Original: Eduardo Angulo (2017) Los asesinos. Translated and adapted by Julio Nicanor Ozores, M.D.

They were not killed by delinquents

who’d had a life of trauma,

nor by sadists sunk in the abysses of sex.

Their executioners were not barbarians

inhabited by notions of genocides,

nor slaves to sects that annul reason.

They were not killed by the madness that cities

sometimes engender.

The horror was the handiwork – history repeats –

of scrupulous functionaries.

José Ovejero, in “El Estado de la Nación” (2002)

How can someone end up an assassin? Throughout history it has largely been ordinary, normal people whose social environment led them to justify violence against others. In cases involving individual murders, it is important to distinguish between a criminal murderer, who kills as part of a habitual way of life, and those who may commit a singular act in the midst of an otherwise law-abiding life. But then again, ordinary law-abiding citizens are capable of an abundance of killing during wars and genocides. During wartime, it is memorably illustrated in the 1941 Hollywood classic “Sergeant York”, where a pacifist recruit (played by Gary Cooper) reconciles himself to killing German soldiers aplenty. In the midst of genocides, we have the recent horrors of the Third Reich in the 1940’ and the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda in the 1990’s.

Gary Cooper in a scene from Sergeant York (1941)

The neuropsychologist Robert Hanlon, who specializes in the neuropsychology of violent aggression, has classified murderers as falling into two groups. Impulsive murderers act under the sway of emotions such as fear or anger. They have a low frustration tolerance, reacting to mishaps or unexpected difficulties with undue violence. Premeditative murderers depend on a sustained motive for their crime, act with precise intention and are not as subject to emotionality. They plan carefully, take their time, and may kill more than once if it suits their interests. Impulsive murderers have a lower IQ (average 79), tend to have cognitive problems (about 59% of the time), psychotic tendencies (about 34%), and act under the influence of drugs of alcohol (93% at the time of the crime). Premeditative murderers have a higher IQ (average 93), are more prone to psychotic tendencies (61%), have some cognitive problems as well (36%), and act under the influence of drugs or alcohol as well, but somewhat less often (76%). Another expert, criminologist Matt DeLisi of Iowa State University, reviewed the cases of 18 homicides committed by perpetrators under the age of 18, and found that they tended to have a low IQ, that they were exposed to violence and weapons in their day-to-day life, and that they were quite conscious of the fact they were raised in a chaotic environment.

Thus we see much violent behavior is associated with environmental factors such as poverty, unemployment, educational difficulties, that together with personal characteristics combine to facilitate violent outcomes. Among such personal characteristics are biological variabilities that may predispose individuals to impulsivity or aggressivity. Let’s review a few findings.

On average, individuals prone to antisocial aggression and impulsive behavior have lower levels of serotonin in the brain. Similar relationships between serotonin and aggression have been observed in other species as well. Now, in humans, low brain serotonin levels predict impulsive aggression, but not premeditated aggression. And not only other-directed aggression – low serotonin is also associated with impulsive suicide.

Serotonin is synthesized in only one small region of the brain, but neurons from this region project to many other parts of the brain, where they modulate their activity. The hypothesis is that serotonin signaling to the amygdala and other parts of the limbic system modulates the effects of dopamine – the other famous neurotransmitter – on reward functioning, enhancing the effect of dopamine on goal-directed behavior.

Now, the picture is quite complicated, because, while studies that measure serotonin in the body or manipulate its levels with drugs do associate low serotonin with increased aggression, studies of gene variants involved with the synthesis, synaptic function and degradation of serotonin sometimes suggest a contrary association. This discrepancy has been explained as a matter of developmental compensation: gene variants that result in persistently high levels of serotonin at brain synapses may produce structural changes in the developing brain.

Other biological quirks have been documented in violence-prone adults. Violent psychopaths have amygdalae that are smaller than normal, which fits in this case not with impulsive violence but with low fear and unemotional instrumentality (cold bloodedness).

We will look at two cases of assassins. The first case exemplifies a cold-blooded, premeditated murder, the second one how a conjunction of ideology and personal factors led to the killings of many – and how the media gave a tabloid-style spin on the story of a notorious female terrorist.

Nathan Leopold y Richard Loeb: Assassination, Übermenschen– style

Richard Loeb and Nathan Leopold

They were geniuses, wealthy, respectable, intelligent university students who had plenty of time and money. They longed to prove they were smarter than everyone else. They planned and executed what they thought would be the perfect crime, but made stupid errors, were caught, and ended up in prison. They barely escaped hanging due to a brilliant defense contrived by Clarence Darrow, the famous attorney, who argued against the death penalty in general and advocated for penal reforms to rehabilitate delinquents.

