Spain investigates tragedy of 'stolen' newborn babies
- 31 March 2011
- From the section Europe
Antonio Barroso always suspected that something in his family wasn't quite right. He was 38 when the secret was finally revealed: his parents had bought him as a baby.
"I discovered my whole life was a lie," Antonio said.
The truth came out during the deathbed confession of a family friend. Like Antonio's parents, he and his wife had been unable to conceive. Both couples had bought their babies from a nun, for "more than the price of a flat".
Antonio's mother has since confirmed the story and DNA tests have proved he has no genetic link to the couple who raised him. His birth certificate had been falsified.
"I want to know the truth," Antonio said, flicking through snapshots of his childhood, "To find out who I am and where I come from. I want to know what happened and who was responsible. And if people need to be punished, they should be punished".
Antonio soon discovered other cases similar to his own, and signs of an illicit trade in newborn babies.
At the support group he set up in Vilanova i la Geltru, his home town on the Catalan coast, the phone rarely stops ringing. The desk is piled high with letters from Spaniards who fear they could be victims of a criminal network, thought to have operated until the 1990s.
For some, that suspicion is strengthened by Spain's history. After the civil war, children were removed from Republican prisoners and given to supporters of General Franco's dictatorship. Historians estimate up to 30,000 children were affected by the 'ideological cleansing'.
"In the 1950s, that practice was converted into mafia business," said Enrique Vila, a lawyer helping Antonio's support group, Anadir. "The goal became money. They took children from anyone, to sell."
The lawyer believes some babies were abandoned by unmarried Catholic girls or prostitutes and others were stolen after doctors told mothers that their newborns had died.
Ana Josefa Escabia died several hours after giving birth in Terrassa in 1975. Her husband clearly remembers seeing his daughter alive.
"I saw her born," Salvador Martin said, his eyes welling with tears, 36 years later. "She was gorgeous, just like her sister."
But doctors later told Salvador his baby had been stillborn. A sealed coffin was delivered to the cemetery.
Last December, tormented by doubts, Salvador decided to open the family vault. DNA tests revealed the baby inside was a boy, and no relation.
Salvador is now desperate to know what happened to his daughter. No other baby was buried in Terrassa on that day. He is convinced his child was stolen.
"It's not like a bag of oranges that you sell. It's a child," he said, holding a picture of Ana shortly before she became pregnant. "We were starting to make a family and they destroyed that completely. I have to meet my daughter. I want to tell her, girl, I'm your Dad".
That longing to be reunited has led Anadir to create a DNA database. When a scientist recently visited Seville to take swabs, the small hall was packed with people convinced that their children had been stolen.
Among those queuing nervously was 72-year-old Dolores Diaz Cerpa. She gave birth in 1973 and says when she awoke from surgery she saw 2 cots. A nurse said she'd had twins. But the boy was then removed and when Dolores woke up again she was told she'd had a girl.
"I always believed I'd had two children and they took one off me," Dolores said. "I would dream of him and wake up wondering how he was."
That conviction was compounded in 1995 when she requested her medical records and was sent papers for a baby boy. Dolores is entering her DNA in the database in the hope that the child she's so sure she gave birth to is alive.
"If he knows he's adopted, I just want him to know I didn't abandon him. He was stolen," she says, echoing the view of many mothers here.
Anadir has more than 800 members now. Other groups have more. Most are women who never saw their babies' bodies, never believed they had died and can find no record of their burials at cemeteries.
It is possible many of the children are really dead, that there are simply mistakes in the paperwork, or that mothers are confused, still raw from their loss.
But signs of a more sinister story are mounting.
A former nurse has claimed she witnessed baby-thefts in Madrid. A cemetery worker in Granada told the BBC he had handled child coffins that were suspiciously light, and now Anadir says a woman who was told her child had died has just been reunited with her daughter in Barcelona. The family have not spoken publicly.
Spain's courts are certainly taking the claims seriously.
Anadir delivered details of 261 cases of suspected baby-theft to the state prosecutor in January. Regional prosecutors have been ordered to investigate. Across Spain hundreds of people are now being summoned to make statements. New cases are being reported all the time.
After years of fighting to get the courts to listen, Antonio Barroso has also been called to see the prosecutor. For him this is not only about trying to expose a criminal practice. It is about discovering who he really is.