knows all too well what the consequences of police violence are".

A couple from Malaga who were in the social centre noted how the party turned into a riot after two "strange men tried to sow some chaos" and plastic bullets could be heard hitting the blinds outside. Three Ertzaintza riot police vans arrived on the scene, and the couple noted that plastic bullets were flying everywhere, fired at body height. They saw Cabanas after he was injured, and the woman tried to help him, to stop him bleeding from a large injury at the back of his head with football scarves, but felt a large amount of blood when she removed her hand. He vomited after she placed him in a recovery position to prevent him from choking, and lost consciousness. An ambulance then took him to hospital where he died four days later. On 10 April, the autopsy confirmed that Cabanas had died as a result of a plastic bullet striking his head, fracturing his skull and causing a haemorrhage and brain damage. Ares stated that "responsibilities will be ascertained" and the investigation will "get to the bottom" of the matter "at any cost", claiming that he had never ruled out the possibility that a plastic bullet may have caused the injury.

Debate over the use of plastic bullets

The debate also shifted to the use of plastic bullets to maintain public order during disturbances and demonstrations, with constrasting views expressed by Catalan and Basque authorities as to their use. In fact, there had been controversy surrounding the use of plastic bullets during demonstrations in Catalonia over the last year, the latest case during the general strike on 29 March 2012, when two people lost an eye and several people were wounded by plastic bullets including a four-year-old child in a pram. Over 44 people were injured during police charges in a demonstration of more than a hundred thousand people that resulted in 41 arrests. Felipe Puig, head of the Interior Department of the Generalitat (the Catalan government), argued that neither Cabacas' death nor the controversy that followed events in Barcelona on 29 March would have resulted in the Mossos d'Esquadra riot squads changing their "work methods". A week after the Cabanas incident, on 12 April, Rodolfo Ares admitted that there may have been "negligence" in the behaviour of the police units that intervened and that protocols that are in place may not have been followed "strictly". He apologised to Cabacas' family for the death, accepting "political responsibility for what happened", and announced that the Ertzaintza's Seguridad Ciudadana [citizen security] patrols, often deployed to break up demonstrations, will stop using plastic bullets from 1 January 2013, although the Brigadas Moviles [flying squads] will continue using them. Ares argued that it was a good time to "equip ourselves with new material and train officers in its use". He added that an internal investigation would be opened involving all the officers who intervened directly in the operation that resulted in Cabacas' death, to find out whether their actions complied with the Ertzaintza's work methods and to ascertain responsibilities. Juan Varela, the head of the Ertzaintza, denied allegations that Cabacas was shot at close range by arguing that the rubber bullet was not fired less than 20 metres away from him. Nonetheless, guidelines for the use of this ammunition indicate that they should be fired 50 metres away at the ground in order to avoid any direct strikes, and that the rebound should only strike the lower parts of a body, even though their trajectory after the bounce is unpredictable. The Catalan "Stop Bales de Goma" campaign (see below) notes that the force with which bullets are fired is 830 joules, well over the limit of 522 joules of kinetic energy for these weapons to be considered "less-lethal". The threshold for impact from this kind of ammunition to enter the "severe injury region", according to the 1998 STOA report for the European Parliament (see below), is 122 joules.

Basque left-nationalist newspaper Gara highlighted that the Ertzaintza and Interior Department have ignored recommendations and information requests from the Ararteko [Basque ombudsman] following complaints over a "disproportionate use of force when breaking up demonstrations" for several years. In 1998, the Ararteko Xabier Markiegi issued recommendations on the use of force in the street that applied to demonstrations, stressing that force must be a "last resort" in strict compliance with notions of "necessity and proportionality". The Interior Department should also closely supervise "who [uses force] and why" and "how much force is used" in order to make it possible to investigate any abuses. In 2006, Iñigo Lamarca investigated complaints concerning police charges to break up a demonstration in Vitoria-Gasteiz on 3 March 2006 in the light of recommendations made by the previous Ararteko. Lamarca concluded that the competent council department did not provide the information he repeatedly asked for, failed to clear the doubts arising from plaintiffs' complaints about the police intervention, and did not comply with "the recommendations that this institution had issued to enable control over the use of force, which, we believe, has negatively affected the real possibility of discovering what happened". In 2002 the Ararteko raised concerns in his annual report to the Basque parliament over whether the dispersal of a demonstration on 14 September of that year in Bilbao "respected the principles of proportionality and rationality in the use of force by police officers". In 2006, the ombudsman supported a claim for compensation by a man who had lost an eye after he was hit by a plastic bullet. He argued that criteria to establish whether a payment was due should consider whether the Ertzaintza's intervention had been proportionate and, considering that no prior warning that the demonstration should disband had been issued in that case, whether the victim "had the opportunity to abandon the place where he was when the police intervened, or whether he had sufficient time to do so, or whether, once it became apparent how events were turning, he had stayed there...for longer than was reasonable". Other recommendations issued by the Ararteko that were not implemented include a request in 1998 that Ertzaintza officers should be identifiable by wearing plaques bearing their number.

