Selected writing: Spain

Spain’s stolen children

March 1, 2009

During General Franco’s reign, tens of thousands of children were taken from their families, handed over to fascist sympathisers and brainwashed. Now growing old, they are fighting to discover the truth about their past before it’s lost for ever. By Christine Toomey. Photographs: Clemente Bernad

The only memory that Antonia Radas has of her father has haunted her as a recurring nightmare for nearly 70 years; it is the moment of his death.

Antonia is a small child in her mother Carmen’s arms. Both are looking out through the refectory window of a prison where Carmen’s husband, Antonio, is being held. They see him lined up against a courtyard wall. Shots ring out. Antonia sees a red stain burst through her father’s white shirt. His arms are in the air. Another bullet goes straight through his hand.

After that Antonia believes she and her mother must have fled the prison. But Carmen and her two-year-old daughter were soon arrested. They had been arrested before. That was why Antonio had given himself up, thinking this would guarantee their freedom. But they were the family of a rojo or red — a left-wing supporter of Spain’s democratically elected Second Republic, crushed by General Francisco Franco’s nationalist forces during the country’s barbarous 1936-to-1939 civil war. As such they would be punished. These were the years just after the war had finished, and the generalissimo’s violent reprisals against the vanquished republicans were in full flow.

Antonia is now 71 and living in Malaga. Her memories of much of the rest of her childhood are clear, and many of them happy. “I was raised like a princess. I was given pretty dresses and dolls, a good education, piano lessons,” she says.

It is only when I ask what she remembers about her mother, Carmen, from her childhood that Antonia’s memory once again becomes sketchy. “I remember that she was thin and she wore a white dress. Nothing else. I didn’t want to remember anything about her,” she says with a steely look. “I thought she had abandoned me.”

This is what the couple who raised Antonia told her when she came home from school one day when she was seven years old, crying because another child had said that she couldn’t be the couple’s real daughter since she did not share their surnames. “They told me that my mother had given me away and that my real family were all dead. They said they loved me like a daughter and not to ask any more questions. So I didn’t.”

By then a culture of silence and secrecy had descended on the whole of the country, not just the south where Antonia grew up. These were the early years of Franco’s dictatorship, when loose talk, false allegations, petty grievances and grudges between neighbours and within families often fuelled the blood-letting that continued long after the civil war had finished. In addition to the estimated 500,000 men, women and children who died during the civil war — a curtain-raiser for the global war between fascism and communism that followed — a further 60,000 to 100,000 republicans were estimated to have been killed or died in prison in the post-war period.

Even after Franco’s death in 1975, after nearly 40 years of fascist dictatorship, few questions were asked about the events that had blighted Spain for nearly half a century. To expedite the country’s transition to democracy, the truth was simply swept under the carpet.

Franco’s followers received a promise that nobody would be pursued, or even reminded, of abuses committed. In 1977, an amnesty law was passed ensuring nobody from either side of the bloody conflict would be tried or otherwise held to account. A tacit agreement among Spaniards not to dwell on the past took the form of an unwritten pacto de olvido — or pact of forgetting, which most adhered to until very recently, when the mass graves of Franco’s victims began to be unearthed.

While the majority of his nationalist supporters had long since been afforded decent burials, the bodies of tens of thousands of republicans — many subjected to summary executions — were known to be buried in unmarked pits.

In 2000, a number of relatives’ associations sprang up to try and locate the remains of missing loved ones. When the socialist prime minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero was elected in 2004, the agreement not to rake over the past was ruptured; during his election campaign he made much political capital out of the country’s left-right divide by repeatedly reminding voters that his grandfather had been a captain in the republican army and had been executed by Franco’s military.

To mark the 70th anniversary of Franco’s coup, Zapatero, in 2006, drafted a controversial “historical memory” law intended to make it easier to find and dig up the mass graves of republicans by opening up previously closed archives. In addition, the law — a watered-down version of which was passed after much heated political debate — ordered the removal of Francoist plaques and statues from public places. It also set up a committee to which former exiles, political prisoners and relatives of victims could apply to have prison sentences and death penalties meted out by the Franco regime declared “unjust” — not illegal, given the huge financial implications for the state in terms of compensation this could entail.

Since then, however, such issues surrounding atrocities committed by Franco’s henchmen have become bogged down in a legal quagmire.

