A Funeral, Over Six Decades Late

Spain confronts a bloody legacy underground.

By Elizabeth Miles


[dropcap]O[/dropcap]n August 5th, 2016, I took a road trip to a tourist town for Catholic pilgrims, to attend the funeral of two people I had never met. Almost no one in attendance had. The two had died 68 years ago.

Villafranca del Bierzo, a stop on the Santiago de Compostela pilgrimage trail, is the kind of town with both 13th-century churches and a restaurant named “Cafeteria Compostela.” Deep in the Spanish province of León, four hours northwest of Madrid, a few tourists sat aimlessly in the main square. Across the street, several dozen people gathered outside the town hall, where an elderly woman in a flawless white pantsuit stood giving a television interview. Nearly seven decades after their deaths, Milagros Camuñas López had found out exactly what happened to her mother and brother under the regime of the man who ruled Spain from 1939 until 1975.

In 1948, Vicenta López Digón and Jesús Camuñas López were executed by Francisco Franco’s security forces. They had been sheltering anti-Franco guerrillas. Taken from their home in Castañeiras, a village in Balboa, towards Villafranca del Bierzo, they were shot by the side of the highway on the way there, and crudely interred between two proper graves in the town cemetery, a sloping maze of marble headstones. López was ten years old. For decades afterwards, she had no way to know whether they were dead or imprisoned.

In November 2015, Spain’s Asociación para la Recuperación de la Memoria Histórica (Association for the Recovery of Historical Memory), or ARMH, a coalition of archaeologists, anthropologists, researchers and activists, sent volunteers to exhume the suspected spot of the burial. Almost a year later, Milagros López received the identified remains of her mother and brother. López and her family, now including several grandchildren, ascended the winding streets of the small town, dating back to the medieval boomtimes of Catholic pilgrimages. Once in the cemetery, René Pacheco, the archaeologist who had exhumed the remains, shoveled the final heaps of dirt over the two wooden resting places, no larger than file boxes. He had followed an arm, to a skull, to a bullet hole in the neck — a hole that matched the military records of Vicenta López Digón’s death. Pacheco was closing a very old case.

The name “Milagros” means miracles. For many still seeking their relatives, an outcome like hers would be nothing short of miraculous. The debate over the Spanish Civil War and Franco’s dictatorship in Spain is intensely political, seven decades on from the actual war (1936-1939), and four decades on from Franco’s death in 1975. The bodies that lie in cemeteries, in mass graves, by the sides of highways, even beneath reservoirs, have become a sticking point. Typically victims of extrajudicial execution, they are called los desaparecidos, or “the disappeared.” Until every identifiable set of remains is returned to family members, some in Spain believe that the country cannot truly let go of the war. Others argue that bringing up bodies is a needless rewind through four decades of democracy.

Today, only Cambodia has more mass graves than Spain. A 2007 Law of Historical Memory, passed under a Socialist government, had allocated €6.2 million for exhumation efforts in 2011. But the law was de facto invalidated by the People’s Party after its win in 2011. The government had stopped the funding completely by 2013. Instead, individuals and organizations including the ARMH have taken on the task of returning remains to family members like López. As of 2014, the ARMH alone had carried out over 150 exhumations, recovering more than 1,500 victims’ remains — roughly one percent of the estimated number of Spain’s disappeared.

An estimated 114,000 individuals lie in unmarked graves across Spain. In 2000, the remains of the grandfather of Emilio Silva, founder of the ARMH, were exhumed — the first Republican remains to be identified using DNA testing. In 1936, Silva’s grandfather had been summoned to the town hall in Villafranco del Bierzo, then an informal detainment center, and disappeared. In 2016, in the same building, the town’s current mayor would return two small boxes to López. Since 2000, direct family members, including López, have made hundreds of requests of Silva and the ARMH, seeking remains from the Civil War and the following decade of reprisals by Franco’s forces. Many in Emilio Silva’s generation have pushed to find their grandparents, often supporting requests by their own parents. This is a unique pressure familiar to those who study the Holocaust — the generation that directly experienced the Civil War is rapidly dwindling. Milagros Camuñas López is now approaching her eighties.