Leopold and Loeb were born in Chicago, Leopold in 1904 and Loeb in 1905. They were only in their late-teen years at the time of their crime. Leopold was a gifted child who started speaking at the age of four months, had an IQ of 200 and spoke several languages. He had been admitted to Harvard Law School after graduating from the University of Chicago, and was an expert, if amateur, ornithologist. He intended to start law school after a tour of Europe and after his notorious crime.

Loeb, meanwhile, was also academically distinguished. He graduated from the University of Michigan at age 18 – the youngest to graduate ever. After completing some postgraduate courses, he too was set to start Harvard Law School.

Both Leopold and Loeb were fanatic followers of Nietzsche, especially of Nietzsche’s concept of the Superman, or Übermensch. In a letter to Loeb, Leopold writes “”A superman … is, on account of certain superior qualities inherent in him, exempted from the ordinary laws which govern men. He is not liable for anything he may do.” Both liked expensive cars, smoking and drinking bootleg liquor (remember this was during the era of the Prohibition). Both youths lived in Kenwood, a wealthy Jewish neighborhood in the south of Chicago; their houses were two blocks apart.

They shared similarities in intellectual brilliance and ambition and in deeming themselves Übermenschen, but their personalities were quite different. Leopold was disagreeable, somewhat pedantic, a studious loner who only felt at ease among his birds. Loeb was good-looking, sociable, a fraternity jock who liked athletics, partying and hanging around with girls. Loeb was also a great aficionado of detective novels, denoting a taste that seems in line with his motivations to plan, commit and conceal a “perfect crime”. Together with Leopold, they began to practice for their perfect crime by committing minor robberies, culminating in planning kidnapping and murdering their neighbor (and distant relative of Loeb), 14-year-old Bobby Franks.

For seven months they planned the kidnapping, especially how to retrieve the ransom money – always the trickiest part of the deal. Finally on May 21, 1924 they put their plan in action. They rented a car, and while one of them drove, the other one sat in the back. They found Bobby walking home from school and persuaded him to get in the car. Whomever sat in the back seat (it was never clear) struck Bobby with the haft of a chisel and suffocated him by stuffing rags into his throat, finishing him off. Notwithstanding the prosecutor’s insinuation, It was established during the trial that no sexual assault had taken place.

The assassins then drove to Wolf Lake near Hammond, Indiana, in the outskirts of Chicago. They threw the victim’s clothing into a roadside ditch, doused the body in hydrochloric acid to make it difficult to identify, took a break fortifying themselves by consuming some hot dogs, and finally threw the body into a railroad culvert north of Wolf Lake.

They returned to Chicago and called Bobby’s mother (the father was already out in the streets, searching for the child), telling her that her son had been kidnapped and demanding a $10,000 ransom for his return. The next day the parents, who had already notified the police, received a ransom note, whose demands they were all too willing to meet.

Meanwhile, Leopold and Loeb, back at home, burned their blood-stained clothes, and tried to clean up the blood stains on the upholstery of the rented car. They spent the rest of the day playing cards, awaiting the conclusion of their “perfect plan”.

The body was found and when the news reached Leopold and Loeb this motivated them to cover up more evidence. They burned the sheet they had used to wrap the body, and destroyed the typewriter used to write the ransom note- a futile gesture because it was the typewriter that Leopold had used to write up his class assignments. Meanwhile, a detective found, by the railroad track a few feet away from Bobby Franks’ body, a peculiar pair of glasses that had a patented spring on the mounting for the bridge of the nose. These special glasses had been sold in only one place in Chicago, and had been purchased by only three people, one of whom was Nathan Leopold. During questioning in the trial, Leopold declared he had lost them weeks before, during one of his ornithological outings to Wolf Lake. Loeb tried to fortify their alibi declaring they had spent the night in Leopold’s car, together with two women, whose names they did not know. But the Leopold family chauffer declared that in fact he had been working on the car in the garage that night.

The interrogatories continued. The police, who were sure Leopold and Loeb were guilty, were under the enormous pressure of public opinion, and in turn they pressured the defendants. Loeb confessed first, and shortly thereafter Leopold. Their confessions largely coincided, except on one point: each accused the other of having dealt the mortal blow. It was never settled which story was correct. Most at the time were sure it had been Loeb, despite the fact that a witness testified he had seen Loeb in the driver’s seat, and Leopold in the back, in the rental car, shortly before the kidnapping.

