On the trail of Spain's stolen children

More evidence is emerging of a clandestine network that organized illegal adoptions

In the decade following the end of the Spanish Civil War, an unholy alliance of doctors, priests, and General Francisco Franco's secret police systematically took thousands of children from vulnerable women known to have supported the Republican cause. These women were often in prison, or their husbands had been killed or were also in jail. It was seen at the time as an effective way of inflicting a lasting punishment on those who had backed the wrong side in the war, at the same time as preventing the appearance of a new generation of "reds" by placing the children in the care of families who supported the new regime.

But over recent years, it has emerged that the practice continued beyond the war, which came to an end in 1939, and was widespread throughout the Franco era - even after the dictator died in 1975. A network of Catholic Church-run children's homes and private hospitals would take newborn infants, typically from young, impoverished single mothers, who were told that their baby had died. Estimates put the total number of children who may have been illegally adopted between 1950 and 1980 at around 300,000.

Around 300,000 children may have been illegally adopted from 1950 to 1980
The Franco regime stole from families that might pass on the "red gene"
People who took part in the trafficking could be charged with abduction
The network has been described as "a good mafia" by one of its own members
More information
Prosecutors hear witnesses in stolen baby cases
Ex-nun condemns baby trafficking

"There was great demand for children to adopt, and there were a lot of people prepared to create the means to meet that demand," says sociologist Francisco González de Tena, who has spent several years researching the subject. As is revealed by the growing numbers of adoptees and mothers who suspect that their babies didn't die at birth, but were taken from them, it has become clear that this is a problem on a nationwide scale, affecting thousands of people.

It was Antonio Vallejo-Nájera, a psychologist at the service of the Franco regime and the formulator of pseudo-scientific theories regarding race similar to those of the Nazis, who came up with the idea of "positive eugenics" aimed at "multiplying the select and allowing the weak to perish." Fortunately, as far as is known, the Franco regime never set up its own equivalent of Hitler's Lebensborn - a supposedly master race produced from selective breeding - but it did steal children from women or families that might pass on the "red gene."

"I heard heart-breaking cries. 'Don't take her away from me! I want to take her with me to the other world!' Another shouted out, 'I don't want to leave my child with these murderers. Kill her with me...' A terrible struggle was underway: the guards were trying to rip babies from the arms of their mothers, who defended themselves to their last breath. I never imagined that I would ever witness such a terrible scene in a civilized country." The words of Gumersindo de Estella, the chaplain of the Torrero prison in Zaragoza, testify to the theft of dozens of children from female Republican prisoners, who were subsequently shot. In 1941, the authorities were allowed by law to change the names of children taken from executed prisoners, effectively making it nigh impossible for them to be traced.

María Calvo was among the lucky few to have traced a family member. She was among the more than 34,000 children evacuated to France by the Republican authorities during the Civil War. But when Franco demanded the return of the children, María Calvo was separated from her sister Florencia, and they were sent to different families. María Calvo says she was picked out of a line of other boys and girls at a children's home in Madrid, and taken to live in Murcia. Her sister was sent to an institution and remained there until she was 18.

González de Tena, who was instrumental in the 2009 decision by Judge Baltasar Garzón to order provincial judges to investigate the "disappearance" of children taken from left-wing families, estimates that by 1950, around 30,000 such children had been taken into adoption by families who supported the regime.

"After that, the next objective was to take children from single mothers, young mothers and the poor. They were still the defeated, the vulnerable, those unable to protest," says González de Tena. "They were given to the victors. Obviously, who else could afford to pay the equivalent of 1,200 euros for a child back in the 1960s?"

The link that enabled the practice of taking children from their mothers - now through deception rather than by force - up to and beyond the death of Franco, was made up of a network of priests and nuns, as well as Catholic doctors, judges and notaries, many of them belonging to the highly secretive Opus Dei movement.

"We feel like trees without roots," says María, who was put up for adoption in the San Ramón de Madrid clinic, which operated as a baby factory until 30 years ago, and was run by Dr Eduardo Vela, who, aged 77, is still practicing.

