Facing his Torturer as Spain Confronts its Past
By JIM YARDLEYAPRIL 6, 2014
MADRID — José María Galante was a leftist college student when he was handcuffed to the ceiling of a basement torture chamber, his body dangling in the air. A police inspector laughed and taunted him, striking martial arts poses before repeatedly kicking and beating his face and chest.
The man who Mr. Galante says tortured him was an infamous enforcer of the Franco dictatorship in the 1970s, widely known as Billy the Kid for his habit of spinning his pistol on his finger. So Mr. Galante was startled last year when he located the man — living in a spacious apartment less than a mile from his own neighborhood in central Madrid.
“How did I feel when I saw him for the first time? We got you now, you bastard,” Mr. Galante said, adding: “I agree with the idea of reconciliation. But you just can’t turn the page. You have to read that page before you turn it.”
This week, Mr. Galante is again planning to see Billy the Kid, whose real name is Antonio González Pacheco. This time, it will be at a hearing at Spain’s National Court, where Mr. Galante and other victims are, for the first time, seeking to prosecute Mr. Pacheco in a case that is reopening the country’s painful Francoist past and threatening the political pact that helped Spain transition from dictatorship to democracy.
Spain’s democratic transition has been a source of national pride, a period that saw political rivals make compromises credited with allowing a new country to emerge. The public wistfulness for that lost political spirit was evident last month with the death of Adolfo Suárez, the prime minister who guided the country in those early years.
But the grand bargain that allowed this transition was a complicated one. After Franco’s death in 1975, a sweeping amnesty law absolved everyone — leftists and right-wing Francoists — and encouraged a kind of collective forgetting in the name of reconciliation. The belief was that Spain could prosper only by looking to the future, not the past.
For victims like Mr. Galante, this meant the door to justice was slammed shut. For more than 40 years, Spanish courts have refused to hear these cases, citing the amnesty law. So Mr. Galante and others have taken their complaints to Argentina, invoking the legal principle of universal jurisdiction under which certain crimes, because of their magnitude, transcend borders. An Argentine judge is now seeking the extradition of Mr. Pacheco and another individual accused of torture. Mr. Pacheco’s hearing on April 10 in Madrid is to decide whether to grant the request.
Spanish courts are usually reluctant to extradite Spanish citizens. But whatever the outcome, the Argentine case is stirring up old demons in Spain. Critics say Spain must confront its past and even push aside the amnesty law. Others warn that doing so could lead to a slew of prosecutions, even reaching the country’s elite.
Today, Spanish politics, business and law are still sprinkled with people who have direct or indirect links to the Franco regime. Last week, a lawyer for the victims asked the Argentine judge to bring charges against five former ministers from the Franco era.
“I just don’t think it would be good for the country,” said Ramón Jáuregui, a lawmaker with the opposition Socialist Party, who opposed Franco during the 1970s but is reluctant to break the amnesty pact. “We don’t know where it starts and where it finishes. If we take someone who was a torturer in 1970, why aren’t we going to go after some ministers in Franco’s government who are still alive? Why not the courts? Where do we set the limit?”
Spain’s government is already facing growing pressure from the United Nations. Pablo de Greiff, a United Nations special rapporteur, said Spain “lagged behind” other European countries in addressing its recent past. He said Spain’s government had done too little to help victims of the Franco era, and recommended setting aside the amnesty law so that prosecutions could go forward, either in Argentina or in Spain.
“Some problems do not go away,” Mr. de Greiff, the special rapporteur on the promotion of truth, justice, reparation and guarantees of non-recurrence, said in an interview. “They cannot be swept under the rug. People, not surprisingly, do not forget.”
Franco was a contemporary of Hitler and Mussolini, though his dictatorship lasted until the 1970s and his legacy is more complicated, and contested. Not far from Mr. Pacheco’s apartment, the National Francisco Franco Foundation serves as the watchdog of the Franco legacy. The small office is like a time capsule from the dictatorship: Portraits of Franco hang on the walls, while a small display offers souvenir Franco T-shirts and other memorabilia.
“Since the Catholic Kings, Franco was in power the longest, and with the most public support,” said Jaime Alonso, the foundation’s spokesman and second in command. “He had great popular support until his death — despite what the propagandists maintain.”
Mr. Alonso, a lawyer, argues that Franco was not a dictator and scoffs at evidence of forced labor and postwar atrocities. “What is happening now is the need the left has to delegitimize history,” Mr. Alonso said.
Most historians agree that Franco oversaw a regime that trampled civil liberties and often ruled by fear and with impunity.
For several years, private associations led by the descendants of Franco victims have pushed for the exhumation of mass graves from the Spanish Civil War and the dictatorship. In recent years, it was revealed that thousands of infants were abducted from Republican families and placed in institutions or adopted by families loyal to Franco.
Controversy also surrounds the Valley of the Fallen, the massive mountaintop shrine where Franco is buried along with 30,000 others. Franco called the shrine a symbol of reconciliation. But scholars now say that some of the interred are Republican soldiers who were put there without their families being notified.
In 2008, Judge Baltasar Garzón, a crusading magistrate known for stirring up controversy, opened an inquiry to investigate crimes against humanity during the Franco era. Within two years, Judge Garzón’s investigation was shut down after a right-wing group (represented by Mr. Alonso of the Franco Foundation) filed a lawsuit accusing him of overstepping his judicial authority.
Eventually, Spain’s Supreme Court removed him from the bench after finding that he had wrongly used illegal wiretapping in a different case — a finding that his supporters say was politically motivated. “In my case, it was an example of killing the messenger,” Judge Garzón said in an interview. “What they don’t understand is, yes, the transition was fine — at the time of the transition. But they don’t understand that now, the government is not allowing access to the truth, to justice.”
One of the lawyers in the Pacheco case, Carlos Slepoy, said that the Spanish authorities have sought to derail his prosecution, too, even as depositions have been taken at Argentine embassies around the world. Groups of Spanish victims have flown to Argentina to provide testimony.
“Initially, there were two families and a few human rights organizations that set this in motion,” Mr. Slepoy said. “Now, there are 350 lawsuits, innumerable depositions and a huge public support movement.”
Ángel Llorente, an official with Spain’s Ministry of Justice, said the government was cooperating with the Argentine judge and has allowed the extradition process to continue. Mr. Pacheco and his lawyers could not be reached for comment, despite repeated efforts. He has not spoken publicly about the torture allegations against him.
Mr. Galante, the man accusing Mr. Pacheco of torture, has already testified in Argentina about his experiences in the 1970s — a period when the abuses of the dictatorship had supposedly ended. He was arrested several times for protesting and joining an illegal anti-Franco student union. In custody, Mr. Galante said, he was beaten on his genitals and subjected to a form of water boarding.
“Billy the Kid had such a sense of impunity,” he said. “He never thought he would get caught. He didn’t ever think about getting information. He just wanted to beat people up.”
Last year, Mr. Galante and others began their search for him. They discovered he had founded a private security company. Later, a contact provided a copy of his national identity number, which helped them discover that he had competed in the New York City Marathon and a half marathon in Madrid.
Finally, they found his address, not far from Bernabéu Stadium of the Real Madrid soccer team. “We did what he used to do with us: A bunch of us would stand in the neighborhood, and if we spotted him, we would follow him,” he said. “The first time we saw him, he was running. We had to pretend we were running, too.”
Patricia Rafael and Brenda Yastremski contributed reporting.