The day I became an executioner

At 21, Vicente Torres was doing his military service. He'll never forget the events of one day 40 years ago

W e marched with our heads held low, our rifles slung over our shoulders. The rifle seemed to be burning into me, as though still hot, even though it had been a good while since it had been fired. The truck that had brought us here was parked first in line, and everyone else had to wait for our group to return. All the other soldiers brought here to witness the spectacle were already inside their own trucks, staring at us with a mixed look of compassion and fear: they were looking at the executioners, those who had killed a fellow soldier, a colleague. It could have been any one of them in our place - we were not volunteers, but had been forced to perform the task. But none of us had shown weakness; none had broken down or refused to shoot. It was January 8, 1972.

Our comrades stared at us with a mixed look of compassion and fear
He had committed two murders, but that was no reason for him to die
He was pouring cognac into glasses; his shaky hands spilled most of it
I aimed for his head. It was the only way to get the ordeal over with quickly

A great many rumors began circulating after the event. There was the famous legend about the blank secretly handed out to one of the squad members, so that we could all entertain the hope that we had fired without shooting a real bullet. But we knew all too well that the cartridges were real, since each one of us had personally loaded our CETME rifles with live ammunition.

Our only hope of dodging our duty was to purposely miss. How many did that? I do not know whether I missed or not, but I do know that I aimed to hit him in the head. It was the only way I could see of helping that poor wretch get the ordeal over with quickly. There were 15 of us, so who knows how many shot him in the same spot. Perhaps I missed, after all.

But I was there, and the memory of my participation in that solemn act of military execution has continued to cloud certain moments of my life during the 40 years that have elapsed since then.

The convicted man had committed two murders, but that was no reason for him to die, especially not in that way. Unfortunately for me, I was probably the only direct participant who felt that this execution was unfair, that it was just a legalized crime. The others could take heart in their belief that justice was being done.

I was a second corporal in the 17th Artillery Regiment stationed in Paterna, Valencia. I was doing my military service in my home town, and that is why I had "volunteered" in that unit (in exchange for an additional six months of service, you could choose your post; at the time, you could otherwise easily get sent to the navy for two years, or to the Sahara desert...). [...]

On the afternoon of January 7, 1972, strange rumors began to circulate inside our compound. Officers were coming and going, people huddled around in small groups. Then an odd thing happened: they called up two soldiers from each artillery battery in order to form a detachment; we were to show up in our fatigues and leathers, carrying our assault rifles. We were not informed what this was about, but told to remain at close range, as we could be called back at any moment. We were two corporals and 10 soldiers in the group, as I recall.

The next day was a Saturday, and most soldiers were home on weekend leave, but they were all recalled urgently. The rumors were really flying now. People said that university students had taken to the streets and that the army was going to intervene. They said there were guerrillas in Jaén and that we were getting sent there to put them down... I was a student and a leftwing activist, so I wished for either rumor to be true, yet knew all too well that they were not.

The truth became evident halfway through the morning, right after I'd gone over to the front gate to pick up a hero sandwich that my mother had prepared and brought me (such were the benefits of doing the military service in my home town). As I passed by the officers' area, I ran into a colleague from recruit camp who was assigned to the colonel's office. He had first-hand information on what was going on. "They're going to execute Expósito." Now this was believable. And in that instant, I understood that I was going to be part of the execution: that was the aim of the strange squad they had formed without telling us why.

Lunch was chaos. The place was not ready to feed the entire garrison, when normally only a few conscripts stayed behind at mealtimes. Rumors kept flying, but the truth was slowly emerging, although it was the thing that people least wanted to believe. I didn't want to think about it, either, and I believe I didn't tell anyone what I already knew.

Right after lunch the squad members were called in and taken to the officers' room, the private bar for servicemen with badges on their chests. Each level of hierarchy had its own drinking hole (what else could you do to kill time while locked up inside the barracks?). To be allowed to enter the sanctum sanctorum of officialdom was another one of the strange things that were happening to us this day.

Awaiting us inside was the oldest officer in the compound, an elderly first lieutenant. [...] Also there, wearing a waiter's uniform, was a soldier assigned to the officers' room. He was pouring cognac into lots of glasses presumably meant for us. But he was very nervous, his hands kept shaking and he was spilling more cognac on the table than into the glasses. This kid obviously knew what was up, too.

By now, most of us did. The officer simply confirmed it for us: we had a painful duty ahead of us, but we were going to perform it like good soldiers. After all, we were going to mete out justice. Expósito had killed two defenseless women and he deserved to die. This was the first argument.

In case things were not clear to everyone, the execution was inevitable. It had turned out in such a way that we had to take part in it, and the best we could do for ourselves and for the convicted man was to get it over with as quickly as possible. That was the second argument.

There was one more line of reasoning: the officer touched his holster and warned us not to try anything stupid at the last minute; he would be vigilant, he had his gun, and he would not hesitate to use it if necessary.

The procedure was the following: we would go to the recruit camp we'd all trained at, we would form the squad, they would bring in the prisoner, and we would be ordered: "One step forward, load, aim, fire." If we had good aim, there would be no need to do it over. If he were wounded but not dead, this officer would personally administer the coup de grâce. They must not have trusted us poor little soldiers too much, though, because they added three rankers to our squad: a first sergeant, also quite elderly, and two first corporals, real old-timers: three professional bullets that should definitely reach their destination.

