On 20 March, a Spanish judge gave prosecutors leave to proceed with a case against an 80-year-old nun charged with kidnapping. According to lawyers for victim groups, as many as 350,000 babies were stolen from poor, single or left-wing mothers between 1938 and the late 1980s. Sister María Gómez Valbuena, who had links with a maternity clinic and put ads in the paper offering help to unmarried mothers, is the first person to be prosecuted for it.
Accused of selling a baby to an infertile couple in 1982, she allegedly first told the mother that the child had died; then that it was going to be adopted, and that if she made a fuss she’d be accused of adultery and lose her other child (never mind that adultery wasn’t a crime). When the child grew up and, with the help of her adoptive father, tracked Sor María down, the nun apparently told her that her mother had been a prostitute who didn’t want her. But after watching a TV programme about the daughter and her search, the mother came forward and DNA tests confirmed the relationship.
The case against Sor María is unusual only in that it has got so far. In the last few years, hundreds of cases have been dismissed for lack of evidence: systematically destroyed records make it hard to prove how this traffic persisted long after democracy was restored. The WHO seems never to have noticed the surprising levels of reported infant mortality in Spain. The San Ramón clinic in Madrid allegedly kept a baby in a freezer to show mothers as the ‘corpse’. A culture of female submissiveness and respect for the Church prevented poor and vulnerable women from acting on their suspicions.
What became a business began as a Fascist experiment in biopsychiatry. In 1938, Franco set up a Gabinete de Investigaciones Psicológicas to conduct Nazi-inspired experiments on prisoners (men from the International Brigades, Republican women) to try to identify a ‘red gene’ or the ‘psychophysical roots of Marxism’. The precise nature of the experiments remains obscure. In 1939 it was concluded that children would have to be taken away from their degenerate (or executed) parents, and re-educated in nice Catholic families.
After the Civil War, commandos traced and ‘repatriated’ refugee children who had gone to live with families abroad (the children in camps had already been returned). Propaganda films told the world that the children were being reunited with their parents; in reality they were being segregated in religious orphanages that punished them for the sins of their fathers, and, where possible, auctioned them off to decent Franquists. By 1954, according to the estimate of sociologists and investigators working with Judge Baltazar Garzón in his 2008 inquiry into the crimes of the regime, 30,960 children had been relocated and given new birth certificates. When the ideology waned, the networks and techniques remained.
Garzón was recently struck off on a technicality. But the outcry, and the paranoia, is growing. Branches of SOS Bebés Robados are multiplying; in the Basque country, infant graves were opened and several found empty. Almost anyone who doesn’t look like their parents is wondering. A video by the artists Nuria Carrasco and Ramón Mateos plays with the idea of stolen children growing up to become the officials who are now blocking attempts to uncover the truth.