On January 27, ANADIR, an association that represents illegally adopted children, presented the Attorney General's office with a list of 261 cases of children stolen from different regions around Spain between 1950 and 1981. A month later, as the story made headlines, another 500 people came forward, saying that they suspected they too had been taken from their mothers illegally. Other associations have around 700 members.

The thefts started coming to light after Judge Baltasar Garzón tried to investigate Franco's human rights abuses in 2008. Garzón was forced to drop his inquiry, but non-political cases of illegal adoptions also began to emerge.

Attorney General Candido Conde-Pumpido, however, was expected to reject that argument. He will probably not open a nationwide investigation into 261 cases that were brought to him by Anadir, but will advise people seeking such inquiries to turn to regional courts. People who took part in the trafficking could be charged with abduction and crimes against humanity, offences that do not come under the statute of limitations.

In almost every case, the modus operandi was the same: the mother was told soon after birth that her child had died, and that seeing the deceased infant would only cause further distress.

In reality, as González de Tena notes, there was a nationwide network of priests, doctors and other officials on the lookout for vulnerable pregnant young women and families looking to adopt without having to go through the proper channels. They participated in it for economic gain, or believed that it was ethical to place children from poor backgrounds in wealthy families.

In some cases, mothers were pressured and persuaded during their pregnancy that the best thing would be for the hospital to find a home for the baby as soon as it was born. Mothers who later repented found that they were up against a wall of silence, and that the authorities were only interested in protecting the rights of the usually wealthy families that had adopted their children.

Couples looking to adopt a child in the late 1960s or 1970s would have to pay the equivalent of around 18,000 euros today. Enrique Vila, a lawyer who represents ANADIR, says that larger sums were paid, depending on the age of the child, or if the couple wanted one sex or the other.

Church-run children's homes would organize open days when prospective parents could pick out a particular child after examining them closely. Until 1970, parents could register adopted children as their own, effectively eliminating any possibility of a child ever locating his or her biological mother.

Another adoption organization active at this time was AEPA, founded in 1969 by Gregorio Guijarro Contrera, a former Supreme Court attorney, and adopted father of twin girls. AEPA was backed by the equivalent at the time of the Youth Ombudsman and leading Catholic Church charity Cáritas Spain.

Guijarro told EL PAÍS in July 1979: "We are an association that sees adoption as a final solution in this society when every effort to fit a child into its own family has failed."

Asked about irregularities in the adoption process at the time, or even the existence of a hidden network that offered children to families, Guijarro said: "This is a theory that many adoptive parents themselves have contributed to, fearful of the shame associated with adopting a child. In some cases, mothers have pretended to be pregnant, and they have tried to have the child registered as theirs by birth. To do this, they are helped by people who put them in contact with a pregnant mother prepared to part with her child. They pay the costs of the birth, and then keep the child."

Adopting through official channels was a long, laborious, and costly process, and in many cases fruitless. Applicants would typically receive a letter after a couple of years telling them: "There are a great many requests, and very few children available." In 1980, the provincial government of Madrid had 6,000 applications pending, and had not carried out a single adoption process in years. But the reality was that for many years before, and for some years afterwards, thousands of children were adopted through clinics and maternity hospitals throughout Spain with the help of priests, nuns, social workers, and lawyers. The network has been described by somebody who was part of it as "a good mafia."

In 1980, Guijarro told EL PAÍS to talk to Sister María Gómez Valbuena, the head of social services at the Santa Cristina hospital in Madrid. She subsequently admitted that she handled around 1,000 adoptions a year, and was firmly against the Madrid provincial adoption office taking over the process.

"Today, with things as they are, the quickest and most efficient way by far to adopt a child is to get involved with the people who are directly involved with these kind of children: social workers, nuns, etc. If you get on with them better than everybody else on the list, it's easy," said Guijarro. He died shortly afterwards in a car accident. His successor at the head of AEPA, José María Cruz, said in 1981: "There are cases of exploitation in every country, of children being sold, of dirty business, abuses that changes to the law attempt to rectify."