When the first lieutenant asked whether we had any questions, I said I did. I came up with one of those insignificant details that sometimes come to my mind in difficult situations. I inquired whether we had to pick up the cartridge cases from the ground after shooting. It sounds ridiculous, but there was a reason to my question: for months, we'd had strict orders to pick up all cartridges after our drills, or face severe punishment. The terrorist group ETA was stealing weapons and ammunition from military barracks, and every last bullet had to be accounted for. I could just picture the younger soldiers breaking rank after the solemn execution and getting down on all fours to look for their cartridges. Naturally, the officer replied that there was no need to pick them up. Although I asked the question for the benefit of the kids, veteran and protective corporal that I was, I have since regretted it more than once - maybe the solemnity of the act would have been a bit ruined, at least.

We exited the officers' room and headed for the truck that would take us to recruit camp. We picked up the ammo and filled our magazines. The other soldiers in the barracks were already heading out in their trucks, carrying unloaded assault rifles.

The call to barracks and the mandatory presence at the execution had been extended to all military units in Valencia. It was going to be a first-rate military affair: the execution of a soldier has traditionally been a decisive tool for reinforcing discipline - a lesson and a warning to everyone. That was its main function, and thus the solemnity it was wrapped in.

I have to say that military rules were not strictly followed in this case. These state that a soldier has to be executed by his own colleagues. In this case, they shared out the bad luck among all units, and excluded the older soldiers, a few volunteers who had known Expósito and who served in my own artillery battery.

When I had joined my unit in July 1971, there was a locker that had been sealed off by a military judge. I was then told about Pedro Martínez Expósito, a battery soldier who was in prison awaiting trial over the assassination of two women in the Valencian town of Gandía. I was partly familiar with the story, as it was one of the biggest things to have happened recently. The poor wretch had broken into a house at night to steal, and was caught by an older woman and her 16-year-old daughter. Frightened, he clubbed them to death with a hoe he had taken from their own garden. It was a disproportionate reaction for a ridiculous booty: 347 pesetas. That, and a few medical reports confirming his mental disability, were used as arguments by his defense attorney to try to get a sentence reduction. But the military judges (it was a civilian crime, but he was an army member) rejected the medical reports and all pleas of leniency, and handed down a death sentence that was immediately confirmed by the captain general. In a way, the conviction was a foregone conclusion.

To me, the disproportionate nature of the crime and its lack of motive were proof enough of his mental disability, as were his absence of malice when it came to concealing his crime and the ease with which he was caught. From my leftwing perspective, I added in his family circumstances: misery, chronic poverty, and his inability to work while performing his military service far from home... Perhaps in a way that was too deterministic; ultimately, I concluded that society was to blame for these horrible crimes, because this wretch was being oppressed by a class-conscious society that kept him down, by Franco's dictatorship. That was why I was not about to help "do justice." If anything, I felt I was going to add yet one more injustice to the list.

I have always considered Expósito's execution to be a crime, a public assassination that did not compensate for his crimes. I also thought the execution had a strong political component: many things were afoot in Spain, and that made the state nervous, especially its main branch: the military. Three years earlier, in 1969, death sentences against ETA members had been commuted due to international pressure [...] I imagine this must have filled the upper military echelons with rage, since they wanted to execute someone (they had had their fill of it during the war and right afterwards, and it was still that same generation at the helm of the army). So Pedro Martínez Expósito paid for it. I don't know whether this explanation is too forced, but that is the way I saw things.

What to do now? How to boycott this despicable act? I considered putting up a fuss, refusing to shoot, in the hope that this act of rebelliousness would reach out beyond the barracks. Had he been guilty of a "political crime," I might have done so, and faced extremely harsh punishment. But this sort of attitude was only worth it if it became known outside the compound. In the case of this poor kid, however, hardly anyone would have understood my position - that is if anyone ever found out about it. The debate over the death penalty was not exactly on the social agenda, and everyone thought that the perpetrator of such a heinous crime deserved to die.

And so we reached the showring, because a show it certainly was. All the units were already there in an L formation on the great esplanade. We formed a line and waited. Soon, a Civil Guard van drove up with the prisoner, his lawyer and a priest. I remember hazily, because although we were told to look ahead, we were mostly looking up at the sky. The lawyer hugged the prisoner, the priest said something to him, but Expósito did not seem to hear much. He looked drugged. An officer bandaged his eyes. In the middle of the terrible silence, he asked: "Can I kneel?" He was allowed to. Everyone stepped away, and we heard the fateful orders.

Half of us had been told to aim for the chest, half for the head. I was in the first half, yet I aimed for the head, figuring the only thing I could do was to help end this as soon as possible. [...] For an eternal fraction of a second, it seemed as if he would never fall. Then, with an odd slowness, he collapsed softly on the ground. The officer checked that he was truly dead. But it was not over. The show went on. And here came the most horrible part of all: to marching band music, they made all the units go by the dead body and look at it, to understand that if they misbehaved, they could be next in his place. A friend later told me that he had a good look and that his head was completely blown up by the bullets. I don't know whether my bullet was one of them.

Did something change within us? Were we marked for life because of this? I suppose so; we certainly could not remain indifferent to it. I have not often spoken about this, only occasionally, among close friends. But many of my friends and relatives did not know this about me. I am neither ashamed nor proud of it, but I am hurt by it. I imagine the others feel the same way, though they were probably better able to forget. Today [the article was published in EL PAÍS on January 8] is the 40th anniversary of the execution. It seemed like a good excuse to publish my story, which I hope will contribute to restore a little more of the historical memory of what the Franco years were like.

Vicente Torres, in his house in Benimamet, Valencia.
Vicente Torres, in his house in Benimamet, Valencia.CARLES FRANCESC

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