Carnations in hand, 94-year-old Julio López del Campo has come decade after decade to mark the spot where he believes the body of his brother, Mariano, was tossed into a pit along with other victims of the brutal regime of Francisco Franco in Spain.
“They took him to the prison in Guadalajara and in 1940 he was shot,” Julio said at the exhumation site next to a cemetery chapel. “I have come here every year since. I bring carnations and leave a few. I will keep coming until my strength gives out.”
More than 70 years on, the mass grave in Guadalajara, a small city just east of Spain’s capital, Madrid has finally been dug up, and 26 bodies were recovered. Julio now hopes that a genetic test will confirm that Mariano's remains are among them.
The Guadalajara exhumation was carried out by volunteer associations who, along with some of Spain’s regional authorities, have led the fight to recover the missing and return them a shred of the dignity they have been denied for over half a century.
Until now, there has been little or no help from Spain’s central authorities, and families have seen time running out as a generation quickly fades away. But now there is some hope.
A bill is working its way through parliament that Spain’s left-wing coalition government says will deliver on its pledge to respond to the plight of families. The bill aims to improve on a 2007 Law for Historical Memory which experts and activists agree fell way short of emptying the hundreds of still-untouched mass graves.
The bill faces hurdles on both sides in parliament. The minority government needs the backing of smaller left-wing parties who want it to go further. Meanwhile, right-wing parties are vowing to vote against it.
If it passes, the law will recognize the families of victims have the “right to the truth” and will make the central government responsible for the recovery and identification of the missing. To help do so, it establishes a national DNA bank as well as an office to support families.
Like tens of thousands of others, Mariano disappeared after returning home from fighting for Spain’s Second Republic that Franco's right-wing military uprising destroyed in the 1936-39 Spanish Civil War. He turned himself in to police and, despite promises that he would not be harmed, was never seen again. He was 23.
Only 19,000 bodies of an estimated 114,000 victims of Franco's regime during and after the war have been recovered in the four decades since the dictator’s death. Spain’s government calculates that it is likely only 20,000 bodies are still in a condition to be found.
The president of the association that carried out the exhumation in Guadalajara and others across Spain is skeptical that the new law will achieve justice.
“These are just words that won’t lead to acts,” Emilio Silva, the president of the Association for the Recovery of Historical Memory, told The Associated Press.
The bill "talks about the truth, but it focuses on the victims and says nothing about the executioners; it talks about justice, but does not force anyone to face trial; it talks about reparation, but is not going to give anything back to the families of the dictatorship’s victims,” said Silva, whose grandfather was also buried in a mass grave.
In the past two years, the government of Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez, the leader of Spain’s Socialist Party, has dedicated 5 million euros ($5.6 million) to finance 300 exhumations of mass graves and it has budgeted another 5.5 million euros for more exhumations next year.
But for Silva, the law won’t stop what he calls the “clientele politics” that has plagued efforts to recover bodies, because it won’t oblige future governments to dedicate funds to exhumations. The previous government of the conservative Popular Party which is currently leading the opposition, cut off all central funds for exhumations when in power from 2011-18.
The Popular Party has already warned that it would replace the new law once back in power because, in the words of lawmaker Macarena Montesinos, it “seeks to destroy our legacy of concord" that crossed ideological lines and made possible Spain's 1978 Constitution when democracy was restored.
One of the highlights of the bill is the creation of a new State Prosecutors’ Office for Human Rights and Democratic Memory. The government ministry that oversees the protection of Spain’s Democratic Memory said in an email that the office will “guarantee the right to investigate the human rights violations during the (Spanish Civil) War and Dictatorship.”
Experts, including the United Nation’s Committee on Enforced Disappearances, say that this new figure, however, will be hamstrung as long as Spain does not amend its 1977 Amnesty Law. That law freed thousands of political prisoners of Franco's regime but also prevented the prosecution of any politically motivated crime prior to that date.
The law was a critical part of Spain’s peaceful transition to democracy following Franco’s death in 1975. It is still defended by right-wing political parties and some center-left Socialists who want to preserve the initial foundation of Spain's parliamentary monarchy, but others see it as a bar to justice for the families of the victims.
This week, a group of small left-wing regionalist and separatist parties presented an amendment to the new bill that would overturn the Amnesty Law as well as strip Felipe VI of his title as Spain's King. They argue that the monarchy is also a vestige of the dictatorship since Felipe's father, Juan Carlos, was put back on the throne by an aging Franco.
The amendments have little chance of passing, but the Socialists and the junior member of their governing coalition felt pressured enough to tweak their own bill by adding language that they say will allow for the prosecution of war crimes or acts of genocide carried out by Franco's regime without reforming the Amnesty Law. Critics argue that won't be enough.
The sensitive negotiations in parliament point to the heart of a debate in Spain about the role of the monarchy, which for many is seen as another keystone of democracy's return in the late 1970s. Franco had hoped to maintain his regime by restoring Juan Carlos to the throne. Instead, the king provided support to the country's fragile moves toward democracy after Franco's death, never more so when he was key in defusing an attempted military coup by reactionaries in 1981.
Margalida Capellà, Professor of International Public Law at the University of the Balearic Islands and expert in historical memory, said that while the new law would be a big step forward, Spain won’t be able to have a reckoning with its past until Juan Carlos's son Felipe and its prime minister take an important symbolic step.
“Reparation won’t be complete until the Head of State and the Head of the Government ask for forgiveness,” Capellà said. “During the dictatorship its victims were of course not treated as such, but during democracy it has (also) taken a long time for them to earn that recognition and what has happened to their families has been a disaster. That is the original sin of Spain’s democracy.”
___ Joseph Wilson reported from Barcelona.