We know you're pregnant because your breasts are really large. We don't give a shit if you have a miscarriage." Silvia Carretero was indeed two months' pregnant when she was arrested and tortured in September 1975 - first at the Civil Guard headquarters in Badajoz and later at the General Security Directorate (DGS) in Madrid. She was 21. Today, she is one of the plaintiffs in a class action suit against the crimes of the Franco regime. Citing the principle of universal jurisdiction, the lawsuit has been brought in Argentina rather than Spain, after victims of Francoism tried all legal options here and ran into nothing but brick walls.
Silvia Carretero is also suing in her husband's name: José Luis Sánchez Bravo was one of the last five people to be executed by the dictatorship, on September 27, 1975. He was shot, along with Humberto Baena and Ramón García Sanz - all three were members of FRAP (Antifascist Patriotic Revolutionary Front), an armed anti-Franco group that had killed two policemen - and ETA members Ángel Otaegui and Juan Paredes.
But Carretero did not have a miscarriage, and when her baby was born, she named her Luisa Humberta Ramona as a tribute to her husband and two colleagues.
The day that Isabel Pérez Alegre - also a member of FRAP - turned 21, Carretero managed to send some candy to the solitary confinement cell where she was being held, at the political prisoner wing of the Yeserías penitentiary. Thirty-eight years later, Pérez Alegre is planning to go to the Argentinean Consulate in Madrid to add her name to the class action.
The worst part is they made me talk, and sometimes that still keeps me awake"
The case was filed more than three years ago, but proceedings had been slow until this September, when the Buenos Aires judge in charge of it, María Servini de Cubría, issued international arrest warrants for three former policemen (two of whom have already died) and a former Civil Guard officer, on charges of torture. Pérez Alegre is very familiar with one of these individuals, who went by the nickname of "Billy the Kid."
"They arrested me in October 1975. They took me to the DGS, surrounded me and started beating me from all sides. There were five policemen. Billy the Kid hit me occasionally, but mostly he told the others what to do. They tied me to a radiator and hit me with truncheons on the back of my knees and in the kidneys... When I had to go to the bathroom two people had to carry me there, since I couldn't walk. I looked in the mirror and didn't recognize my own body, which was deformed by the blows," says Pérez Alegre.
Thirty-eight years later, the bruises are gone, but other side effects will not go away. "The worst part is that they broke me, they made me talk, and sometimes that still keeps me awake at night. They arrested several colleagues of mine and I heard them scream, and I knew they were getting the same treatment I got. One boy threw himself against a glass door, and the broken shards went flying all the way to where I was. I tried to commit suicide with those shards, but they were very small. I also thought about hitting my head really hard against the radiator, but I didn't have the strength. People who have not experienced that permanent feeling of fear don't know what fear is. To hear an elevator and panic, wondering who is coming up..."
All of Franco's victims start their stories by talking about fear. Fear of being executed, of having a relative go missing, of seeing their children stolen from them, of being tortured, of rotting in jail after a mock trial... And after Franco died, on November 20, 1975, they were still afraid of reporting what had happened or demanding accountability.
All of Franco's victims start their stories by talking about fear
In October 2000, when Emilio Silva, founder of the Association for the Recovery of Historical Memory, opened the mass grave where his grandfather's body lay buried, relatives of other victims of executions began taking him to their homes, where they pulled down the blinds before confessing in a whisper that they, too, were looking for their dead relatives. "Now they are no longer afraid," explains Silva. "Each open grave has been a step forward. These 13 years have raised awareness, and given us a lesson in freedom."
These exhumations triggered an unstoppable trend. Relatives of people who went missing under Franco began demanding that the Spanish state locate their bodies. And in 2006, they turned to the justice system. By the time all legal doors had been shut in their faces - including the suspension of Judge Baltasar Garzón, who had started to investigate these crimes, and a Supreme Court decision eliminating any chance of a criminal investigation - these relatives were no longer willing to take it sitting down.
Mirroring the victims of the Argentinean dictatorship who turned to Spanish justice for help getting officials convicted (Baltasar Garzón charged naval officer Adolfo Scilingo with genocide, and in 2005 the Spanish High Court convicted him to life in prison), victims of the Spanish dictatorship turned to Argentinean justice for help with their case.
The suit was filed in Buenos Aires on April 14, 2010, but just two weeks later, Attorney General Federico Delgado said the case should be dismissed because there were "still legal proceedings underway in Spain." On May 5 of that same year, the judge dismissed the case. But on September 3 she was forced by the Federal Criminal and Correctional Court to reconsider, after it emerged that the attorney general had based his opinion on information gleaned "from the internet."
They left seven siblings without a father; the youngest was one year old"
In October 2010, the judge formally asked the Spanish government whether an investigation was underway into the possible existence of a systematic plan to exterminate "supporters of representative forms of government" between July 17, 1936 and June 15, 1977. The Socialist administration of Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero was in no rush to reply, and when it did, in June 2011, it did not tell the truth.
