Spain faces pressure to confront its violent past


Relatives carry boxes containing the remains of people executed during the Spanish Civil War during a funeral ceremony.


Pablo Blazquez Dominguez

MADRID, Spain — Every Thursday evening, Beatriz Pereda goes to this city’s central square, Puerta del Sol, clutching a large, sepia-toned photograph of her father, who died nearly 70 years ago.

There she joins a group of several dozen people who lost loved ones during Spain’s 1936-39 civil war and the four-decade dictatorship of Francisco Franco that followed. Many of them also hold photographs while others wave banners and chant, demanding “truth, justice and redress.”

They’re an incongruous sight amid the square’s tourists and shoppers. But their desire for Spain to finally face up to its violent past shows no sign of fading.

“My father was called Victorino Pereda Ortega and he was 33 when they killed him,” says Beatriz, who was three months old at the time.

Having fought on the side of the leftist Second Republic government in the civil war against Franco’s successful right-wing military uprising, he was executed six years after the conflict ended.

“He simply defended a legitimate government, so why was he buried in a mass grave without my mother knowing where?” Beatriz says. “I want those who did these things to face justice. That’s why I’m fighting — for his dignity, not mine.”

Her father’s body was recovered and given a proper burial in 2007 with the help of the Association for the Recovery of Historical Memory, which has exhumed more than 150 graves containing 1,400 people, although it believes up to 150,000 Franco victims remain buried.

But the association is facing an uphill battle. The conservative Spanish government of Mariano Rajoy has eliminated its public funding, citing the economic crisis, and the organization now relies on donations.

Calls for surviving Franco-era criminals to face justice have also been repeatedly frustrated.

After Baltasar Garzon — a magistrate who had issued an international arrest warrant for Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet — opened a probe into the human rights crimes of the Franco era in 2010, he was disciplined for overstepping his powers. With a 1977 amnesty law still in place to protect those involved, no other Spanish judge has dared take up the case.

However, there has been movement abroad. A magistrate in Argentina has pursued an inquiry in response to a request by a group of relatives of Franco victims, including Beatriz Pereda. In September, judge Maria Servini de Cubria issued orders for the extradition to Argentina of four security force officials from the Franco regime whom she accused of torturing political detainees.

In a report on the case, she said the Franco regime had been guilty of “the massive and flagrant violation of human rights and the freedom of thousands of people.” Punishing those responsible for such crimes, she added, is “a duty of all states.”

Only two of the four men are still alive: Jose Antonio Gonzalez Pacheco and Jesus Munecas Aguilar. Victims of the former have described how he brutally treated detainees when he was a member of the police force in the 1970s. However, the Spanish authorities have refused to cooperate and no steps have been taken to extradite either man.

Meanwhile, Servini de Cubria has continued to take testimony from victims via videoconference.

Pressure on Spain to confront its past is also coming from elsewhere. A UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances recently visited the country to meet with victims and officials. It recommended that the state overturn the amnesty law, pursue Franco-era crimes and “engage more actively” with families that wish to exhume the remains of loved ones from mass graves.

Still, the government insists Spain doesn’t need to recover its historical memory the way other countries have, such as Germany after World War II.

Spain’s transition to democracy after Franco’s death in 1975, the argument goes, was based on leaving behind the past in order to forge a better future. Moreover, Franco’s side in the civil war also suffered many thousands of casualties — although most victims received proper burials.

“Lots of innocent people die in a civil war,” says Jaime Alonso of the Francisco Franco Foundation, which is devoted to keeping alive the deceased dictator’s memory. He suggests that those who are trying to investigate Spain’s historical memory have a political agenda.

“The past is there, no one is trying to hide it,” he says. “What you can’t do is use the past as a weapon to undermine half of Spain and to say that those on the side of the Second Republic were the good guys and that all the others were the bad guys.”

More from GlobalPost: Is Putin losing it?

He could be referring to Emilio Silva, whose grandfather, a supporter of the Second Republic, was shot by Francoist forces in 1936 and left in a mass grave with 12 others in northwestern Spain. In 2000, Silva oversaw the grave’s exhumation, the first time that had been done in a scientific, rigorous way in Spain. Forgetting the past, he warns, doesn’t heal the wounds of history.

“You can’t hide the past the way they did during the Spanish democratic transition,” he says. “They lifted up the carpet and put under it all the crimes of the dictatorship. "But the past is with you all the time — it’s in the back of your neck.”

Silva now juggles his role as president of the Association for the Recovery of Historical Memory with his career as a freelance journalist. He compares those who fought against Franco with the French resistance against the Nazis during World War II.

“In Spain, the people who fought against the dictatorship died in silence, anonymously,” he says. “They are heroes for me.”