The trial started on July 24, 1924. To the Chicago press the whole matter was seen as “The Crime of the Century”; the trial itself would be regarded as one of several “trials of the century” in the United States. Loeb’s family managed to hire the brilliant defense attorney Clarence Darrow, whose fame would grow the following year due to the so-called “Monkey Trial”, where he would defend John Scopes for having taught the theory of evolution. In the Leopold and Loeb trial, to everyone’s surprise, Darrow advised the accused to plead guilty, thus bypassing a jury trial and leaving all the responsibility in a sentencing trial in the hands of one individual, the Cook County Judge, John R. Caverly.

Darrow’s closing argument took two days during which he spoke for almost twelve hours. It is considered the most brilliant speech of his career. He presented arguments such as “Why did they kill little Bobby Franks? Not for money; not for spite; not for hate. They killed him as they might kill a spider or a fly-for the experience. They killed him because they were made that way. Because somewhere in the infinite processes that go to the making up of the boy or the man something slipped, and these unfortunate lads sit here hated, despised, outcasts, and the community shouting for their bloodIf this boy is to blame for this, where did he get it? Is there any blame attached because somebody took Nietzsche’s philosophy seriously and fashioned his life on it? And there is no question in this case but what that is true. Then who is to blame? The university would be more to blame than he is…Your honor, it is hardly fair to hang a 19-year-old boy for the philosophy that was taught him at the university.”

Meanwhile the psychiatrists who examined the accused, both on behalf of the prosecution and defense, came to contradictory conclusions. On the side of the prosecution, they tried to find some organic deficits, which they could not do. On the side of the defense, they claimed to find childhood trauma. Between the confusing testimony of psychiatrists and Darrow’s advocacy, doubt was planted in the judge’s mind regarding the justification for hanging the confessed killers.

Finally, on September 10, Judge Caverly sentenced Leopold and Loeb to life imprisonment plus 99 years – life for the murder, and 99 years for the kidnapping. The sentencing was broadcast live on Chicago radio, paralyzing the city, It was the first time that a judge would deem the accused not entirely responsible for their actions partly because of “hereditary traits”- echoing Darrow’s case that the youngsters were as “broken machines”. But the questions people asked at the time were never answered: Did Leopold and Loeb kill because they were just spoiled adolescents? Examples of Nietzsche’s Übermenschen? Profoundly mentally disturbed? Or even, as someone said of Leopold at the time, a “philosopher- assassin”?

Years later, in 1936, Loeb was stabbed to death in prison by a fellow convict. His body evidenced over 50 stab wounds. It was rumored that the murder was precipitated by conflicts over money or a sexual proposition, but whether it was related to money or sex and if so who had propositioned whom was never cleared up.

Leopold was imprisoned for 33 years during which time he became a model prisoner working on projects to improve the prison. He was granted parole in 1958. He wrote a memoir, Life Plus Ninety-Nine Years, moved to Puerto Rico, married a widow, worked as an assistant X-ray technician, took classes in the University of Puerto Rico, conducted research on leprosy at the School of Medicine, and published a book on the birds of the island. He died of a heart attack in 1971, at the age of 66.

Let us now review the story of someone involved in multiple assassinations, whose crimes were supported by an organization and self-justified by ideology. And, much debated in the media, perhaps by personal characteristics,

Idoia López Riaño, alias “The Tigress”: The ETA Enigma

Idoia López Riaño

Idoia López Riaño, also known as “La Tigresa” or “The Tigress” was a famous member of ETA, the Basque nationalist paramilitary organization that carried out kidnappings, bombings and assassinations in pursuit of its goals. While an active member of ETA, she participated in many political assassinations for which she was finally apprehended, tried, and condemned to a prison sentence that ended in 2017.

