‘Sold for €725’: What happened to Spain’s stolen babies?

When the bones of her twin sister who died at birth were exhumed, María José Robles's worst fears were confirmed: their DNA didn't match, suggesting she was one of the newborns snatched during the Franco dictatorship.

'Sold for €725': What happened to Spain's stolen babies?
María José Pico Robles, who's looking to find out what happened to her sister, holds an old photograph of her parents as she poses in a cemetery in Alicante, on August 19th 2022. Almost five decades after the death of Francisco Franco, Spanish lawmakers voted through a flagship law on October 5, 2022 seeking to honour the victims of the 1936-1939 civil war and the ensuing dictatorship. (Photo by Jose Jordan / AFP)

Over the course of five decades, hundreds, possibly thousands, of babies were taken from their mothers, who were told their child hadn’t survived — with the infants given to others to adopt.

“It was here,” says Robles, fighting back tears as she points at the place where she thought 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 hospital,” she told AFP, referring to events that happened in 1962, her voice breaking.

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

When the news first broke about the “stolen babies” scandal some 10 years ago, there were some uncanny similarities with her twin’s death which left Robles and her parents with “doubts” and a sense of “anguish”, she says.

They began gathering paperwork and found it was full of inconsistencies, prompting them to approach the courts which in 2013 ordered the exhumation of her sister’s remains.

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

Her DNA is registered with several databases and she is hoping her sister has done the same.

“It’s the DNA which is our hope,” she told AFP, saying she dreams of the day when one of the laboratories contacts her to say they’ve found her sister.

Known as “stolen babies”, these trafficked infants would have been too young to know of their fate, with estimates suggesting there could be many thousands of victims.

Trafficked infants were too young to realise they were taken from their real parents, with estimates suggesting there could be thousands of victims. (Photo by Jose Jordan / AFP)

‘The Marxist gene’

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

In the immediate aftermath of the 1936-1939 Spanish Civil War won by Franco’s Nationalists, babies were initially taken from left-wing Republican opponents of the regime to prevent them from passing on the Marxist “gene” to their children.

But from the 1950s onwards, the scheme was expanded to include children born out of wedlock or into large or poor families.

Doctors played a key role, with women told their babies had died shortly after delivery but never given any proof.

Then the newborns were passed on to couples unable to have children, many of them close to Franco’s National Catholic regime.

The Catholic Church was often complicit in the scheme which aimed to ensure the children would be raised by affluent, conservative and devout Roman Catholic families.

This trafficking occurred throughout the dictatorship and even beyond Franco’s death in 1975, largely for financial reasons, until a new law strengthening adoption laws was passed in 1987.

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

Argentinian rights organisation the Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo believes some 400 babies were born in captivity and illegally handed over to other people.

In Spain, there is no official estimate of the number of babies that were seized but victims’ associations believe there may have been several thousands.

In 2008, the Spanish courts estimated that more than 30,000 children were taken from Republican families or jailed left-wing opponents and taken into state custody between 1944 and 1954 alone.

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

Mario Vidal holds up a photo of his ‘stolen’ brother, whom he found alive. (Photo by Jose Jordan / AFP)

Sold for €725 

Between 2011 and 2019, prosecutors across Spain opened 2,136 “stolen baby” cases but none have been successfully resolved, the latest justice ministry figures show.

But if answers through the justice system are rare, a handful of Spaniards have somehow managed to do it, such as Mario Vidal, a 57-year-old architect from the southeastern town of Denia.

“It was my adoptive father who told me they had paid 125,000 pesetas to adopt me,” he told AFP, referring to a sum that would amount to €725 ($715) in today’s money.

He started looking for his biological parents in 2011.

After three years of hunting through archives in the Madrid region where he was born, Vidal was able to identify his mother — only to realise she had died 16 years earlier.

“That was one of the hardest days of my life,” he admitted, saying he was torn between “the sense of excitement” of realising where he was from, and the shock of learning of her death.

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

Although an official document stated she had abandoned him, she tried several times to get him out of an orphanage before he was adopted, a relative told him, saying she was even arrested for doing so.

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

“We are children of an era in which those in power did whatever they wanted,” said Vidal, who has two children of his own.

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Spain to stop exclusion of newly registered people from social services

The Spanish government aims to ensure that residents recently registered on the padrón can no longer be excluded from essential social services, as well as outlining rules for social care provisions for people who move between regions.

Spain to stop exclusion of newly registered people from social services

On January 17th, Spain’s Council of Ministers approved a preliminary draft bill reforming the country’s social service provisions. 

Though ultimately the legal and organisational remits will remain, as before, in the hands of Spain’s regional governments, the proposed legislation seeks to establish a common framework of services, including minimum standards that all autonomous regions must comply with.

Crucially, among them, the regions will be compelled by law to provide ‘essential social services’ to all residents regardless of how long they have been registered on the padrón.

READ ALSO – Padrón: 16 things you should know about Spain’s town hall registration

The padrón certificate is basically proof that shows where you are living. Your town hall – or ayuntamiento – uses it to find how many people are living in the area and what their ages are. If you plan on staying in Spain for more than three months and becoming a foreign resident in Spain, you are required by law to register for your padrón within this time.

Spain’s social service system, headed by Minister for Social Rights, Ione Belarra, provides support for the disabled, families, infants and teenagers, residential care and the homeless community, among many other disadvantaged groups.

As part of the draft bill, the requirement for a minimum time of registration or residence to access basic services will be removed, which will benefit not only Spaniards who have moved from one region to another, but foreigners who have recently become residents in Spain.

READ ALSO: Can I get my padrón online in Spain?

With this legislation, the Ministry of Social Rights aims to make Spain’s social services “more personalised, more comprehensive and inclusive” and remove barriers to care, according to sources within the Ministry.

“The aim is to lay the foundations for a new model of social services, a path that some regional legislations have already embarked on, far from a welfare-based approach and focused solely on emergencies,” the source added.

The bill is still in the draft stage, and the final text must be formally approved first by the Council of Ministers and then pass through the Spanish parliament. Once, and if, it is green-lighted by both those bodies, the Ministry will then have to agree with the regions which social services are specifically considered essential, and outline a catalogue of services that all regions will be obliged to guarantee to all residents, regardless of when they carried out their padrón registration.

The draft bill establishes that “all persons with effective residence in Spain are holders of the rights contained in this law, without any distinction or exclusion”. 

Moving around Spain

Although the regions will no longer be able to set minimum registration times to be ‘empadronado‘, that is, registered on the local census, as a requirement for access to social services, their power to make access to social services conditional on registration in their region looks set to remain.

Fortunately, however, that will not prevent or interfere with another of the new rules proposed in the legislation: the right of access to social services for people who spend seasons or periods outside their region, elsewhere within Spain.

In that sense, the social services model could become similar to public health in that all residents maintain their access rights, even if they are not registered in that region. For example: if a person who is registered with and receives social services in one region spends the summer in a beach house located in another region, the proposed law will establish that second regional administration (the one being visited) will take on the responsibility for social service previsions while they are there.