‘Busco a mi hija …’: the scandal of the niños robados

In the 2006 film El laberinto del fauno (Pan’s Labyrinth), set in the immediate aftermath of the Spanish Civil War, a Francoist captain has his newborn child taken from his arms by the some of the last remaining maquis (Republican resistance guerrillas).  Ordering them to tell the child how his father died, he is simply told: “He will never even know your name.”

This is an act of cinematic reckoning for one of the crimes of this period of savage repression by the Franco regime: the Niños robados, or ‘stolen children’.  As part of a ‘Politics of Revenge’ by the victors (Preston, 1995), approximately 30,000 children of killed or imprisoned Republicans were forcibly removed from their families, usually by doctors or Catholic priests and nuns, and adopted by Francoists, growing up with no knowledge of their past.  This was part punishment and part ideological, a ‘cleansing’ of the newly fascist Spain from the ‘red lowlife’ (Preston) and their ‘Republican gene’ (see Ryan, 2017).  It also allowed childless Francoist women to fulfil their destiny as ‘templo de la raza’ – to serve their husbands and reproduce for the nation, bringing up the next generation of good Catholics and fascists.

The trafficking of children from families deemed to be politically ‘undesirable’, and later those deemed simply morally or economically deficient (single mothers or the poor), is now known to have continued throughout the Franco regime and well into the democratic period (El Salto, 2018), ending only in around 1990, and may have affected around 300,000 children and their families.  The current trial of Dr Eduardo Vela in Madrid (El Pais, 2018), in case brought by Inés Madrigal, is notable however for being the very first prosecution to be successfully brought to court.  The difficulties experienced in bringing these cases to justice shed light on the contentious nature of the recovery of historical memory in post-Franco Spain.

Unburying the dead

Franco’s death on 20 November 1975 was the beginning of a process in which his proposed successor, King Juan Carlos, oversaw a successful transition to democracy, with the first democratic elections since 1936 being held on 15 June 1977.  However, this also involved a process of deliberate ‘disremembering’ (Davis, 2005:864) and then ‘institutionalised amnesia’ (Davis, 2005:863).  The Pacto del Olvido (Pact of Forgetting/Silence), passed in 1977 alongside an Amnesty law which gave Francoists immunity from prosecution (even for torture), was meant to safeguard the peaceful transition to democracy by preventing the past being used as a political weapon (as Franco’s own propaganda had).  This meant that sites, objects and rituals related to Francoism were left untouched, including Franco’s own highly contested tomb at the Valle de los Caídos (Valley of the Fallen).  Documentary evidence was destroyed or placed in closed archives.  ‘A people cannot and must not lack historical memory’, El Pais reported, ‘but the latter must serve to encourage projects for peaceful future coexistence rather than promote rancour about the past’ (El País, 1977).

There was a general reluctance to reopen old wounds, and by 1983, 73% of Spaniards saw Civil War as ‘a shameful period of Spanish history’ (Preston, 1995:39); the official narrative was one of shared responsibility – atrocities on both sides, best forgotten.  By the end of the 20th century, however, this left Spain living haunted by unfinished business (Labanyi, 2007:113).  The need for truth and transitional justice – in parallels with democratization in Latin American nations such as Argentina, Chile – had never been addressed.  The catalyst for change was in fact the indictment in October 1998 by Spanish magistrates of Augusto Pinochet, former Chilean dictator, for human rights abuses, leading to his arrest in London – a move widely supported by Spanish people as a way of achieving the justice for Chileans which they themselves had never received.  In relation to Spain’s own history, demands for truth, if not justice, began modestly when Emilio Silva, a journalist, instigated a private exhumation in Priaranza del Bierzo in 2000, seeking the remains of his grandfather.  However, the establishment of the Asociación para la Recuperación de la Memoria Histórica (ARMH, Association for the Recovery of Historical Memory) the same year, led to extensive media coverage and public debate – effectively, a “memory boom” (Labanyi, 2007:89).

The election of the Socialist Party (PSOE) in 2004, under PM José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, created the political space to escalate the process, resulting in the passing of the new Law of Historical Memory in 2007.  This legalised the exhumation of bodies of those killed on the Republican side (mainly) from unmarked mass graves.  However, it has also opened up a much wider debate over retroactive justice for crimes which have up to now been overlooked.

Laying the past to rest

Although the scandal of the niños robados had been known for some time (there were complaints of ‘irregular adoptions’ in the 1980s, and in 2006, the Council of Europe was the first international body to include the children in an official condemnation of  Franco’s crimes – see Druliolle, 2018:81), the full scale of it only came to public attention in 2009.   Two childhood friends from the Barcelona area, Antonio Barroso and Juan Luis Moreno, following a deathbed confession by Moreno’s father, discovered that they had both been “bought” from a Catholic priest in Zaragoza.  After consulting an adoption lawyer and discovering that they were not alone, they went to the press, resulting in widespread media coverage (BBC, 2011).  As the story unfolded, private disinterrals by parents who had been told their baby had died revealed empty graves, or adult remains.

The 1977 Amnesty law has, however, made the investigation of child traffickers difficult to pursue.  In addition, patriarchal Spanish laws, typical of the legacy of the Franco era, did not require the name of the biological mother on the birth certificate (According to the BBC, 70% of the births registered at Vela’s clinic in Madrid were recorded as ‘mother unknown’).  In spite of around 2000 complaints being brought prior to the current case, therefore, the only action taken had been a questioning of Mariá Gómez Valbuena, a nun who had assisted Vela, but who died in 2013 before any case could be brought.