Attempts last autumn by one of the country’s leading judges, Baltasar Garzon, to have Spanish courts investigate, as human-rights crimes, the cases of more than 100,000 “forced disappearances” under the Franco regime came up against a judicial brick wall when the country’s high court ruled it had no jurisdiction over such matters, given the 1977 amnesty law. While legal experts continue to argue over whether such crimes recognised by international law are subject to statutes of limitations, regional courts have been asked to gather information about those who disappeared — most of them killed — within their territory.

It is amid this current legal wrangling that one of the least-known chapters of Spain’s sad history has emerged — and it is not about the dead but the living. It concerns those like Antonia, who have come to be known as “the lost children of Franco”.

Both during the war and the early years of Franco’s dictatorship, it is now estimated that between 30,000 and 40,000 children were taken from their mothers — many of whom were jailed as republican sympathisers — and either handed to orphanages or to couples supportive of the fascist regime, with the intention of wiping out any traces of their real identity. Often their names were changed, and they were indoctrinated with such right-wing ideology and religious dogma that, should they ever be found by their families, they would remain permanently alienated from them psychologically.

While similar policies of systematically stealing children from their families and indoctrinating them with lies and propaganda are known to have been carried out by military regimes in Latin American countries, such as Argentina, Guatemala and El Salvador, in these countries trials and truth commissions have long since sought to expose and punish those responsible. But in Spain, the process of uncovering what happened to these children — like that of unearthing mass graves — is only now stirring intense and painful debate.

This is partly because the events happened much longer ago, making them more difficult to unravel. But also because the country’s tense political climate has turned what has become known as “the recovery of historical memory” into such a contentious issue that many argue it should be dropped from the public sphere altogether and remain a purely private or academic matter.

Where this would leave the “lost children of Franco” is unclear. Just how many are still alive and looking for their families is uncertain. But given their advancing years, at the beginning of January Garzon sent an additional petition to regional Spanish courts arguing that, as a matter of urgency, they should offer help to such “children” — now pensioners like Antonia — and families wanting to uncover the truth about the past before all traces of their origins are lost.

Garzon is requesting that DNA samples be taken from those searching for lost relatives — such genetic databases have long existed, for instance, in Argentina — and believes the cases of the “lost children” should also be treated as forced disappearances, ie, human-rights crimes without any statute of limitations. The DNA would be taken from those who are looking for missing relatives and matched with samples taken from those who believe their identity may have been changed when they were a child.

In many ways Antonia considers herself lucky. More than 50 years after she was separated from her mother in prison, the two were finally reunited, briefly — Carmen died 18 months later. Yet despite the apparent happy ending to her story, Antonia displays such deeply ambivalent feelings about her mother as we talk that it is clear that Franco’s aim of psychologically alienating the children of “reds” from their families was achieved. Even now Antonia does not like to be reminded of the name her mother gave her when she was born — Pasionaria, in honour of the civil war communist leader Dolores Ibarruri, known as La Pasionaria. She tuts loudly when her youngest daughter, Esther, writes it in my notebook.

“I believe if she [Carmen] had really wanted to find me when I was still a child, she would have,” Antonia says bitterly, ignoring the fact that when her mother was released from prison in the mid-1940s, like other former republican prisoners, she lived a life of penury, her freedom to work, move and ask questions severely limited.

Mother and daughter were reunited in the end through the efforts of one of Carmen’s older daughters, Maria, who, together with another daughter, Dolores, and son Jose, both then in their teens, had been left to fend for themselves when Carmen was imprisoned with their baby sister. Determined that her mother should see her lost child before she die, in 1993 Maria appealed for information about her sister on a television programme dedicated to locating missing relatives, which Antonia saw, by chance.

It was only then that Antonia learnt that her mother had signed a document handing her daughter into the care of a fellow prison inmate about to be released — prison rules dictated that no child over the age of three be allowed to remain with their mothers — on condition that the girl be returned to her when Carmen herself was freed from jail. Instead, her infant daughter was given, or sold, to the couple who raised her — devout churchgoers who took her to live in Venezuela for some years when she was a teenager, which was when they finally changed her surname to match their own. Carmen had already changed her daughter’s name to Antonia when she was a young child to try and protect her from the wrath of anti-communists.

