Saturday, April 2, 2011

Spanish call to probe Franco-era 'baby thefts'

Spanish call to probe Franco-era 'baby thefts'

Members of Anadir at a news conference in Getafe 27 Jan 2011
Members of Anadir attended a news conference in Getafe, near Madrid

More than 260 alleged victims of a baby-trafficking network in Spain begun under the dictator General Francisco Franco have started legal action demanding an investigation.

A victim-support group, called Anadir, estimates that thousands of babies were stolen over decades.

Many were taken away from parents with left-wing sympathies and given to other families.

But the group says some babies were stolen after Franco's death in 1975.

Enrique Vila, lawyer for the victims' group bringing the case, describes a mafia of doctors and intermediaries he claims was trading children for cash.

The practice of forcibly removing children from their mothers began in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War.

The victims then were largely Republican supporters - including prisoners - whose children were handed to more "ideologically suitable" families.

"This structure, these methods allowed people to see the potential for a business," said Mr Vila.

"It all started for political reasons, but in the end it could be any child at all that was targeted."

Enrique Vila

Just imagine how many there could be in the whole of Spain - this has to be a gigantic investigation” Enrique Vila Lawyer representing Anadir

Anadir was founded by Antonio Barroso, after the man he always believed was his father made a death-bed confession.

He admitted he had bought his son, paying "more than the price of a flat" to doctors, in cash.

DNA tests later proved that Antonio and his parents were not biologically related.

"We want the prosecutor to open a national investigation," Mr Barroso said outside the general prosecutor's office.

He was accompanied by a crowd of Anadir members in white T-shirts declaring themselves "the victims of baby-trafficking" and demanding justice.

"There are cases of mothers who had their babies' graves opened and found them empty when they had been taking flowers there for 30 years. Mothers who were deliberately tricked. Then there are people like me, whose birth certificates were faked," Mr Barroso said.

He tried to get a local court to look into his case, but failed. He then founded Anadir as a campaign group and has been amazed at the scale of the response.

Anadir members in Spain
An Anadir banner declares: "We have the right to know our biological family"

Alberto and his mother Solidad Hernandez are both members.

Solidad gave birth to twins in the 1980s and was told one had died. But as many mothers now recount, she never saw the body. Alberto says the official paperwork does not match up.

"One set of papers says my brother was buried, others say he was cremated. One says he died of respiratory problems, another that he was malnourished," Alberto says.

The inconsistencies feed his suspicions and give him hope his twin is still alive.

"All my life I've thought there was someone out there. People always see me in places I have not been. This case could bring all that to a close," he says.

Lawyer Enrique Vila admits that not all the suspicious deaths are clear-cut thefts.

"Some mothers may be clinging to that chance, as a means of hope," he says.

"We don't know, we have to investigate. We need to check all the records, and if necessary order exhumations, to see if there is an empty grave."

But he claims a funeral parlour worker recently admitted transporting 20 empty coffins in the past.

"That is just one man," Mr Vila says.

"Just imagine how many there could be in the whole of Spain. This has to be a gigantic investigation."

'stolen' newborn babies

Spain investigates tragedy of 'stolen' newborn babies

Antonio Barroso at the office of Anadir, an association set-up to support suspected victims of alleged baby trade Antonio Barroso has been told he was bought at birth

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Antonio Barroso always suspected that something in his family wasn't quite right. He was 38 when the secret was finally revealed: his parents had bought him as a baby.

"I discovered my whole life was a lie," Antonio said.

The truth came out during the deathbed confession of a family friend. Like Antonio's parents, he and his wife had been unable to conceive. Both couples had bought their babies from a nun, for "more than the price of a flat".

Antonio's mother has since confirmed the story and DNA tests have proved he has no genetic link to the couple who raised him. His birth certificate had been falsified.

'Illicit trade'

"I want to know the truth," Antonio said, flicking through snapshots of his childhood, "To find out who I am and where I come from. I want to know what happened and who was responsible. And if people need to be punished, they should be punished".

Antonio soon discovered other cases similar to his own, and signs of an illicit trade in newborn babies.

