The terrorist called “the Tigress” had “spectacular” blue eyes and mounds of curly black hair. Idoia López Riaño wore skin-tight jeans and leather jackets, and thought nothing of seducing the officers she was assigned to kill. She was so vain that she once put her entire cell of Basque separatists at risk during an attempted terrorist strike because she was busy admiring herself.
But she was also one of the most bloodthirsty members of Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (ETA), an armed separatist group involved in a campaign of bombings and assassinations in Spain between 1968 and 2010.
Pursued by Spanish and French authorities for years, López Riaño was little known outside the Basque Country of northern Spain and southwestern France until two weeks ago — when British novelist Luke Jennings told a literary conference in the UK that he modeled Villanelle, his fictional femme fatale, after López Riaño in the novellas that became the basis for the hit BBC America series “Killing Eve.”
“She was clearly a psychopath and completely, completely without empathy,” said Jennings of the real assassin who killed 23 people in the 1980s and ’90s in Spain.
In “Killing Eve” — the third-season finale of which airs tonight — Emmy winner Jodie Comer plays the glamorous and mercurial Villanelle, a hired assassin obsessed with Eve (Sandra Oh), the MI6 operative pursuing her. Villanelle is ruthless but also incredibly vain. After savagely killing her targets — in one case, hoisting a man upside down by a pulley and disemboweling him — Villanelle treats herself to luxury shopping sprees.
López Riaño, who was also known by fellow militants as “the princess,” shared the same habits. “Idoia was, above everything, a slave to her body and to her hair,” writes Juan Manuel Soares Gamboa in a memoir about his years in ETA. “I never met an ETA militant who was more vain than this woman.”
Once, López Riaño missed a target when she “didn’t actually see him because she was so entranced with the window of a fashionable store and her own reflection,” Jennings said.
López Riaño was born in San Sebastian, a city on the northern coast of Spain, in 1964. As a child, she dreamed of becoming a firefighter. Instead, at 18, she was recruited to ETA by her boyfriend, a member, just as the group launched a civil war that would result in more than 800 civilian and military casualties throughout Spain.
“I became involved with ETA at a very young age,” López Riaño told a court. “I was full of romantic and idealistic ideas, and those who recruited me knew straight away how to make me choose: ‘Would you prefer to save a few people as a firefighter or a whole town? We need committed kids like you.’”
In her early days with the group, she had a string of lovers, including a policeman who learned she was part of ETA when he saw her on TV — after she killed his colleagues.
“Idoia was, above everything, a slave to her body and hair.” – Fellow militant Juan Manuel Soares Gamboa
Savvy and ambitious, the young militant longed to prove herself to the upper echelons of the separatist group and, on Nov. 16, 1984, participated in her first killing. Along with her ETA boyfriend Jose Angel Agirre and two other comrades, she stole a car at gunpoint and drove to a restaurant in Irun where their target — French businessman Joseph Couchot, suspected of financing a group of paramilitaries formed by Spanish authorities to kill ETA fighters — was in the middle of his lunch. López Riaño and her comrades shot Couchot six times, “finishing him off with a coup de grace as he lay on the floor,” according to “Dirty War, Clean Hands: The ETA, the GAL and Spanish Democracy” by Paddy Woodworth.
López Riaño was a rising star in ETA, and soon elevated to an elite cadre of assassins. During her first five months with the Madrid Command she participated in 20 murders, including the bombing of the Plaza Republica Dominicana in Madrid on July 14, 1986, which killed 12 people.
But she soon became a nuisance. López Riaño delayed an operation because she lost a shoe, and another had to be postponed because she needed a pregnancy test.
In one instance, she showed up to work without her gun, but was unrepentant when she was chastised by her commanders for putting the entire cell at risk.
“What do you want me to do?” she said, shrugging her shoulders. “I forgot. Period.”
Like Villanelle, she could be reckless. During a hit against a group of military operatives in June 1986, López Riaño grew tired of holding her submachine gun as she waited for a car carrying her targets to pass, and started to shoot indiscriminately, Soares Gamboa recalled. The officers died in a hail of submachine gun fire in the car that was transporting them to dinner.
In addition to her entitled attitude and reluctance to follow basic rules, López Riaño presented another problem for ETA. In his memoir, written with the journalist Matias Antolin, Soares Gamboa recalled that her stunning features — her “spectacular” blue eyes and “voluminous hair” — attracted too much attention on hits.
“It took 20 days of deliberations, 1,000 French francs for brown contact lenses, and countless meetings to convince her that she should alter her physical appearance because we had to go unnoticed,” he said. “She could not move in Madrid because she would attract too much attention … None of us wanted to accompany her.”
Exasperated with her insubordination, constant clubbing and revolving door of lovers, ETA leaders forced López Riaño into exile in Algeria, where she lived under the alias Tania. She continued to wear tight jeans and leather jackets, according to press reports.
After five years, ETA moved her to the south of France, where she was arrested in 1994. In 2001 she was extradited to Spain and later tried for the murders of 23 people. She was originally sentenced to 2,000 years but the maximum any prisoner can serve under Spanish law is 30 years. So she was released in 2017 after 23 years — one for every person she killed.
While in jail, López Riaño married twice. In 2011, she was formally expelled from ETA after publicly condemning their use of violence and issuing an apology to her victims.
Her current whereabouts are unknown. None of the families of her victims believed she was ever sorry for what she had done.