All this Carmen was able to tell her daughter in the short time they had together before she died. The couple who raised Antonia were already dead by the time of the reunion, but she seems to bear them no grudges, realising they gave her a more comfortable childhood than her siblings had. The deep rancour this still causes between Antonia and her eldest sister, Dolores, is evident, as I see the shadowy figure of Dolores stand briefly outside the window of the downstairs room where I sit talking to Antonia in a rambling house in Sarria de Ter, Catalonia, where she is visiting her daughter, grandchildren and other members of her natural family. Dolores looks in at us, glowers, then walks off, shaking her head. She does not like her sister talking to strangers about the past, and jealously guards her own family secrets. She will not tell Antonia, for instance, where their father’s body is buried — though Antonia knows she carries the details on a piece of paper in her purse — believing that only she, who suffered a life of poverty and misery during and after the civil war, has the right to place flowers on his grave.

Such complicated emotions between siblings and other relatives concerning the events of the civil war and its aftermath are mirrored in families throughout Spain. It is one reason why this period of history was so little discussed for so long. “It is astonishing how many families are from mixed political backgrounds, with maybe a husband on the left and a wife on the right, which meant such things were not discussed over Sunday lunch,” says the historian Antony Beevor, author of the definitive history of the civil war — The Battle for Spain. Beevor believes that public debate about such events is long overdue. “The pact of forgetting was a good thing at the time, but it lasted too long. When you have deep national wounds and you bandage them up, it is fine in the short term, but you have to take those bandages off fairly soon and examine things, preferably in a historical context rather than in a completely politicised one.”

Like many others, Beevor believes Garzon’s attempts to bring such matters before the courts have turned them into a political football that is now being kicked about both by the right and the left for their own ends at a time when Spain can ill afford such bitter polarisation. The country is still grappling with the aftermath of the 2004 Madrid train bombings, carried out by Islamic fundamentalists, continuing terrorist attacks by Eta, growing demands for more regional autonomy, and the fallout of the global financial crisis.

“Why try to drag all this through the courts now. Who are they going to put on trial after all this time? Ninety-year-olds who are beyond penal age?” says Gustavo de Arestegui, spokesman for the country’s conservative Popular party. “Those at the top of the hierarchy of the Franco regime are all dead. Let history be their judge.”

But such arguments miss the point, says Montserrat Armengou, a documentary-maker with Barcelona’s TV channel, who both wrote a book and made a film about Franco’s “lost children” with her colleague Ricard Belis and the historian Ricard Vinyes. “There never has been and never will be a good time to uncover the truth about this country’s past. But the longer we wait the more difficult it will become, because those who were directly affected and know what happened will have died.”

Another part of Garzon’s petition to the courts at the beginning of this year regarding Franco’s “lost children” was a plea that regional magistrates urgently order statements be taken from surviving witnesses to how children were separated from their mothers in Franco’s jails before their testimonies are lost. One such witness is Trinidad Gallego, who we meet in her small apartment in the centre of Barcelona. Aged 95, she talks lucidly, and in a booming voice, about the things she saw when imprisoned with her mother and grandmother in a series of women’s jails in Madrid after the end of the civil war.

As a nurse and midwife, Trinidad was present at the birth of many babies in prison, though few records — either of children brought into the prison or born there — were ever kept.

“I saw some terrible things in those prisons,” she says. “Mothers were kept separated from their children most of the time and all mothers knew their children would be taken away before they were three years old. The priority was to brainwash the children so they would grow up to denounce their parents.”

From the early 1940s onwards, many children of prisoners were transferred into orphanages known as “social aid” homes, said to have been modelled on children’s homes established in Nazi Germany. Their parents were not told what happened to them after that; a law was passed making it legal to change the names of the children, who, thereafter, had no legal rights. The historian Ricard Vinyes has described the orphanages as “concentration camps for kids”. Those who spent time in such places have spoken about how they were made to eat their own vomit and parade around with urine-soaked sheets wrapped around their head.

Victoriano Cerezuelo was registered simply as “child number 910 — parents unknown” when he was placed as a baby in the maternity ward of an orphanage in Zamorra at 8am on April 15, 1944 — the day recorded as his birthday, although he was already weeks or maybe months old by then. When he was five, Victoriano was adopted by a farming couple, but was returned to the orphanage seven years later when the wife, sick of being beaten by her husband, threw herself down a well. “After that I placed an advert in a local paper trying to locate my real parents. As a result, I was beaten to within an inch of my life by a priest, while a nun at the home told me “the more you stir shit, the worse it smells”, recalls Victoriano, 64, as he sits in his Madrid apartment fingering a small black-and-white photograph of himself as a boy. “I would just like to know who my parents were before I die.”

