Spain's election raises concerns over fate of Franco victim exhumations

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Spain's election raises concerns over fate of Franco victim exhumations
A picture of Secretary of the Baza City Council, Diego Machado Granados executed between 1936 and 1939 during the Spanish Civil War is put on display on a tree in Viznar, near Granada. Photo: Jorge Guerrero/AFP

There are fears that the pace of exhumations of victims of the 1936-39 civil war and the dictatorship of Francisco Franco that followed could slow down if the right wins Spain's July 23rd snap election, as polls suggest.


In southern Spain, a team of archaeologists is racing to search for the remains of some 200 people executed by firing squad at the start of the Spanish Civil War.

Between July and December 1936, the Víznar ravine just outside the southern city of Granada was used "as a place for executions", explains Francisco Carrión, an archaeologist from the University of Granada who is in charge of the exhumation project.

Among those killed there by Franco's nationalist forces were intellectuals, factory workers, teachers and Spain's most prominent 20th-century poet Federico García Lorca who wrote "Blood Wedding".

Like the others, Lorca was shot for his suspected leftist sympathies by backers of a military uprising against the elected republican government.

As he sieves earth from the mass grave, archaeologist Rafael Cid says working there is much more "intense and personal" than working on a prehistoric site.


Among the remains are also personal effects like gold teeth, lighters, rings, earrings and spectacles.

Most of the victims' immediate family members have died, leaving very few left alive, giving the dig an even greater sense of urgency.

Under a democratic memory law passed in 2022, Spain's government is now responsible for identifying victims buried in unmarked graves. Photo: Jorge Guerrero/AFP

Campaigners say the remains of more than 100,000 victims were left in unmarked graves across Spain, a figure Amnesty International says is only exceeded by Cambodia.

But Spaniards remain deeply divided over this dark period of their history, with a plaque describing Víznar as a "place of historical memory" defaced by graffiti.

On one part, someone has crossed out "lost their lives" and replaced with "were assassinated" while elsewhere, someone has scrawled: "¡Viva Franco!" - "Long live Franco!"


Since coming to power in 2018, Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez has made honouring Franco's victims a priority, with a democratic memory law taking effect in October 2022 that makes the state responsible for identifying victims buried in unmarked graves.

Until then, efforts to find and identify victims were were mainly run by self-funded volunteer associations.

The law has meant more public funding for projects like the one at Víznar.

But Alberto Núñez Feijóo, head of the right-wing opposition Popular Party (PP) which is leading in the polls, has vowed to repeal the law if elected premier.

READ ALSO: Is Spain's right wing definitely going to win the general election?

Both the PP and the far-right party Vox -- its potential coalition partner -- say the law needlessly reopens wounds of the past.

It's an argument quickly dismissed by Carrión.

"It's a question of human rights, plain and simple," he said.

In October 2019, Sánchez's government exhumed Franco's remains from a grandiose complex near Madrid, reburying them in a more discrete grave.

READ ALSO: Spain to relocate remains of Franco's fascist allies to more low-key graves

Once known as Valley of the Fallen but now referred to as Cuelgamuros Valley, the site is Spain's largest mass grave and was partly built by the forced labour of political prisoners.

There lie the bodies of more than 30,000 people from both sides of the civil war, their remains moved there in 1959 from cemeteries and mass graves across Spain without their relatives' knowledge.

An archaeologist cleans the remains of a body executed between 1936 and 1939 during the Spanish Civil War. (Photo by JORGE GUERRERO / AFP)

Among them is Silvia Navarro's great-uncle, a leftist businessman who was executed in 1936. His family has searched for his remains for years.

Navarro said her great-uncle was buried in a mass grave in the northeastern town of Calatayud with "200 others who were killed in similar conditions" with his remains later moved to the Valley of the Fallen "without anyone being consulted".

"I think we families will once again have to fight a lot" to recover loved ones' remains if the PP and Vox come to power, said Navarro.

But Julio del Olmo, head of the Valladolid branch of Association for the Recovery of Historical Memory which has spent two decades exhuming mass graves and campaigning for justice for Franco’s victims, is less concerned.

"Nobody is going to ban the exhumations, they didn't do it before and it won’t happen now," he said.

"What could change is the funding. If we have financial help, the work can be done within a month, if not, within five months," he explains.



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