Franco's Forgotten Victims

Article excerpt

Byline: Mike Elkin

Earlier this month, in the town of Aranda de Duero, 100 miles north of Madrid, mourners reinterred the bone remains of 129 family members found in four mass graves. The victims, all men except one, were executed between July and October 1936 by forces loyal to the military uprising that sparked the Spanish Civil War and the dictatorship of Francisco Franco.

All 129 were civilians. The youngest was 16, the oldest 70. When unearthed, they were just skeletons, some still attached to the rubber soles of their shoes. A few buttons and belt buckles remained, bullet fragments too.

Until 2000, 25 years after Franco died and Spain began its transition to democracy, investigating the mass graves littering the countryside was taboo. And even now many Spaniards prefer not to revisit the past. The 37-year-long dictatorship cemented a fear and silence into Spanish culture that has proven hard to break.

To date, none of Spain's democratic governments has assumed responsibility for locating and identifying the more than 120,000 noncombatants lying in roadside ditches and other unmarked tombs.

But recent pressure from both inside and outside Spain, in addition to 13 years of grassroots campaigning by victims' families and volunteers, is changing all that.

The United Nations Committee on Enforced Disappearances recently published a report recommending that Spain, which signed the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance, uncover the fates of Franco's victims.

"The search for victims of enforced disappearances and resolving what happened to them are obligations of the state, even when there is no formal claim," the committee wrote in its conclusion. "Family members have, among others, the right to know the truth about what happened to their missing loved ones."

Citing the U.N. report, nine political parties led by the Socialist party, the governing People's Party's chief rival, presented a motion to parliament to vote on the creation of a "truth commission" that may follow the example of the South African body that explored the horrors of apartheid. The motion also called for the exhumation of Spain's mass graves and the identification of victims in less than two years.

The People's Party, with an absolute majority in parliament, will likely spike the measure, said Jordi Gordon of the Truth Commission Platform, the umbrella group of about 100 victims organizations that lobbied for the motion. The platform will this week be seeking support from members of the European Parliament.

The conservative People's Party, founded by Franco's minister of information and tourism, Manuel Fraga, has rejected outright investigating anything to do with the crimes perpetrated during the civil war and the Franco years. Since taking office in 2011, the government has defunded subsidies once offered for exhuming mass graves.

A spokesperson for the People's Party said it will not comment on the Truth Commission motion until it is presented in parliament. Yet on Spanish television last month, People's Party parliamentarian Rafael Hernando caused widespread offense when he said family members of Francoist victims only remembered their dead relatives when money was available.

A similar campaign is growing in strength in Argentina, where in September a judge issued arrest warrants via Interpol for four former Spanish officials accused of torture during the Franco dictatorship: A former Civil Guard officer, Franco's former bodyguard, an ex-police commissioner, and a former secret police officer nicknamed Billy the Kid. The latter was fined for police brutality during interrogations during the dictatorship. Spain's High Court has already dismissed the warrants for the former bodyguard and police commissioner due to their deaths and will now decide on the extradition of the other two after the Spanish Cabinet did not oppose it last week. …