Uxenu Ablana, who spent most of his childhood being transferred from one orphanage to another in Asturias, northern Spain, knows who his parents were. His mother was tortured to death by nationalist forces to extract information about his father, who had been jailed for lending a car to republican officials during the civil war. Uxenu can still recite by heart all the fascist

Falange anthems that were drummed into him in these homes, together with so much force-fed Catholic dogma that, initially, he quibbles about meeting me when I tell him my first name is Christine, so much does he still hate religious reminders. “I have no words to describe all the pain I went through. We were domesticated like dogs, beaten and humiliated, made to wear the Falange uniform and give fascist salutes,” says Uxenu, 79, when we eventually meet in Santiago de Compostela, where he now lives.

“I am not a lost child of Franco — I am dead. They killed me, what I could have been, when I was put in those homes. They brainwashed me against my father and true Spanish society.”

When he was able to leave the orphanage at the age of 18, Uxenu, whose name had not been changed, was tracked down his father, who by then had been released from jail. But the two were strangers and quickly lost contact. “I had to keep quiet for so long about what happened to me, and I still feel like a prisoner in a society that does not want to talk about the past,” says Uxenu, whose wife is so opposed to him recalling his childhood experiences we have to meet in a restaurant.

The problems that Uxenu, Victoriano, Antonia, and who knows how many more, have faced and continue to face regarding their past as Franco’s “lost children” is justification enough in the eyes of Armengou and others for Garzon to pursue his attempt to get what happened to them classified as a crime against humanity. Fernando Magan, a lawyer for a group of associations representing Franco’s victims, vows he will take the case to the European Court of Human Rights and the United Nations if Spanish courts fail to properly address the issue. “Justice is not only about prosecuting those responsible for crimes, it is about helping victims uncover the truth about what was done to them or to their loved ones — in this case in the Franco era,” argues Magan.

To those who say it is time Spain turned the page on this period of its past, Uxenu voices what many feel: “Before you can turn a page you have to understand what was written on it. Unfortunately here in Spain, we are still at war — a war of words and feelings.”

Sun, sea and debt

April 26, 2009

After pooling everything to buy a place in the sun, thousands of Brits are drowning in debt and having to kiss their dream lifestyle goodbye. Photographs: Clemente Bernad

A wedding album thick with cards offering congratulations and photos of a smiling couple lies abandoned on the kitchen counter. Boxes full of toys, clothes and other personal belongings stand stacked in corners. One box full of family snapshots shows two young children with their parents in a swimming pool, on the beach, at a restaurant — in all the pictures the sun is blazing and the family looks happy.

This, in the apartment they fled in the small village of Benijofar on the Costa Blanca, is all that remains of the dream of one British expatriate family who moved to southern Spain two years ago in search of a better life.

“They just disappeared overnight, packed a couple of suitcases and went, leaving no forwarding address,” says the British employee of a Spanish bank whose job it is to prepare repossessed properties in the area for auction.

“There are thousands of others like them. Often they don’t tell anyone they’re going, because they’re leaving behind debts that they can’t pay, even though they might have substantial equity in the property they’re abandoning.”

In the case of the family whose apartment he shows me, this amounted to nearly £50,000 on a property bought for £140,000. But since the collapse of the Spanish property market the family would have stood little chance of reselling. Spain has a massive glut of unsold properties — around 1m, of which 500,000 are newly built.

“Many people, particularly young families in recent years, sold up in the UK and put everything they had into their ‘place in the sun’, only to find everything go badly wrong as the economy collapsed and work dried up,” says the bank worker, requesting anonymity for fear of repercussions from his employers. Spain currently holds the European record for unemployment at more than 15%.

“Some feel badly treated. The banks here can get very heavy-handed as soon as people fall into arrears on their mortgages. Men in suits turn up at the door making demands, and people don’t know what to do.”

“Many Brits are running scared. Many are angry,” he says, describing the damage some have wrought on their properties before leaving. One man backed a cement lorry onto the rear patio of his apartment and had the entire ground floor filled with cement.

“The mood here has turned ugly,” he adds, estimating that around 10% of all properties bought by the 40,000-50,000 British who live in the Valencia region of southeast Spain alone are going through various stages of repossession.