The legal impasse began to be broken with the assistance of international human rights organisations; in this context, of particular importance has been the support of the Argentine activist group Asociación Civil Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo (The Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo), whose struggles to reunite stolen children with their parents had strong parallels with those of the Spanish children.  In 2010, two descendants of Francoist victims, Dario Rivas and Inés García Holgado, brought a case before Judge María Servini de Cubría in Buenos Aries (see Ryan, 2017), based on the premise that the 1977 amnesty could not be applied to unresolved crimes which now fell under the domain of international human rights law.  Although the judge found against the claim at that time, the popular support from both civil society groups and experienced human rights lawyers in Argentina gave the movement a new momentum. (Ryan, 2017).

Madrigal, whose landmark case against Vela is now before the Madrid court, having discovered from her mother’s deathbed confession that she had been stolen for adoption, is now seeking her natural parents – a job made more difficult as Spanish law does not require DNA records to be held.  This has begun to shift, with both the Partido Popular and Podemos parties agreeing in June 2017 to a budget for investigating genetic profiles, following a mission from the European Parliament.  The Catholic Church also agreed to conditionally open its archives, although in January 2018, the Victimas de Bebes Robados de Espana were still demonstrating in Madrid to demand fuller access to records.

Image: RTVE

However, this unburying of the past has to be seen in the context of a wider struggle over historical memory – at least among those who remember the Franco years.  Although legal victories in the cases of the stolen children have been slow and incremental, their story is now part of Spain’s public discourse about its past.  The Pedro Almodovar-backed documentary El silencio de los otros (The Silence of Others, 2018), sparked by the ongoing case against Franco’s crimes being heard in Argentina, marks another part of this attempt to break the silence around the victims, including the niños robados (The Guardian, 2018), and is currently showing both in Spain and on the international circuit.

Whatever the outcome of the Vela case, this is part of a long and complex process in which the need for truth and justice, long postponed, is balanced with the dangers of stirring up ancient (and new) hatred.  Even now, there is a danger that Franco himself dominates this story.  In May 2017, Spanish MPs voted to have the dictator’s body removed from the Valle de los Caídos so that the site can be rededicated as a place of national reconciliation.  ‘The wounds have been open for many years,’ new PSOE PM Pedro Sánchez told parliament in July 2018. ‘The time has come to close them.’ (The Guardian, 2018a).  However, as the spectre of fascism rises again across Europe, this is being resisted both by Franco’s descendants, and by Far Right groups who now treat the site as a shrine to National Catholicism, although they deny it.  ‘That’s leftwing manipulation of history,’ the dictator’s grandson, Francisco Franco Martínez-Bordiú is quoted in the same article.  ‘There’s nothing to talk about.’  At the level of the state, then, this attempt to lay old ghosts to rest remains highly divisive.  However, the campaigns for justice for the stolen children allow the victims, not the victors, to take control of the narrative, and are clear reminders that the private is also intensely political.  At the level of the personal and familial, the niños robados, their natural parents and supporters show that there is still plenty to say about recovered memory, transitional justice, and the power of international solidarity for achieving it.


In October 2018, Dr Eduardo Vela was found ‘indisputedly’ guilty of all charges of unlawful detention, falsifying official documents and certifying a nonexistent birth – but was acquitted under a ten year statute of limitations, and therefore walks free.  While this is recognition of sorts, it does not look like justice, and Inés Madrigal has already indicated that she will appeal this in the country’s Supreme Court.  While she has said she knows she is unlikely ever now to trace her own birth mother, there is more than the personal at stake, and she hopes her case will plough a furrow for others who were trafficked as children to follow: “We’re going to keep fighting.”


BBC (2011) ‘Spain’s stolen babies and the families who lived a lie,’ by Katja Adler, 18/10/2011: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-15335899

Davis, M. (2005) Is Spain Recovering Its Memory? Breaking the “Pacto del Olvido“, Human Rights Quarterly,  27:3, 858-880.

Druliolle, V. (2018) ‘The Struggle for Recognition of the Stolen Children and the Politics of Victimhood in Spain’, in V. Druliolle and R. Brett (Eds.) The Politics of Victimhood in Post-conflict Societies: Comparative and Analytical Perspectives, Palgrave, pp. 77-99.

El Pais (1977), ‘Amnistía al fin’ (15/10/1977), p.6.

El Pais (2018), ‘The theft of babies comes to trial’ (22/6/2018): https://elpais.com/politica/2018/06/21/actualidad/1529591793_623777.html

El Salto (2018) ‘Bebés robados, un crimen que continúa en democracia’, by Maria Jose Esteso Poves, 13/2/2018:  https://www.elsaltodiario.com/ninos-robados/bebes-robados-crimen-continua-democracia

The Guardian (2018) ‘Franco’s cruel legacy: the film that wants to stop Spain forgetting’, 8/6/2018: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/jun/08/francos-cruel-legacy-film-wants-stop-spain-forgetting-silence-others

The Guardian (2018a) ‘Franco’s family fights PM over removal of dictator’s remains’, 20/7/2018: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/jul/20/franco-family-refuses-facilitate-removal-dictator-spain

Labanyi, J. (2007) Memory and Modernity in Democratic Spain: The Difficulty of Coming to Terms with the Spanish Civil War, Poetics Today, 28:1, 89-113.

Preston, P.  (1995) The politics of revenge: fascism and the military in twentieth-century Spain.  London; New York: Routledge, Chapter 2, pp. 29-45.

Ryan, L. (2017) Memory, Transnational Justice, and Recession in Contemporary Spain.  European Review, Vol. 25, No. 2, 295–306.

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