A campaign against plastic bullets and international reports

An Italian, Nicola Tanno, lost an eye as a result of a wound caused by a rubber bullet fired by the Mossos d'Esquadra (the Catalan police force) in Barcelona when he took part in celebrations following Spain's World Cup victory on 12 July 2010 for no reason other than "being in the wrong place at the wrong time". The Mossos d'Esquadra had charged at the crowd to clear a square during what had been a festive occasion. In September 2010, he contributed to setting up a campaign by victims against the use of rubber bullets in Catalonia called "Stop Bales de Goma", whose website includes victim testimonies, a photo gallery of eye injuries and a wealth of technical information, news and reports on these "less-lethal" weapons, including medical reports on injuries suffered by citizens. Since 1990, at least 25 people have reportedly lost an eye in Spain as a result of the impact of rubber bullets, six of them in Catalonia since 2009. No police officers have been found guilty to date in connection with injuries caused by rubber bullets, and Nicola Tanno does not expect his case to go any differently, particularly as the officer responsible has not been identified, another ongoing problem when dealing with police violence during demonstrations in Spain. A press release by the campaign on 2 April 2012, after the disturbances during the general strike on 29 March 2012, raised the possibility that there may be an "eye hunter" in the Mossos d'Esquadra's ranks.

A review of the August 2011 urban disturbances in England entitled "The rules of engagement" by HM Inspectorate of Constabulary noted that "The 1999 Patten Report was critical of the use of plastic bullets in Northern Ireland, citing the deaths and injuries associated with their use and the wider impact of these tragedies amongst communities. Most of the deaths resulted from head injuries, a risk heightened by the weapon's inherent inaccuracy" [5.33, p. 66]. Eleven deaths were attributed to plastic bullets between 1981 and 1989 (and five before that period). Nearly half of those killed were children. The review's following point [5.34] is that developments improving accuracy and reducing injuries led to the use of different kinds of rounds called "attenuating energy projectiles" (AEPs, which followed their predecessors, "baton rounds") but, nonetheless, "They should only be used in a targeted way when absolutely necessary against individuals causing danger, and not fired indiscriminately".

A 1998 European Parliament Scientific and Technological Options Assessment (STOA) report by Steve Wright of the Omega Foundation entitled "An Appraisal of Technologies of Political Control" notes how rubber and plastic bullets were used in Northern Ireland since 1970 but were deemed too dangerous to use on the British mainland until 1985 [p.22]. It cites a 1972 report by Belfast surgeons on 90 people who sought hospital treatment after being hit by rubber bullets, listing their injuries: "three fractured skulls, 32 fractures of the facial bones (nose, jaw, cheek, etc.), eight ruptured eye globes (all resulting in blindness), three cases of severe brain damage, seven cases of lung injury, and one case of damage to liver, spleen and intestine. The overall roll call included one death, two people blinded in both eyes, five with severe loss of vision in one eye and four with severe disfigurement of the face" [p. 31]. A switch to plastic bullets since 1975 in Northern Ireland, whose accuracy was greater, did not change the trend and the STOA report cites a report published in 1983 by Mr. Laurance Rocke, Senior Registrar at the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast, which explained that their propensity to cause more severe injuries to the skull and brain made "plastic bullets even more deadly than the rubber bullets they replaced". In its Resolution of 14 May 1982 the STOA report recommended (no. 5.6(i)) that the committee "consider asking the European Parliament to reaffirm its demand of [13] May 1982, for a ban on the use of plastic bullets".


"The rules of engagement. A review of the August 2011 disorders", HMIC 2011, p. 66

European Parliament Scientific and Technological Options Assessment (STOA) "An Appraisal of Technologies of Political Control", Working document (Consultation version), Luxembourg, 6 January 1998, PE 166 499, Directorate General for Research, by Steve Wright, Omega Foundation, Manchester.

Resolution on a ban on the use of plastic bullets, European Parliament, Official Journal C 149, 14/06/1982, p. 0067.

Stop Bales de Goma (Stop Rubber Bullets) campaign website,

"The Stolen Eyes", photographs by Francesca Oggiano,

Diagonal, no. 172, 18.4.2012; EFE, 10.4.2012; E. Il mensile, 11.4.2012; El País, 10, 16.4.2012; Gara 15.4.2012; Publico, 9-12.4.2012; Repubblica, 12.4.2012. 

Our work is only possible with your support.
Become a Friend of Statewatch from as little as £1/€1 per month.


Spotted an error? If you've spotted a problem with this page, just click once to let us know.

Report error