Multiply this across Spain, where more than a million British passport holders now live either full time or for part of the year, and a sorry exodus back to the UK is unfolding.

While Spain is unique because of the sheer number of Britons who have moved there over the past 20 years — only Australia has more, with approximately 1.3m — and because of their tendency to create enclaves that could easily pass for small-town England, it is not the only country where expats are now hard-pressed.

Those living throughout the eurozone and relying on fixed incomes from savings or pensions in the UK have found the value of their incomes drop by around a third as the pound has plummeted in value against the euro, from €1.5 in January 2007 to near-parity. (At its peak in 2000, £1 was worth €1.75.) On sun terraces and verandas across Europe, in the shire outposts of “Dordogneshire” in southwest France and “Chiantishire” in Tuscany, conversation revolves around little else.

Many who moved to these more affluent areas in search of sunshine and a better quality of life may talk of cutting back on meals out, or reducing the quality of the wine they drink at home, but they are not facing economic disaster.

Many of those who moved to Spain, however, are pensioners or have taken early retirement and are relying on diminishing fixed incomes paid in pounds in the UK. For them — and for young people who went abroad with their families in search of work — times are increasingly tough.

In Dubai, too, the dream is over. Those who bought into the promise of quick fortunes to be made in businesses such as property speculation in Dubai — where Sharia law metes out harsh sentences for defaulting on debt — risk jail merely for bouncing a cheque. The prospect of such draconian penalties accounts for the growing number of luxury cars being found abandoned at the country’s international airport — 3,000 in recent months. Most are found by airport police with keys left in the ignition and some with used-to-the limit credit cards in the glove box. A few of them display notes of apology from the owners that gather dust on the windscreen.

Those who face financial hardship in Britain are at least on familiar ground and are able to fall back, in extreme circumstances, on support from the state. They are also more likely to have friends and family at hand. But those who have moved abroad enjoy few such benefits: when hard times hit, many find themselves struggling to understand the legal, health, social-security and other backup systems of the countries to which they have moved.

Rational observers might say they should have done their homework more thoroughly before they left the UK and now deserve little sympathy. But it is difficult to accept this view when you meet those affected, particularly those who have worked hard for much of their lives and made plans for a new life at a time when few had any idea that the global economy was facing meltdown. Even the government, with all the problems it faces at home, is turning its attention to the plight of expats, particularly those in Spain and Portugal, where many young families and pensioners are facing real hardship.

In recent months, the British embassy in Madrid has teamed up with the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) to create a programme advising expats on the help they might be entitled to. Co-ordinated through local British consulates along the length of Spain’s southern and eastern coastline from Tarragona on the Costa Dorada to Benalmadena on the Costa del Sol, a series of “road shows” have been held to answer questions from worried expats on how best to weather the economic downturn. The programme could soon be extended to Portugal.

There was little cheer, however, for those who turned up at one of these road shows held in Torrevieja on the Costa Blanca at the end of February, attended by the DWP’s most senior civil servant, Sir Leigh Lewis. Far from lifting the mood of those gathered in a large hall in the town centre, Sir Leigh struck a sombre note: “Much as I would love to wave a magic wand and tell you everything is going to be all right and we will pay your pensions and benefits in a standard euro rate in future, the truth is we are not.

“The fall of the pound against the euro must be extremely tough for those of you receiving pensions and other benefits who have seen their value fall. But the fluctuating exchange rate is something we all have to live with,” the mandarin said bluntly. “Over the years there have been good times and bad. It’s a case of swings and roundabouts.”

“The big message to anyone still thinking of moving abroad is: think very carefully before you go and don’t take anything for granted,” says Gillian Merron, minister for consular affairs, who has recently returned from a visit to southern Spain. “Life happens. Things go wrong, and they go wrong in Alicante just as they do if you stay at home.”

Take a turning off many of the main roads lined with swaying palms that run through the Vega Baja del Segura area of Valencia, where Torrevieja is located, and you feel like you are straying into a slice of 1950s Middle England. This southern part of the region of Valencia has the highest concentration of British residents anywhere outside the UK — in some communities they make up over 75% of the population. Ask some of the British who moved here why they left the UK and Britain’s “open-door immigration policy” quickly crops up in conversation; few seem to see any irony in having themselves become immigrants who make little effort to integrate with the local Spanish community.

