Police inspector Antonio Gonzalez Pacheco retired with honours for extraordinary service to his country. ‘We called him Billy the Kid. He had the habit of walking with a pistol in hand,’ remembers José María Galante. ‘He was a compulsive torturer.’
José Galante fell into Pacheco’s hands in 1971, when he was 22, for protesting against the dictatorship of Francisco Franco. He still finds it difficult to detail the beatings on genitals, kicking and waterboarding he suffered in a basement torture chamber in Madrid’s city centre. ‘Years later, I still wake up in a cold sweat at those memories,’ he says.
He dreams of seeing his torturer in the dock. Instead, Pacheco lives a comfortable life in a nice apartment in Madrid, less than a mile away from his victim.
Attempts to prosecute Pacheco have stalled because of Spain’s Amnesty Act. In 1977, the law was jointly approved by supporters and opponents of the dictatorship as one of the key elements of the country’s peaceful transition to democracy after Franco’s death in 1975.
At least 114,000 people disappeared and further tens of thousands died in concentration camps and jails or were executed following farcical trials during the 1936-39 civil war and the dictatorship that followed. Female prisoners were raped and publicly humiliated. Some 30,000 babies were taken from those who opposed the dictatorship and placed in institutions or families loyal to Franco.
Not a single perpetrator has been put on trial. The cases brought before Spanish justice have been automatically shelved.
Judge Baltasar Garzón, famous for ordering the arrest of Chile’s dictator Augusto Pinochet, was an exception. In 2008 he opened an inquiry into crimes against humanity during the Franco era. Within two years, his investigation was shut down and Garzón stood in court accused of overstepping his judicial authority.
With avenues to justice shut in Spain, José Galante and hundreds of other victims pinned their hopes on the principle of universal jurisdiction, under which certain crimes, because of their magnitude, transcend borders.
‘The first phase of Francoism was clearly genocide. Later it evolved from extermination into systematic repression,’ says the victims’ lawyer, Carlos Slepoy.
In 2010, Argentinean judge María Servini de Cubría agreed to investigate the allegations. She has issued arrest warrants against two dozen Franco-era officials. Among them are Pacheco and former ministers Rodolfo Martín Villa, accused of ordering the shooting of striking workers in 1976; and José Utrera Molina, singled out for garroting activist Salvador Puig Antich in 1974.
However, the Spanish government has rejected the extradition requests, arguing that these cases were not crimes against humanity and that the statute of limitations for bringing charges had expired. Moreover, these were not ‘crimes’ during Franco’s dictatorship. ‘We cannot judge with today’s eyes what happened in the past,’ said Justice Minister Rafael Catalá in April 2015.
Why don’t you forget?
Spain is not unique in having a nasty authoritarian past. But while other countries acted on their history, many Spaniards still believe that it is better never to look back.
The transition from dictatorship to democracy in Spain took place in a complex setting. ‘There was fear of a new military coup. With careful manoeuvring, political forces sealed an implicit “pact of forgetting”. Society accepted it as the best that could be done. When you start digging up the past, you are accused of seeking another war,’ says Mirta Núñez, a historian at Madrid’s Complutense University.
‘They tell us: “Why don’t you forget!” But how can you forget your mother and father?’ asks Hilda Farfante. She was five when Franco’s henchmen killed both her parents, republican schoolteachers, and dumped them in different mass graves. ‘Until I have no voice left, I will keep speaking about them.’
She is one of many yearning to be able to offer their loved ones a decent burial place. An official map records over 2,000 mass graves across Spain. But despite the Historical Memory Law, exhumations have been left entirely to volunteers and under the People’s Party (PP) government of Mariano Rajoy they disappeared from the state budget.
With no official records of exhumations, families have to choose between interring their loved ones and the possibility that one day they might be able to establish the ‘official’ truth about the circumstances of their deaths.
‘How can you forget your mother and father? Until I have no voice left, I will keep speaking about them’
Victims fear that gross human rights violations under Franco will go ignored by history. ‘When we die, they will be able to bury it as something uncomfortable,’ says Jesús Rodríguez Barrio, another of Pacheco’s victims. ‘We are not seeking revenge. We just want to establish the truth and responsibility.’
Judicial investigations may be a way to do it, even with the Amnesty Act in place. ‘There is nothing in the law that would expressly prevent it,’ wrote UN Special Rapporteur Pablo de Greiff in his 2014 report. On the contrary, allowing the benefits of the amnesty requires at least an investigation of the facts, since otherwise there can be no responsibility to exonerate.
But the political will to reinterpret the amnesty law seems to be missing. Many blame this on close links between the PP and the dictatorship. The party’s predecessor, Alianza Popular, was founded by Franco’s ministers. Some of them still wield influence today.
In 2002, the PP-dominated parliament condemned Franco’s coup d’état of 18 July 1936. With that, the party considers the issue of the dictatorship closed. ‘There are more important things than delving into matters that happened over 40 years ago,’ said PP’s Ana Beltran last year.
Many believe that a political change is necessary to get justice, since the PP keeps frustrating the efforts of Judge Servini. With the extradition requests rejected, she hoped to question the suspects in Spain last April. Spanish authorities have yet to grant her request.
Winds of change
However, the first changes are occurring. A number of towns where the PP lost control in last year’s local elections have joined with the Argentinean lawsuit to seek justice for victims from their localities. Several regional governments have also backed the process.
‘The legal actions from the town halls prove that a new era is coming,’ says Carlos Slepoy. ‘That would have been unthinkable a short time ago.’
The ultimate goal of the plaintiffs is to try the dictatorship’s crimes in Spain. ‘There are many young judges who are not infused with Francoism,’ says Slepoy. He compares the situation in Spain to Argentina’s Dirty War case: the arrest warrants issued there by Judge Garzón initially fell on deaf ears. But after a new government came to power, it decided that if they did not extradite the suspects they would have to judge them themselves. ‘The next extradition request will be to a new Spanish government,’ he says.
The parliamentary election in December 2015, in which no party secured a majority, weakened the position of the PP and the newcomers on the political scene are more inclined to listen to the victims’ grievances. ‘We need to normalize like the other European countries which had a traumatic experience,’ says Ariel Jerez of Podemos, the party which came third in the polls. ‘For the first time we have the numbers to isolate the PP.’
The victims are full of hope. But unless the general election on 26 June – called because a failure in coalition talks led to a stalemate – has caused an upset by the time you read this, the PP’s continued political strength means that the fight is not yet won. The longer it takes, the fewer of the aging victims will see justice done.
This article is from
the July-August 2016 issue
of New Internationalist.
- Discover unique global perspectives
- Support cutting-edge independent media
- Magazine delivered to your door or inbox
- Digital archive of over 500 issues
- Fund in-depth, high quality journalism