The Spanish judicial system has built an international reputation by pushing the limits of the law to take on some of Latin America’s most notorious human rights offenders in Chile, Argentina, Guatemala and El Salvador. But now that system finds itself at a crossroads, with the families of thousands of victims in Spain demanding justice for human rights crimes that were committed by the former military dictatorship.
“When we started, these people were not called ‘the disappeared,’” or “desaparecidos” in Spanish, said Emilio Silva, co-founder of the Association for the Recovery of Historical Memory, which collects memorials from victims of the dictator Francisco Franco, who ruled Spain from 1939 until his death in 1975.
“Even when I started using the word in an article for a local newspaper,” he said, “people rebuked me because I was bringing a word from Latin America that was associated with the disappeared in Chile and Argentina.”
Spain’s democracy is now slightly older than Franco’s nearly four-decade dictatorship. And human rights advocates like Silva say that more than 114,000 Spaniards have disappeared since the beginning of the Spanish Civil War in 1936.
In September, the Spanish government presented a draft of a bill that aims to exhume and identify the remains of many victims who are still buried in mass graves all over Spain. And human rights organizations are calling on the government to officially recognize the disappeared as victims and create a record of truth.
In the past 20 years, Silva’s organization has conducted more than 140 exhumations nationwide. And even though it has created an archive of documentation, he says that without official government support, the truth that it presents has little weight in swaying public opinion.
“The Spanish government has a debt, and we are the ones who are really maintaining a relationship with the families of the victims,” Silva said. “The sons and daughters, a few are still alive, are very old. And the Spanish government does not want to look them in the eye. It wants human rights organizations to act as go-betweens. And in these 20 years, we have seen many people die waiting.”
Exhuming his grandfather’s grave
Silva’s paternal grandfather — Emilio Silva Faba — became the first mass grave victim to be exhumed and identified via DNA testing in Spain.
“I got involved in this because I have a grandfather who spent 64 years in a ditch with 12 other men in a small town in northwestern Spain named Priaranza del Bierzo,” Silva told NBC News.
Silva’s grandfather was born in 1892. And when he was 22, he migrated from Spain to Argentina, before moving north to where his sister — the mother of the first Hispanic New York State Supreme Court justice, Emilio Núñez — had settled in Bridgeport, Connecticut.
The grandfather wanted to open up a Spanish food shop in New York. But during a trip back to Spain, he met his wife and set up his business there.
The shopkeeper was a loyal supporter of the Spanish republic. And his grandson says that his biggest political mission was to get a public school for his village.
In October 1936, after supporters of the military coup had taken all of his money and looted his shop, Silva Faba was summoned to the town hall and arrested. That night, he was driven more than 18 miles in a truck with other men, executed, dumped in a ditch and buried the next day.
Sixty-four years later, his grandson located the body after interviewing elders in the town for a book.
“It turns out that the earth has its own memory. And when someone digs up the earth, it can take around 150 years for it to be completely compact,” said Silva, describing the moment when an excavator found a soft spot in the ground where his grandfather was buried.
“And then suddenly when the bucket of the excavator came back to the surface, there was a boot. He had just caught the first foot of the 13 bodies that were buried in the ditch,”Silva said. “For me this was a very emotional moment because I remembered my grandmother. She had died two and a half years before we found the grave.”
Breaking the silence of the dictatorship
In 2010, after a 1977 Amnesty Law — which protects supporters of the Franco dictatorship from being prosecuted — had been invoked to stop different cases, a group of Spaniards claiming to be victims of repression filed a lawsuit in Argentina.
The Argentine judge used the legal principle of universal jurisdiction, which allows a country to investigate and prosecute human rights crimes that happened in other countries.
In the 1990s, Spain applied the same legal strategy with the intent to prosecute former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet.
The filmmakers Almudena Carracedo and Robert Bahar profiled some of the plaintiffs from the Argentine case in their Emmy-winning documentary “The Silence of Others,” which shows how the lawsuit unfolded and calls attention to the impunity that Spanish victims still endure during democracy.
In one eerily uncomfortable moment, a victim shows viewers how he lives just a few yards away from his repressor.
“This is not something from the past. These people are fighting in the present,” Carracedo said. “It is also crucial for everyone to understand that the lack of justice is not only an issue for the victims. It affects the entire society: This is part of our present, it is our legacy, and we, as a society, have to deal with it.”
Comparatively, Bahar says that justice is not only about connecting what happened in the past with the present, but also connecting what happens in other places with home. And he points out parallels between Spain and the U.S.
“There was a pact of forgetting that said we are not going to address past crimes,” Bahar said, referring to the Amnesty Law in Spain. “And in the United States, we are seeing every day the consequences of not reckoning with the legacy of the genocide against Native Americans and the legacy of slavery and the structural racism and exclusion of African Americans.”
For one of the plaintiffs in the Argentine lawsuit, this connection between people in different countries is the only path for justice at the moment.
“The Amnesty Law can give people amnesia in Spain, but universal jurisdiction does not allow people to forget,” said Luis Suárez-Carreño, who was arrested and tortured in police custody during the last years of the Franco dictatorship. “Democracy cannot be based on impunity.”
Others still hold out hope that the Spanish government will step in with the new law before time runs out.
“My father is 91 years old. Time is passing him by. And he says that he doesn’t want to die without finding his father,” Purificación López said.
Without support of the government, López relies on volunteers to help find her grandfather, a Spanish Civil War veteran named Álvaro López Ruíz who was drafted in 1938 and executed after the war ended near the border with Portugal in Valdecaballeros, Badajoz.