In Spain, the long struggle over the “stolen babies” of the Franco era

When the bones of her twin sister, who died in childbirth, were exhumed, Maria Jose Robles’ worst fears were confirmed: her DNA mismatch, suggesting she was one of the newborns kidnapped during the Franco dictatorship.

Over the course of five decades, hundreds, possibly thousands, of babies were taken from their mothers, who were told their child had not survived, and given the infants up for adoption.

“It was here,” says Robles, fighting back tears as she points to where she believed her sister was buried in a cemetery in the southeastern Spanish city of Alicante.

“My twin sister was just two days old when she died, that’s what they told my mother in the hospital,” she told AFP, referring to events in 1962, her voice cracking.

“But she never let them see the body, nor did they let her take the baby home to bury in Elche, where we are from,” says this 60-year-old, who works at a podiatry clinic.

When news of the “stolen babies” scandal broke about 10 years ago, there were some uncanny resemblances to the death of her twin that left Robles and her parents with “doubt” and a sense of “anxiety,” she says.

They began collecting papers and found they were riddled with inconsistencies, prompting them to appeal to the courts, which ordered the exhumation of her sister’s remains in 2013.

Since then, Robles – who runs an organization dedicated to finding stolen babies – has been tirelessly searching for her sister.

Her DNA is registered in several databases and she hopes her sister did the same.

“It’s DNA that is our hope,” she told AFP, saying she dreams of the day one of the labs will contact her to tell her they’ve found her sister.

Known as ‘stolen babies’, these trafficked children would have been too young to know their fate, although it is estimated that many thousands of victims may have died.

– ‘The Marxist Gene’ –

Spain’s Senate on Wednesday passed a law honoring the victims of the Franco era and recognizing for the first time that the “stolen babies” were also victims of his dictatorship.

Immediately after the Spanish Civil War of 1936-1939, won by Franco’s nationalists, babies were taken away from left-wing republican regime opponents to prevent them from passing on the Marxist “gene” to their children.

From the 1950s, however, the system was extended to children born out of wedlock or into large or poor families.

Doctors played a key role: women said their babies died shortly after birth but never gave any proof.

Then the newborns were passed on to couples who couldn’t have children, many of whom were close to Franco’s national-Catholic regime.

The Catholic Church was often involved in the program, which aimed to ensure that the children would be raised by wealthy, conservative, and devout Roman Catholic families.

This human trafficking took place throughout the dictatorship and even after Franco’s death in 1975, mainly for financial reasons, until 1987 when a new law was passed to strengthen adoption laws.

Similar thefts also took place under the military dictatorship in Argentina (1976-1983) and under the regime of Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet (1973-1990).

Argentine human rights organization The Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo believes around 400 babies were born in captivity and illegally given to other people.

In Spain there is no official estimate of the number of babies confiscated, but victims’ associations put the number in the thousands.

In 2008, Spanish courts estimated that between 1944 and 1954 alone, more than 30,000 children from republican families or imprisoned left-wing opponents were abducted and placed in state care.

Some died while others may have been passed on to “approved” families.

– Sold for 725 euros –

Between 2011 and 2019, prosecutors across Spain opened 2,136 “stolen baby” cases, but none were successfully resolved, the latest figures from the Justice Ministry show.

But if legal responses are rare, a handful of Spaniards have somehow made it, like Mario Vidal, a 57-year-old architect from the south-eastern city of Denia.

“It was my adoptive father who told me that they paid 125,000 pesetas to adopt me,” he told AFP news agency, referring to a sum that would be 725 euros in today’s value.

In 2011, he began searching for his birth parents.

After three years of archival searching in the Madrid region where he was born, Vidal was able to identify his mother – only to find that she had died 16 years earlier.

“It was one of the hardest days of my life,” he admitted, saying he was torn between “the feeling of excitement” to realize where he came from and the shock of learning of her death.

When she got it, she was an unmarried 23-year-old from a very conservative family.

Although an official document says she left him, she tried several times to get him from an orphanage before he was adopted, a relative told him and said she was even arrested for it.

He later found his half-brother, who died three years later but still hasn’t found out who his biological father is.

“We are children of a time when those in power did what they wanted,” said Vidal, who has two children himself.