Despite the upswing since 2000, the process is still informal. Once the ARMH receives a request, volunteers may search military and municipal archives, and conduct interviews with the family and with residents around the area of the suspected burial site. After a grave is opened, if signs of violence are found, representatives of the ARMH will report the discovery to the nearest police barracks. This is intended to trigger an investigation, but in Silva’s experience, the criminal justice system typically does not take cases further. Though he has made hundreds of these denouncements in 17 years, Silva says the 1977 Law of Amnesty means “judges don’t do anything permanent.” Part of the transition to democracy, the law granted amnesty to the perpetrators of all criminal activities of political intention prior to December 15, 1976, a period that includes the deaths of the disappeared. Spanish anthropologist Francisco Ferrándiz confirmed that in effect, the Law is cited in order to block legal proceedings. Often, when a judge sees that it is a matter to do with the Civil War, they will say that it is beyond their capacity, that the statute of limitations has expired. A judge may then archive the case.

Dozens of memory associations like Silva’s have sprung up across Spain, as well as a few directly related to political parties, such as Izquierda Unida, the Communist party. Those seeking to find relatives can appeal to these associations, but must often pay the costs themselves. Silva’s, the ARMH, does not charge the families, and is by far the most prolific, despite lacking state funding. Currently the ARMH operates based on member contributions, public donations, and a few international grants. Emilio Silva’s “office,” a half hour outside downtown Madrid, remains the small cafe where he met me for an interview. Gonçalo Carnim, the Portuguese forensic anthropologist who identified the remains of Camuñas and Lopéz, had volunteered his time. Many of his colleagues do, once remains have been extracted, separated, and transferred to the ARMH’s laboratory for the final step: identification.  

Relatives can also undertake the research themselves, combing through recently opened military archives to try and find out more, and then hiring a specialist to take on the exhumation. Ferrándiz finds the situation alarming: “The state, beyond not having [legal] responsibility or trained teams, hasn’t even developed a protocol [for properly excavating the remains].”  Sometimes, he says, a mayor or senator will appear at an exhumation, but attention from the Spanish federal system is rare. He recalls José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, the Prime Minister who signed the 2007 Law of Historical Memory, visiting Mauthausen, the concentration camp where many refugees of the Spanish Civil War wound up, but not once a site of exhumation. “There’s always been quite a bit of cowardice,” Ferrandiz says of domestic political leaders. Or a lack of political will, as labor lawyer Eduardo Ranz Alonso puts it.

Ranz stepped into the issue of graves backwards. Often, Spanish activists and lawyers get involved in legal wrangling after seeking a family member of their own. Instead, Ranz began taking on pro bono cases five years ago, after seven families in Aragon contacted him to represent them as they sought to recover remains from the Valle de los Caidos (Valley of the Fallen), a massive state-run monument, basilica and gravesite. A few years in, he discovered that his family included four brothers on the Republican side who had been shot by firing squad. His family knows, “more or less,” where the bodies can be found — in Soria, a province in northern Spain.

In one of his ongoing cases, the Lapeña family is seeking a father and an uncle. A judge ordered the exhumation of her family members’ remains from the Valley of the Fallen a year ago. The case was brought under civil jurisdiction by the 58-year old granddaughter, and for her, Ranz said, one more year doesn’t make such a difference. But for the 92-year-old son, one more year is a problem.

The hold up, in the cases of bodies interred in the Valley, lies at the level of the patrimonio nacional, or national heritage agency, which answers to the First Vice President of the Government, Soraya Sáenz de Santamaría. In early April 2017, she said the process had been stalled, waiting on reports on the architectural and forensic viability of removing the bodies from the monument. Those same reports had been requested a year ago, after the decision of the judge. “What we think is that they’re dragging it out, to let it die of old age,” Ranz said.

The case, according to Ranz, represents a move forward, but only in its legal interest to lawyers and judges. “The only reality is that the bodies continue without exhumation and the families without an explanation,” he said.

On August 7th, 2016, I went to the most dramatic Mass I’d ever seen. Forty minutes outside of Madrid, the largest freestanding memorial cross in the world looms above a mountain. In the classic manner of any self-respecting “World’s Largest” attraction, you know you’re getting close when you can see it from the highway.

This is the Valley of the Fallen. On the day I went, I also saw chartered buses, carrying 160 Portuguese pilgrims. They had driven across borders to come to Mass in the monument’s basilica, drilled into the side of the mountain. After I paid the entrance fee, and drove up a winding, forested road to the entrance, I stepped into a cool, echoing tunnel, lined with massive winged angels. Best described as reminiscent of the video game Assassin’s Creed, they hold torches in the shape of swords. The militant nature of the architecture makes complete sense, however, after Mass is over. Every Sunday, parishioners of a certain age line up to make a pilgrimage around the altar, to pray over the grave of Francisco Franco.