At the support group he set up in Vilanova i la Geltru, his home town on the Catalan coast, the phone rarely stops ringing. The desk is piled high with letters from Spaniards who fear they could be victims of a criminal network, thought to have operated until the 1990s.

Start Quote

We were starting to make a family and they destroyed that completely. I have to meet my daughter. I want to tell her, girl, I'm your Dad”

End Quote Salvador Martin Father, who believes his daughter was stolen from him

For some, that suspicion is strengthened by Spain's history. After the civil war, children were removed from Republican prisoners and given to supporters of General Franco's dictatorship. Historians estimate up to 30,000 children were affected by the 'ideological cleansing'.


"In the 1950s, that practice was converted into mafia business," said Enrique Vila, a lawyer helping Antonio's support group, Anadir. "The goal became money. They took children from anyone, to sell."

The lawyer believes some babies were abandoned by unmarried Catholic girls or prostitutes and others were stolen after doctors told mothers that their newborns had died.

Ana Josefa Escabia died several hours after giving birth in Terrassa in 1975. Her husband clearly remembers seeing his daughter alive.

"I saw her born," Salvador Martin said, his eyes welling with tears, 36 years later. "She was gorgeous, just like her sister."

But doctors later told Salvador his baby had been stillborn. A sealed coffin was delivered to the cemetery.

Salvador Martin and wife Ana Josefa, in 1970s, just before she became pregnant Ana Josefa Escabia and her husband were told that their baby was stillborn

Last December, tormented by doubts, Salvador decided to open the family vault. DNA tests revealed the baby inside was a boy, and no relation.

Salvador is now desperate to know what happened to his daughter. No other baby was buried in Terrassa on that day. He is convinced his child was stolen.

DNA database

"It's not like a bag of oranges that you sell. It's a child," he said, holding a picture of Ana shortly before she became pregnant. "We were starting to make a family and they destroyed that completely. I have to meet my daughter. I want to tell her, girl, I'm your Dad".

Dolores Diaz Cerpa, one of many mothers who is searching for a child she believes was stolen Dolores Diaz Cerpa believes her son was stolen from her

That longing to be reunited has led Anadir to create a DNA database. When a scientist recently visited Seville to take swabs, the small hall was packed with people convinced that their children had been stolen.

Among those queuing nervously was 72-year-old Dolores Diaz Cerpa. She gave birth in 1973 and says when she awoke from surgery she saw 2 cots. A nurse said she'd had twins. But the boy was then removed and when Dolores woke up again she was told she'd had a girl.

"I always believed I'd had two children and they took one off me," Dolores said. "I would dream of him and wake up wondering how he was."

That conviction was compounded in 1995 when she requested her medical records and was sent papers for a baby boy. Dolores is entering her DNA in the database in the hope that the child she's so sure she gave birth to is alive.

"If he knows he's adopted, I just want him to know I didn't abandon him. He was stolen," she says, echoing the view of many mothers here.

Anadir has more than 800 members now. Other groups have more. Most are women who never saw their babies' bodies, never believed they had died and can find no record of their burials at cemeteries.

One of many Spanish courts now investigating allegations of a baby trafficking network Antonio Barroso has been asked to make a statement in court

It is possible many of the children are really dead, that there are simply mistakes in the paperwork, or that mothers are confused, still raw from their loss.

Court summons

But signs of a more sinister story are mounting.

A former nurse has claimed she witnessed baby-thefts in Madrid. A cemetery worker in Granada told the BBC he had handled child coffins that were suspiciously light, and now Anadir says a woman who was told her child had died has just been reunited with her daughter in Barcelona. The family have not spoken publicly.

Spain's courts are certainly taking the claims seriously.

Anadir delivered details of 261 cases of suspected baby-theft to the state prosecutor in January. Regional prosecutors have been ordered to investigate. Across Spain hundreds of people are now being summoned to make statements. New cases are being reported all the time.

After years of fighting to get the courts to listen, Antonio Barroso has also been called to see the prosecutor. For him this is not only about trying to expose a criminal practice. It is about discovering who he really is.