Can new Spanish law lay the ghosts of the Civil War to rest?

The remains of one of Spanish dictator General Francisco Franco‘s most brutal Civil War henchmen, General Gonzalo Queipo de Llano, were discreetly exhumed in the small hours of the morning in a central Seville church in early November.

Only one member of the families of the 45,000 Republicans killed on his orders was present to witness the scene, and even that was from a distance.

Paqui Maqueda had already gone to bed when she received a long-awaited phone call from a friend telling her that the exhumation, carried out on government orders by Queipo de Llano’s family at a time of day when public attention would be minimal, was finally going ahead.

But Maqueda, nonetheless, felt an obligation to get up and drive across Seville to keep watch outside La Macarena Basilica.

By doing so, “a long overdue debt that person [Queipo de Llano] had with my family was finally settled”, she told Al Jazeera.

‘Democratic Memory Law’

The exhumation of Queipo de Llano and the subsequent incineration in a private family ceremony is the first significant consequence of sweeping new overhauls of Spain’s laws, dubbed the “Democratic Memory Laws”, aimed at ending decades of conflict over Franco’s legacy.

Previous Spanish legislation with the same purpose has only been patchily effective.

One of the new laws’ goals is to stop burial sites of figures like Queipo de Llano become rallying points for Spain’s far right, who traditionally pay homage to Franco’s regime on November 20, the anniversary of the dictator’s death in 1975.

But as Maqueda told Al Jazeera, the removal of Queipo de Llano’s remains also settles some unfinished business with the dictatorship’s repression of her family.

“I had to do it,” said Maqueda, who cried “honour and glory to Franco’s victims” on one side of the church square during the exhumation.

“Firstly, for political reasons, because I am the representative of a ‘memorialist’ association  – one of the multiple organisations in Spain fighting for the recognition of the rights of dictatorship victims – and it felt important for one of us to be there. Secondly, I had a personal debt with that man and his relatives that needed to be dealt with,” she said.

“I didn’t know when or how but I knew a moment would come when that debt would be settled. And his exhumation was that moment.”

Family suffering

Maqueda’s family suffered greatly because of Queipo de Llano and the Franco dictatorship.

Her great-grandfather and one of her great-uncles were murdered by Queipo de Llano’s troops in the 1930s. In the decades that followed the Spanish Civil War, another great-uncle spent most of his life in a concentration camp for alleged political offences, finally dying in poverty.

A family property was seized on the direct orders of Queipo de Llano after her great-grandfather’s summary execution. It has never been returned.

The repression of her family did not stop there. Similar to hundreds of Spanish “Red” (Communist) families, when Maqueda’s mother had a baby in 1936, her newborn child was taken away from the hospital and never seen again.

Yet more of Maqueda’s relatives, socially branded as “grandchildren of Reds” and suffering economic repression as a result, were forced to migrate hundreds of miles from Seville to find work.

Queipo de Llano’s exhumation is just one consequence of the sweeping new legislation.

Among 65 new measures, organisations that attempt to defend Franco’s regime are banned, while victims of the dictatorship condemned as criminals for their political and religious beliefs or sexual orientation have now been cleared of any legal offence.

One of the highest profile beneficiaries of this measure will be the renowned Spanish poet Miguel Hernández, whose death sentence for supporting the Republic was commuted to life imprisonment, and who died in Alicante prison in 1942 of typhus and tuberculosis.

But perhaps most importantly, the state will now be responsible for the search, exhumation and identification of the officially estimated 110,000 victims of the dictatorship who have remained in unmarked mass graves the length and breadth of Spain.

“Back then, it was all about getting a phone call from a victim’s relatives and doing the work unpaid. Also, you had to have a cast-iron legal case to start digging because you’d always run into the same problem: If you were excavating an unmarked grave from the dictatorship years, you were investigating a crime scene.”

“But thanks to the new laws and state financial backing, much bigger mass graves can be opened up. It’s a major step forward.”

However, despite the government’s new legislation, the process of exhumations has still faced considerable obstacles.

The country’s single largest case of unidentified Spanish Civil War victims concerns the 30,000 unidentified combatants, mainly Republicans, who – thanks to one of the former dictator’s most macabre death wishes – were interred in the mausoleum where Franco was originally buried.

Franco’s remains were removed from the mausoleum and reburied in 2019, but three years on, families wishing to exhume those of their relatives buried there on a dictator’s whim are still unable to do so.

“The process is not moving forwards because the mausoleum is inside the municipality of San Lorenzo del Escorial”, which is run by the right-wing Partido Popular party, whose leader Alberto Nuñez Feijoo has promised to repeal the Democratic Memory Law should he take power, and “is currently refusing to grant the necessary permits”,  Eduardo Ranz, the lawyer representing multiple families in the case, told Al Jazeera.

“That’s even though, unlike the other exhumations in Spain, which will go ahead through government administrative channels, we have a legal verdict which upholds the rights of the families who want their relatives’ remains removed for burial.”

Ranz has taken the mayor of San Lorenzo del Escorial to court over the continuing block for the perversion of the course of justice.

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