“Para las almas de Primo, y Franco, y todos los martires,” whispered one older woman, dramatically, as the Portuguese pilgrims tried and failed at surreptitious cell phone photography. “All the martyrs,” as she mentioned, refers to the estimated 33,832 individuals who fought on both the Nationalist and Republican sides of the Civil War, buried in the crypt beneath the basilica. Only 21,423 have been identified. On either side of the central altar, massive marble doors are engraved, “Fallen for God, and Spain, 1936-1939, RIP.”

Ranz, along with lawyer Manuel Ollé Sesé and judge Baltasar Garzón recently launched a lawsuit to disturb that peace, a peace that they feel is illegitimate. Last summer, they petitioned the government, demanding the conversion of the Valley into a memory space for the use of the families of those buried there. They demanded that the remains of Francisco Franco and José Antonio Primo de Rivera be removed from the monument. (Primo de Rivera was the founder of the Spanish Falange, the Fascist political party that backed Franco’s rise.) They also requested adequate funding for the exhumation and identification of the remains of all those interred.

The petition has been rejected, and will soon be appealed to the Spanish Constitutional court. Beyond the legal wrangling, however, the physical feasibility of such an effort remains in doubt, as Santiago Cantera, then acting abbot of the Benedictine Abbey of the Holy Cross of the Valley of the Fallen, told me after Mass that Sunday in August.

Wearing the traditional black robe, he met me in a room full of old wooden chairs and icons of saints. As many as two-thirds of the remains buried in the Valley could be completely unknown, he said. He believes the monument could actually house as many as 50 or 70,000 dead, because of the degeneration of the remains. Before coming to the Valley, Cantera was a history teacher, and he switched into that role to argue as to why. When the Valley was constructed under Franco, the Republican side was viewed as enemy combatants at best, godless Communists at worst, and the effort at identification and respect for the bodies would have been halfhearted.

“We accept the ruling of a judge,” said Cantera, when I asked about Ranz’s petition on behalf of the Lapeña family. He argued that first, the “logical step” of determining if the bodies can be removed without disturbing other graves must be taken. Months later, Ranz indignantly said “the opinion of a bureaucrat, or even of a priest, is totally subjective,” without the forensic report. “We don’t have it, no one has it, because it hasn’t been done,” he muttered. “It’s the responsibility of the national heritage agency, and it hasn’t been done.” Even if the recovery is proven to be physically impossible, the families are owed an explanation, argued Ranz. He wants to see at least some effort to roughly locate all the bodies in the Valley.

Ranz, Sesé, and Garzón are still pushing the other petition forward — the demand that the entire Valley be examined and its purpose overhauled. But the precedent is dismal. After Garzón opened an investigation into alleged cases of illegal detention and forced disappearances involving more than 100,000 victims, committed between 1936 and 1951, he was accused of overstepping the 1977 Amnesty Law. He argued that it did not apply to crimes against humanity. The European Court of Human Rights had also held in 2009, as a general principle, that an amnesty law is incompatible with a state’s duty to investigate acts of torture or barbarity. Garzón was ultimately acquitted in 2012 on a technicality, but his judicial career was suspended by Spain’s Supreme Court on charges of misapplying Spain’s wiretap law in an unrelated corruption case.

If the Constitutional court in Spain rejects their appeal in May, as Ranz fully expects it will, the case will go to the European Court of Human Rights. But the three had predicted this outcome when they first began to draft the petition in September of 2015. “From the first meeting, we were clear that this had to be taken to Europe,” Ranz told me. He believes no Spanish system, legal or political, will support all the clients he has taken on in the past five years.

In Spain, there are obstacles within hearts and minds, just as difficult to surmount as the lack of funding or political will. After a decades-long dictatorship, many Spaniards do not wish to dig up the past, perhaps because their family supported Franco, or, on the other side of the coin, they remain too frightened. Emilio Silva, founder of the ARMH, remembers an old man who answered the door, in a town where Silva was seeking information for an exhumation. Suddenly, a whisper came from the shadows: “Cállate, no sabes con quien hablas” (Shut up, you don’t know who you’re speaking with). A hand reached out and hit the old man. The door closed. For every successful exhumation, Silva told me, there are many cases that may never come to a close. Ranz also argues that, though organizations like Silva’s are conducting exhumations with “compassion, and professionalism,” the work should be the responsibility of the state, “because the state is responsible.”

But on August 5th, after the long-delayed funeral, Milagros López began to smile. She invited us all to come with her to a local bar. López had finally finished mourning.


Elizabeth Miles ‘17 is a double major in History and Political Science in Jonathan Edwards College. Contact her at elizabeth.a.miles@yale.edu.