In Spain, claimed the report filed by then Attorney General Cándido Conde-Pumpido, "numerous legal proceedings are underway in connection with criminal activities committed during the Spanish Civil War and subsequent dictatorship, concerning the physical elimination of supporters of the Republic and of democratic government, as well as the disappearance of minors."
The report also noted that in November 2008 Judge Baltasar Garzón had broken up the case against Francoist crimes into smaller investigations to be conducted by the courts in the areas where each mass grave was located. If many of these cases had been dismissed, said the report, it was not because of the 1977 Amnesty Law, but because of the "expiration of penal responsibility." There was not a word in the entire report about the fact that Garzón had been removed from his post at the High Court precisely because he accepted that case.
In fact, the victims' first major victory in Argentinean courts was to disprove the Spanish government's claims, and to show that the Spanish attorney had described a systematic extermination plan as merely common crimes; and, furthermore, that the criminal section of the High Court had decided, in December 2008, to void all decisions made earlier by Garzón on this issue; and that in 2009 the Supreme Court had accepted a suit against Garzón by Manos Limpias, a far-right group, and that this group was joined in January 2010 by none other than the Falangist Party; and that, to top it all off, in May 2010 the judicial power had suspended Garzón from his duties. In short, the only person investigated in Spain over Franco's crimes was, in fact, the judge who attempted to investigate them in the first place.
I'm convinced there are judges in Spain who will investigate these crimes"
The Argentinean judge got moving at that point. On December 13, 2011 she formally asked the Spanish authorities to send her the names and most recent known home addresses of former members of the Cabinet, armed forces, Civil Guard, National Police and Falange leaders who held their posts between July 17, 1936 and June 15, 1977; she also requested a list of individuals who went missing or were tortured or murdered for political motives. In addition, the magistrate demanded a list of children who were stolen from their mothers at birth, the location of mass graves and a rundown of businesses that benefited from forced labor under Franco and that remain operational to this day.
The Spanish government responded that the people accountable for "intellectual authorship" of Franco's extermination plan had passed away, and that in any case Spain had preference when it came to putting them on trial.
That is when the judge decided to take statements from 91 plaintiffs and requested authorization to travel to Madrid, Vigo and Barcelona between September 8 and 28, 2012. Servini de Cubría got her permission, but few resources and even fewer days were made available to her, and she desisted. In May 2013 she arranged for the testimony to be taken through videoconference at Madrid's Argentinean Consulate, but the project was canceled at the last minute after the Argentinean ambassador informed the judge of the "unease" that her actions were causing the Spanish government.
And so Judge Servini filled 204 sheets with facts justifying her decision to issue arrest warrants on September 18 for four Spanish law enforcement officers. Of those 204 pages, Garzón, who himself testified before the judge in May, highlighted three words: "Crimes against humanity."
"That is what they are. I have always believed it. I am very happy for the victims of Francoism, although I am saddened by the fact that these crimes have to be investigated in Argentina because Spain closed off all avenues," Garzón told EL PAÍS. The former High Court judge, who now has his own human rights foundation, is convinced that Servini de Cubría will continue to investigate even more people.
The plaintiffs had asked for five other Francoist officials to be targeted: three former ministers (including José Utrera Molina, father-in-law of current Justice Minister Alberto Ruiz-Gallardón) and two former judges. The victims now claim they will ask for further investigations.
Back in 2000, when the mass grave containing the remains of Emilio Silva Faba was opened, "it was unthinkable that a day would come when there would be an international arrest warrant for a Franco official," explains his grandson. "To me, Billy the Kid is a colleague of the people who executed my grandfather 40 years earlier. He was part of a structure designed to keep people terrorized and defend the interests of an elite."
The life of Ascensión Mendieta, 88, took a turn for the worse many years before Billy the Kid gained notoriety in Madrid because of his penchant for torture. But she is nevertheless very excited about the progress that these arrest warrants mean for the case. Despite her advanced age, she is even thinking of traveling to Argentina, to explain to the judge why her name is also on the list of signatories. "They left seven siblings without a father; the youngest one of us was just one year old. I was 12 when he was executed. I want him to be taken out of the grave where he lies with 16 other men."
Carlos Slepoy, one of the lawyers who has been fighting for years to make progress on the case, is scheduled to meet with High Court Judge Pablo Ruz in connection with the investigation. The Argentinean lawyer symbolizes the two-way journey made by international justice in recent years. Slepoy was the lawyer in the first case against Argentinean dictator Jorge Rafael Videla, handled in Spain by Judge Baltasar Garzón, in September 1996. And now, Slepoy is representing Spaniards hoping to find justice for Franco's crimes in Argentina.
"For a long time," he notes, "Argentina was opposed to judging the crimes of its own dictatorship. Finally, President Néstor Kirchner decided that either they were judged at home or the individuals in question would be extradited to Spain. The wall of impunity began to crack, and many Argentinean judges reconsidered the situation. Today, over 300 people have been convicted. I am convinced that despite what happened to Garzón, there are judges in Spain who will dare to investigate these crimes. We have condensed the work of years into a few days. And this is the result of the victims' perseverance."
These victims are no longer resigned to their fate. And they are used to waiting.