The older expats, who moved here for a more comfortable retirement, are keen to put a brave face on the financial predicament they are in now that their pensions have fallen in value by a third. Volunteers at the Torrevieja branch of

Age Concern, for instance, have been horrified by reports in the British press of their efforts to provide a warm lunch for struggling pensioners run under headlines such as “Costa del Soup Kitchen” and “Helldorado”.

“We were simply serving a winter warmer soup to people who came into our centre when temperatures dropped in January, the coldest winter here for nearly 40 years,” explains Judith Ferris, the local Age Concern president. When pressed, however, she mentions one elderly British woman standing shivering outside the doors of the centre who has not been able to afford heating in her apartment for more than a month. The woman refused to be interviewed.

The truth is that this older generation are proud and reluctant to discuss their finances; they feel uncomfortable at the media spotlight turned on their straitened circumstances. Many are also more accustomed to hard times.

“My wife keeps a careful eye on the housekeeping, so we’ll muddle through,” said one 80-year-old retired postal worker from Truro sitting on the terrace of Torrevieja’s Casa Ventura bowls club.

The club’s vice-captain, Phil Mornachan, a 57-year-old private investigator from Stockport, was less optimistic: “Unless you’re well and truly loaded, the expat dream here is dead. I’m thinking of going home.”

His despondency is more typical of those who moved here with families in recent years, particularly those who sought work on the back of the property boom. Down the coast from Torrevieja is a vast complex of small villas and apartments known as Orihuela Costa, where of the 28,000 registered residents, around 23,000 are British, many of them young couples with children.

“This used to be a buzzing community, full of life, but now it’s turning into a ghost town,” says Paul Moran, owner of the Emerald Isle Leisure Centre, where young families gather on a Friday night. He cites the dozens of small bars and restaurants in the area that have closed in recent months as growing numbers return to the UK.

Of those families attempting to stay, many are finding they can only survive if the husband commutes out of the country to work. “We had to struggle to make a new life here. But we wanted a better quality of life for our boys,” says Mark Strudley, who moved to the area from west Wales with his wife and three young sons four years ago.

Like many new arrivals, Mark worked selling property for several years, but when the property bubble began to burst two years ago (prices have since plummeted by as much as 30-40%), he was forced to look for work much further afield. He has since found a job as an offshore oil worker on a rig in the North Sea and spends two weeks out of every four away from his family.

“We’re determined to stay here. We wouldn’t say we’d never move back, but we don’t want to,” he says, as his young sons play nearby.

This view is shared by another young family relaxing close by at the Emerald Isle. Neil and Denise Couzens originally wanted to start their own business in Spain so that their nine-year-old son and six-year-old daughter could enjoy a life “away from knife crime, gangs and bullying”. But Neil now finds himself commuting back and forth to Norwich to continue running a pub and sandwich bar he owns there so that his wife and children can continue to live in Spain. “It’s no different from working away from home in the army,” he says with a shrug.

Those with little stamina for long-distance commutes have no choice but to return. Derek Beetham, 55, also once sold property in the area, but was laid off in 2007 when the estate agency he was working for closed down — as have an estimated half of Spain’s 80,000 estate agencies in the past 18 months. “If I could afford to stay I would,” he says, looking out over the pool of the four-bedroom villa he bought with his wife eight years ago and has now put up for sale. “We bought this long enough ago that we should still make a profit. But who knows what we’ll be able to afford back in the UK.”

Mark and Julia Edwards are a younger couple who have also decided to make the move back this summer. They have run a small teashop in San Miguel, Orihuela Costa, for several years. “Our business has gone well and we have been happy in Spain. But this feels like the right time to return, mainly for our son’s education,” says 45-year-old Mark, from Bedfordshire. Their son, Jack, is 15.

“We have had a good seven years here. But things are changing fast. I hope what is happening now will make people stop and think about some of the madness that has gone on here,” he adds. “I hope it will put an end to the culture of greed, both that of the Spanish who have massively overdeveloped this area and that of many Brits who simply came out here looking to make a fast buck.”

In expat enclaves such as the Dordogne, where the property market has not collapsed so decisively, the effects of the recession have been less dramatic. “We don’t have hordes of Brits sitting around with their suitcases packed. They would have to sell a house in a market where it’s difficult to get a good price and they would be returning to a country where the credit crunch is hitting even harder than it is here,” says Alexandra Thevenet, of the Dordogne’s Franco-British chamber of commerce and industry.