We don’t know how much truth there is to the legendary image of “La Tigresa” that media has presented to us. What the general public likes to hear, and what newspapermen like to write– and indeed it has been mostly men who have written about her– may be quite different from what López Riaño thinks of herself and her reasons to live the life she has lived. For starters, those newspapermen highlighted her beauty, her confrontations with her superiors, most of whom were men, and her sexual “transgressions” that seemed all the more remarkable for a member of an organization as puritanical as ETA. Although there are also women, such as Times of London correspondent Anne McElvoy, who wrote in a similar vein, describing how during López Riaño’s capture in France in 1995, she looked “like Mediterranean cinema star” capable of looking good even during a shootout. It is evident that for the media her appearance and behavior are more titillating than her ideas or her political objectives. “The Tigress” herself realizes this, and may even make use of it, for instance when she has been photographed in courtrooms. Sundry aspects of her life appear in tabloid-style press – her romantic life, whether she is married and to whom, whether she had a liaison with a policeman or a night out in a discotheque.

For her part, López Riaño energetically counters that the tabloid focus on her looks and sexual life is one more strategy to discredit and delegitimize her. In her own words, “that image of physical or moral rot has nothing to do with me, neither my personal life nor my life as a militant. What it does have to do with is misogyny. All those epithets, nicknames and scarlet letters, all that fury with which they try to rip me apart are supposed to humiliate me or have me feel that I’m part of some feminine ilk that is swarming in the Basque National Liberation Movement. But instead they are phantoms and obsessions of the Spanish police and the Civil Guard, of their state-sponsored terrorist disinformation apparatus.

López Riaño was born in San Sebastián on March 18, 1964. Her parents were from the Spanish provinces of Salamanca and Extremadura. Until the age of 16, as far as is known, she led the ordinary family and school life of most adolescents, spending summers with her parents in the Salamanca town where her father was born. But two years later, via her first boyfriend José Ángel Aguirre, she joins ETA and the “Comando Oker”.

Soon thereafter a series of political assassinations follows. The first one in which López Riaño intervened was that of Joseph Couchot, a French citizen, whom the ETA accused of belonging to GAL – or “Grupos Antiterroristas de Liberación”, death squads that were secretly financed by a group of Spanish officials to counter ETA. A few months later, two more assassinations by ETA followed, including that of a policeman. Then López Riaño’s boyfriend was caught during a robbery, and López Riaño fled to France. By that time some were calling the couple Bonnie and Clyde because of their bank heists – whose aim was financing ETA.

It is around this time that the legend of “La Tigresa”, or The Tigress, begins, when, although based in France, she’d spend weekends in San Sebastián with her gang. The legend was fed by her spectacular beauty – “with dark make-up marking her eyes, fuchsia lipstick, and great pendant earrings that tinkled when she shook her dark wavy hair”, as Anne McElvoy would describe her – and by stories of sexual adventures where, the tabloid press rumored, she would haunt discotheques in search of a policeman to take as lover for the night, having no qualms to shoot the policeman’s buddy the next day were it her assignment. Besides remarking on her beauty and passions, she was also described as not intelligent, as adventuresome, haughty, coquettish, and undisciplined.

In April of 1986 she joins ETA’s Madrid commando and its notorious ETA leadership. In June 1986 she participates in the assassination of lieutenant colonel Carlos Besteiro and others who were riding with him in the same car. This attack was described by Miguel Soares Gamboa, a repentant ex-member of ETA, as a grotesque and bloody affair that was marked by Lopez Riaño’s “hysteria” and “nerves”. This was during an era when ETA was strategically targeting Madrid. Its attentats culminated a month after the assassination of Besteiro in the greatest massacre in its history, when it detonated a car bomb in Madrid’s Plaza República Dominicana. Aiming at a convoy of Civil Guards, they killed twelve and injured thirty-two.

International transfers followed for “La Tigresa”, first to France, then Argelia, then returning Spain just before the Barcelona Olympics. By then she was integrated into ETA’s Levantine commando under José Luis Urrosolo. It was rumored that she functioned as a mole, spying on behalf of ETA’s maximum leader, Francisco Múgica Garmendia, who did not trust Urrusolo and thought him little more than an imbecile.

By 1991, the grand total of assassinations in “La Tigresa”’s curriculum, as part of three commandos, amounted to 23. She was arrested on August 28, 1994 in Aix-en-Provence, together with her romantic companion, the Frenchman Olivier Lammotte, and served time in French prisons until she was extradited to Spain in 2001. She and other ETA women imprisoned in France wrote a letter to the Basque daily newspaper, Gara, speaking of extraditions, torture, and ending with the salutation “In the meantime, Euskal Herria… resisting.”

