Identifying Victims of Franco’s Spain

While almost 33 years have passed since Spanish dictator Francisco Franco died in his bed, for the first time Spanish authorities are investigating the unmarked mass graves that hold tens of thousands of his victims. High Court Judge Baltasar Garzón, famous for his legal crusade against Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, has sent an official request to various government archives, the Roman Catholic Church, the keepers of Franco's tomb and the city halls of Madrid, Granada, Cordoba and Seville to hand over any documentation on mass graves relating to the 1936-1939 Spanish Civil War and the subsequent 36-year dictatorship. Garzon wants victims' names and the dates and circumstances of their deaths. "This is the first time Spanish authorities have done something like this and it could be the first step toward a truth commission," said Emilio Silva, founder of the nonprofit Association for the Recovery of Historical Memory. "Spanish politicians like to talk about human-rights cases in other countries, but they never deal with the ones here at home."

Civil war mass graves litter the country. From the onset of the civil war between Franco's rebel Nationalists and loyalist supporters of the Republic until Franco's death in November 1975, an estimated 60,000 Nationalists were killed by Republicans and around 150,000 died at the hands of Franco's forces, mostly during the war. Almost all of the Francoist dead were recovered during the dictatorship, but Franco's victims never received the same treatment, even after Franco died. How many are buried in unmarked graves is now just guesswork, but Silva said the figure is at least 100,000.

The investigations began with Silva's personal quest to find his grandfather, who was shot in October 1936 along with 12 others in Priaranza del Bierzo in León. In October 2000, Silva and a small crew located and excavated the spot, and genetic testing confirmed the elder Silva's identity. Once people heard about the Priaranza 13, they asked Silva to help with their town's graves. To date, volunteer archaeologists, anthropologists and forensics have excavated 120 graves containing around 1,200 people over the past eight years.

Last year, the Spanish Parliament passed the Historical Memory Law to recognize victims of the Franco regime and to remove Francoist symbols from public places. Although the law offers only vague support to citizens who wish to identify and exhume the graves, 1,200 petitions have been filed at the High Court for information on those who "disappeared" between 1936 and 1975, when Franco's soldiers often dispatched dissidents during a paseo, a "stroll" that ended with a bullet in the head and an improvised burial in a ditch. Historical-memory groups have criticized Garzón in the past for working on human-rights cases abroad but ignoring the mass graves in Spain. Last week, for instance, Garzón visited his first mass grave—not in Spain, but in Colombia. He told the local press that "the forced disappearance of people is the worst crime in existence."

After Franco died in 1975, Spanish lawmakers declared an amnesty for those in the regime and focused its attention forward: the Constitution, democracy, Europe. Franco was history, something to read about but not to delve into too deeply. "It will open old wounds," as the conservative Popular Party (PP)—founded by one of Franco's ministers—seems to say every time a civil war or Franco issue emerges. The Spanish government has cooperated with truth commissions in other countries. Last November, the Spanish justice minister traveled to Argentina to sign a pact to help identify the 60 or so Spaniards who disappeared during Argentina's military dictatorship from 1976 to 1983. But it has been reluctant to take charge of identifying mass graves and exhuming victims on Spanish soil.

Silva's group and others that work on the mass graves say the exhumations act as closure for wounds that never healed. Long after Spain's transition from repression to representative democracy, the fear for some never faded. Due to the amnesty, local leaders and police officers kept their posts, meaning that in some cases the victims' families had to live for decades governed by their loved ones' killers. "It was programmed ignorance," Silva said. "It almost made the dictatorship the perfect crime. At one exhumation, a woman told me that she couldn't even bring herself to speak of her grandfather's death with her brother. At another grave, a 71-year-old man told me that he felt like a coward for not recovering the body of his father years ago. The fear was implanted for so long, and it survived 30 years after [Franco's death]."

To date, the political response has been to avoid any involvement in the mass graves and tiptoe around Franco's crimes as if he were sleeping. Zapatero sponsored the recent Historical Memory Law. But the application of the law has been spotty and not as forceful as some would like. Three years ago, when the government removed the equestrian Franco statue next to the Environment Ministry in Madrid, they did it in the middle of the night.

If judge Garzón finds proof of a nationwide, systematic plan to eliminate the regime's enemies, the High Court can assume jurisdiction over the cases, and a subsequent investigation could force the government to take responsibility for any future exhumations. Catalonia has already taken that step. The Catalan regional Parliament is expected to vote soon on a white paper that will permit the regional government to locate, identify and in some cases excavate the 179 known mass graves in Catalonia. Over the past five years, the Catalan government has received 2,161 requests from people for information on the whereabouts of family members.

This summer, Silva's volunteers excavated three graves in the central Burgos region, and it began a fourth Tuesday. In addition to the exhumations, investigators took DNA samples from 100 or so locals to help identify the remains. In the forest outside the village of Vadocondes, volunteers found the grave containing five men: two brothers, a father and son, and another man. Among the skeletons were some belt buckles, the rubber soles of their shoes and bullet casings. Each skull bore a distinct hole.

The same day, in the nearby Aranda de Duero cemetery, the association unveiled a plaque to the 606 documented people who were killed in Burgos. The organizers expected a few dozen people, but about 400 showed up, including victims' relatives from Brazil, Italy, Switzerland, France and Belgium. "I remember the man from São Paulo," Silva said. "He was 79 years old, touching his father's name on the plaque with his finger. His father became someone again after decades of being no one. And the others told me the same thing that I've heard over and over again at the exhumations: 'Now I can die in peace'."