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Digging Up the Truth About Franco's Dictatorship in Spain

teleSUR follows Ascension Mendieta, the 77-year-old on her search to recover the bones of her father, Timoteo, murdered under Franco.

Victims of Franco Demand Justice

 

The Search Begins

 

The last time Ascension Mendieta saw her father was in 1939, when he opened the door to Franco's soldiers who took him away. She was 13. Timoteo had been asleep.

After his arrest, Timoteo was taken to Guadalajara Central Prison, some 50 kilometers from the Spanish capital, Madrid. Like many others imprisoned by the dictatorship of Francisco Franco, he spent the last months of his life there. On November 15, 1939, after a summary trial, he was condemned and sentenced to death “for joining the rebellion.” The following day, he was shot.

Maria Ibarra, Timoteo's wife and the mother of his five children, never saw his body. When they reached Guadalajara from the capital, Franco's men had already thrown it into a mass grave in the local cemetery.

From then until 2017, 77 years have passed. Years that Ascension Mendieta spent searching for the bones of her father. This year, along with the Association for the Recovery of Historic Memory and Argentina's judiciary, she succeeded in exhuming them from the common grave where they were buried and giving them a dignified burial.

“I want one of my father's bones, just one.” That was the first thing Ascension Mendieta said to Judge Maria Romilda Servini de Cubria in 2010, when she arrived in Argentina to join the Argentinean lawsuit. She had turned 88 during the flight.

It was her daughter, Chon Mendieta, who had encouraged the family to take their case to a foreign court. The Mendietas' was the first Spanish case to get a court in another country to force the Spanish state to act on its crimes against humanity.

The Argentine lawsuit was launched by an Argentine judge on April 14, 2010. It was backed, as plaintiffs, by the Nobel Peace Laureate, Adolfo Perez Esquivel, the Mothers and Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo, and other human rights organizations in Argentina and Spain. All of them demanded that the Kingdom of Spain investigate, judge and sentence those responsible for genocide.

To be able to locate Timoteo's bones and open the graves that contained them, Servini de Cubria had to file three pleas, three judicial demands. In these, the Argentine lawsuit reminded Spain that, according to international law and Universal Justice, crimes against humanity never expire. After Cambodia, Franco's Spain is the country that has left the largest number of mass graves in the world.

The Argentine lawsuit bears the number 4591/2010 and the title: “Unnamed, for genocide and/or crimes against humanity committed in Spain by the Franco dictatorship between July 17, 1936, the beginning of the civilian-military coup, and June 15, 1977, the date of the first democratic elections.”

The Exhumation

 

The Association for the Recovery of Historical Memory, or ARMH, was born in 2010, when its current president, Emilio Silva, wanted to exhume the bones of his grandfather. In the process, he realized that this was not just a family matter, but a matter of state.

At the moment, the Association has only voluntary staff. The government of Mariano Rajoy stopped funding for the Law of Historic Memory, so the ARMH has to rely on prizes and contributions from its members and sister organizations. The exhumation of Timoteo Mendieta was made possible by donations from the Norwegian electricians' union, EL & IT, totaling about US$58,000 since 2014.

The cemetery's records showed that Timoteo had been buried in grave No. 2. After two judicial demands were filed, the ARMH began its search in January 2016. They recovered 22 bodies, but when they were sent to Argentina for genetic tests, none of them were him.

“We had to wait a long time”, Chon Mendieta told teleSUR, as she recalled the nine months it took to get back the results of the genetic samples from grave No. 2. That is because the ARMH works with Argentinean Team of Forensic Anthropology to make identifications with 99.9 percent certainty. In Argentina these tests are free, whereas in Spain the organization has to pay for them itself.

In 2017, after a further judicial demand, they opened grave No. 1 and four individual graves. This time they recovered 24 bodies. As before, most of the bodies showed signs of violence and a bullet hole in the skull, the result apparently of an execution at close range. According to tests on the bones and DNA, Timoteo Mendieta was the first body in grave No. 1, and the first to be removed this year.

The excavation of grave No.1 was the result of guesswork by the organization: if Timoteo wasn't in grave No. 2, he must be in the one next to it. On June 9, 12 days after the excavation finished, the laboratory in Madrid came back with the results: the samples included the DNA of Timoteo Mendieta.

One of Many

 

Timoteo Mendieta was a butcher and trade unionist who, at the time of his arrest in 1939, was president of the UGT in Guadalajara. He had five children, three boys and two girls. Ascension was the only one who, after almost 80 years, was able to bury their father's bones in La Almudena Civil Cemetery in Madrid.

“He was dumped there for so long, and now he can rest in peace,” Ascension said to teleSUR of her father. “Him and all of those we found.”

Timoteo Mendieta was not the only one found in the Guadalajara exhumation. From the six graves, the ARMH removed more than 50 bodies which they hope to identify. But if relatives of the disappeared want to recover the bodies in the other 16 graves, they will have to take the same legal path as the Mendieta family: travel to another country, begin international legal proceedings and oblige the Spanish courts. The Spanish State falls back on the 1977 Amnesty Law to avoid opening investigations into the crimes committed under Franco.

Official figures put the number of men and women disappeared in Spain at 114,226, buried in ditches, river banks, woods and common graves in cemeteries.

Franco's Crimes Live On

 
 
  • The Association for the Recovery of Historical Memory is the Spanish organization that helped Mendieta recover her father Timoteo

    The Association for the Recovery of Historical Memory is the Spanish organization that helped Mendieta recover her father Timoteo's remains. He was a victim of the Franco’s dictatorship. | Photo Julia Varela and Hernan Crespo

  • ARMH team excavate grave

    ARMH team excavate grave | Photo Julia Varela and Hernan Crespo

  • Recently exhumed bodies still in their graves in the Guadalajara cemetery.

    Recently exhumed bodies still in their graves in the Guadalajara cemetery. | Photo Julia Varela and Hernan Crespo

  • Ascension Mendieta looks at the archaeologists and volunteers working in the pit.

    Ascension Mendieta looks at the archaeologists and volunteers working in the pit. | Photo Julia Varela and Hernan Crespo

  • Bullet holes from the firing squads were still evident.

    Bullet holes from the firing squads were still evident. | Photo Julia Varela and Hernan Crespo

  • In 17 years, the ARMH have exhumed over 150 graves and recovered the identities of more than 1,400 victims of the Franco dictatorship.

    In 17 years, the ARMH have exhumed over 150 graves and recovered the identities of more than 1,400 victims of the Franco dictatorship. | Photo Julia Varela and Hernan Crespo

  • "Now he can rest in peace"

    "Now he can rest in peace" | Photo Julia Varela and Hernan Crespo

  • Cemetery records showed the wrong grave

    Cemetery records showed the wrong grave | Photo Julia Varela and Hernan Crespo

  • Bullet fragments found in the mass graves.

    Bullet fragments found in the mass graves. | Photo Julia Varela and Hernan Crespo

  • "Murdered for Defending Freedom," is written on one of the gravestones on the mass graves.

    "Murdered for Defending Freedom," is written on one of the gravestones on the mass graves. | Photo Julia Varela and Hernan Crespo

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