Once in Spanish prisons, she was kept under detention sometimes serving sentences and sometimes awaiting trials. She justified her participation in the assassination of Ángel Facal, a drug-addicted seaman, declaring that “ETA maintains certain values, and no one here mentions the children victimized at the school where he (Ángel Facal) was trafficking heroin to ensure a future clientele. No one here mentions the profits that the State would glean from this trafficking – we all know about that.”

In 2002, she went on trial for her participation in the 1986 Plaza República Dominicana bombing. At that point she was not repentant, declaring “As long as you stubbornly try to assimilate us into this monstrosity of a State, just as long we shall stand up against you, until you let Euskal Herria be.”

But in fact she had been growing apart from ETA’s leaders, its objectives and its attentats. On July 2010, she forsook her allegiance to ETA, and the organization countered by expelling her in 2011. She was released from prison in June 2017 after serving all her stipulated sentences.

How does the image of “La Tigresa”, then, that comes to us via the media compare with how other female terrorists are depicted? In general, accounts of violent women often fit into legends, beloved by many, that they have an unbridled sex life. Sweta Madhuri Kannan remarks on various categories of this tendency, noting specifically on the case of “La Tigresa”:

“ (One type of representations of women terrorists) tend(s) to be underlined by a notion of ‘deviant’ sexuality. La Tigresa, a female terrorist affiliated with the Basque nationalist and separatist organization Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (ETA) is described as ‘cruising discotheques for young policemen for one-night stands and then calmly pumping bullets into others a few days later’. This account characterizes La Tigresa as actively pursuing her own sexual pleasure, while being unnaturally cold-blooded at the same time. According to Gentry and Sjoberg, such illustrations are part of a larger ‘whore narrative’. They argue that women portrayed as irrationally violent tend to be associated with wayward, dysfunctional or perverted sexuality. In such cases, female sexuality is highlighted as a causal explanation for female violence.

Individuals who participate in terrorist acts are, in general, normal representatives of the population , of mid-level socioeconomic status and educational achievement, and have personalities that do not stand out amidst their peers. That being said, they and their peers may have been raised in environments more accustomed to violence. They are usually younger, and by the time they commit some act of terror have been indoctrinated into a political ideology or religious fanaticism. Then, they join an organization that supports them and encourages them. Lastly, they may have idiosyncratic or personal motives beyond the religious or ideological, such as a desire for vengeance, resentment, or desires borne of “inherited hatreds” for other groups. Thus there are two pillars that support their behavior: their particular social surround with its encouragement and support, and the individual psychology, including altruistic motivations for sacrifice for the common good.


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Hodgins, S. et al. 1996. Mental disorder and crime. Evidence from a Danish birth cohort. Archives of General Psychiatry 53: 489-496.

Larson, E.J. 2010. An American tragedy: Retelling the Leopold-Loeb story in popular culture. American Journal of Legal History 50: 119-156.

McElvoy, A. 1995. The trapping of a Tigress. Times of London. 9 September.

Murray, J., P.C. Hallal, G.I. Mielke, A. Raine, F.C. Whermeister, L. Anselmi & F.C. Barros. 2016. Low resting heart rate is associated with violence in late adolescence: a prospective birth cohort study in Brazil. International Journal of Epidemiology doi: 10.1093/ije/dyv340

Nacos, B.L. 2005. The portrayal of female terrorists in the media: Similar framing patterns in the news coverage of women in politics and in terrorism. Studies in Conflict & Terrorism 28: 435-451.

Olmos, M. 2010. El conspirador torpe. El País 30 mayo.

Ramirez, J.M. 2007. Neurorreguladores cerebrales de la agresión. Psicofarmacología de las conductas agresivas. Anuario 2007 Métode 123-127.

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Sáiz-Pardo, M. 2011. ETA expulsa a “La Tigresa” y a su novio por pedir perdón a las víctimas. El Correo 23 noviembre.

Wellman, P.I. 1968. Los fuera de la ley. Luis de Caralt Ed. Barcelona. 399 pp.

Added references

Behave: the biology of humans at our best and worst; Robert M. Sapolsky; New York: Penguin Press 2017

Report of Preliminary neuro-psychiatric examination of Richard Loeb; accessed via Internet Archive:

Homicide in Chicago 1870-1930; accessed via Internet Archive:

Attorney Clarence Darrow’s Plea for Mercy and Prosecutor Robert E. Crowe’s Demand for the Death Penalty; University of Minnesota Law Library (online)

Representation of Female Terrorists in the Western Media and Academia; Sweta Madhuri Kannan; E-International Relations, August 31, 2011

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