It was not until 1987 that the government finally passed adoption legislation that brought procedures into line with those in other developed countries.

Liberia Hernández, who was sold as a small child, near her home in Alcoi.
Liberia Hernández, who was sold as a small child, near her home in Alcoi.JESÚS CÍSCAR

"You cost the same as a herd of pigs"

"When I think what you cost me; I could have bought a herd of pigs for the same price." After hearing this from her adoptive mother and father for most of her childhood and adolescence, Liberia Hernández says that one day she finally summoned up the courage to ask why she had been adopted. "She told me that she had asked the nuns if they could find somebody who would look after them when they were old. And that somebody was me."

Liberia says she never felt the couple were her parents, and that they never treated her like a daughter. "Here's the purchase agreement," she says, showing the adoption certificate. It is signed by Bernardo Acuña Dorta, the administrator of a Church-run children's home in Tenerife. He signed over Liberia without the consent of her mother 48 years ago, when she was eight.

With seven children to feed, her mother had been forced to seek the help of the Church after her husband died. She placed Liberia in the care of the home after marrying another man, who said he didn't want any babies in the home that weren't his. "We believe that my biological father was murdered over a land dispute. His body was thrown over a cliff. My mother married immediately, to a man she didn't love. I was handed over to the nuns. She used to come to see me every day. I never thought that she would abandon me."

"In the children's home we were terrified of the nuns. There were mentally ill children there. The nuns would punish us for the slightest thing. If you wet the bed, they would make you walk round with your knickers on your head, and a sign saying what you had done. Other times they would smother us with chicken or rabbit excrement."

But periodically, says Liberia, the nuns would put the children into their best clothes. "About five or six of us would be taken to Sister Juana's office, and lined up. Then couples would come to examine us: they'd look at our teeth, our hair, they'd lift your skirt up to see if you had rickets. It was like a horse fair. I remember the smell of them, their cigarettes, and how well dressed they were. A few days after, one of the girls, usually the youngest, would be taken away."

But Liberia was never picked out. At eight, she was taken to Valencia by a nun, and presented to her new parents. "I was told by the nun that my name wasn't Liberia Hernández Rodríguez any more; it was now María Nácher Guerola. I said that wasn't my name, but she hit me round the head until I said my name right."

Her new parents took her to their home in Alcoy, in Alicante. "Every time that I told them my name was Liberia they would punish me. I would ask for my mother, but they would ignore me. Then my father began to harass me, he would come into my room at night..."

Liberia says that her adopted mother knew about the abuse, but did nothing. "He abused me for 10 years, until I was 18. Once I told a nun, and she simply told me not to tell anybody else, and to pray."

Her new parents also put her to work in the home, cleaning and cooking. At 14 she was sent out to clean other houses, as well as a bakery. Eventually, a customer asked why she was so frightened of men.

"I would hide whenever men came in. In the end I told her what was going on at home, and she asked if I wanted to work in the hospital. That was my salvation, although I still had to spend weekends at home. I eventually became an auxiliary nurse. But I had to give the money to my adoptive mother."

Even after she married, and could have left the couple that had never loved her, Liberia ended up looking after them both until they died. She says that it was many more years after that that she traced her biological mother.

"I never forgot that my name was Liberia, and so I was able to find my family," she says. She met up with her mother 25 years ago. "My brother Quico put a classified ad in a magazine in 1986 saying that he was looking for his sister Liberia. A friend saw it, and told me. I called the number, and it was my brother. All my brothers and sisters came to meet me at the airport. It was very emotional. My mother was still alive. I was angry with her for many years, because I thought she had abandoned me. She said to me, 'Do you think that with 10 children - she had another three with her second husband - I would abandon one?' She said it with such feeling that I believed her. She explained that she had tried to trace me through the children's home, until they stopped her from going there."

Liberia's mother died two years later. "Before she passed away, she asked me if I would change my name back. It took me a long time. I had three different birth certificates. But eventually, I was able to return to being Liberia Hernández Rodríguez."

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