Compared to Spain, the fall in property prices in France has been more gradual.

The French National Estate Agents Federation (Fnaim) estimates that prices dropped by 5% in 2008, though since last autumn the decline has become steeper, and Fnaim anticipates a drop of 10% this year.

The more frugal attitude to credit in France — where banks typically insist that credit-card bills be paid in full every month and few mortgages exceed 75% of the value of the property — means it is harder to sink into the sort of financial quagmire that has prompted Brits to flee from Spain because of substantial negative equity on their homes and bills they cannot pay.

Nevertheless, of the 200,000 British passport holders permanently resident in France, there are those who are bidding au revoir to the Gallic dream. Among them are Brits who traded in suburban semis for remote ruins that they turned into gîtes, with romantic visions of tourists pouring in. The financial crisis has meant that fewer tourists are travelling abroad — particularly to the eurozone, where the pound is so devalued — and the rising cost of living has made such ventures less viable.

Even those with more ambitious plans, such as the former City lawyers Patrick and Collette Bergot — whose renovation of a 16th-century chateau in the Limousin region of south-central France featured in the Channel 4 series No Going Back: Chaos at the Castle — say they have had to put plans to extend their family-run hotel on hold until they are more certain of the number of guests coming in future. “We can’t help but worry with the way things are going.There are definitely fewer people looking for holidays this year than last,” says Patrick.

“While we are fairly confident of bookings over the summer, the number of people booking weekends as a treat is definitely down.

“We would almost certainly not have been able to make the move out here in the current economic climate — we did it on the strength of the value of our property at home.”

In the 13th-century market town of Eymet in the Dordogne, meanwhile, where around a third of the population of 2,500 is British, one local removal firm reports a “flurry” of Brits moving back to the UK in recent months. The numbers are still small: half a dozen or so couples and families left the area in the weeks around Christmas. “Before that, we were dealing with an almost exclusively one-way traffic of people coming out,” says Alan Chorley of the locally based AC Light Haulage. “People are still coming, though in fewer numbers than before.”

Tony Martin, who runs French Liaison, a help centre in Eymet for British people, confirms that a steady number of expats are still arriving. “They are tending to rent rather than buy now, as they can’t sell their homes in the UK, and they are testing the waters here more carefully before they make a permanent move.”

The same trend is confirmed in countries further north, such as Belgium, where large numbers of British expats work on short-term contracts for international companies or organisations such as the European Commission.

“The sword of Damocles is hanging over some people I know as they await the verdict of contract renewal,” says Paul Morris, editor of Expatica Belgium and France, an internet forum for English-speaking expatriates.

In France, as in Spain, it is British pensioners and those who have taken early retirement and are relying on fixed incomes from UK-based funds and savings, who are hardest hit by the recession. Not only are they suffering the effect of the falling value of the pound, but changes to French law are forcing non-working expats who arrived in the country after November 2007 but are not yet of retirement age to seek private medical cover. Such cover can run as high as €2,500-3,000 per person a year — a substantial sum for a couple.

One financial-consulting firm based in Bergerac in the Dordogne reports a significant rise in the number of British expats seeking help with equity-release schemes, previously little heard of in France.

“I’ve had nearly 100 inquiries since the start of the year from British people who are struggling now to pay food bills and other expenses like medical insurance,” says Céline Monier, of Make It Easy Consulting. “Arranging these schemes now makes up 50% of my work. Last year it was less than 20%.”

Yet in exclusive enclaves such as the Luberon region of Provence, made famous by Peter Mayle’s original “flit-lit” bestseller, A Year in Provence, the credit crunch does not appear to be biting. “I’m sure there are people who are really hurting,” says one British writer living in the medieval village of Ménerbes, where Mayle set the book. “But I can’t get a table for lunch tomorrow at our favourite local restaurant because it’s overbooked, and I still can’t get a plumber to fix our radiators in anything less than six weeks, because they are all occupé.”

Likewise, in Tuscany, dubbed “Chiantishire” because of the generations of well-heeled Brits who have sought the good life among its rolling hills and vineyards, there is little evidence of expat suffering. “Like everywhere, people are feeling the pinch,” says Peter Shaw, editor of Italy magazine, who has a home near the walled city of Lucca. “But I’m not seeing any signs of a mass exodus. Those who can afford to live in Tuscany can afford to live in Tuscany.”

Compared with Spain and France, the number of British citizens registered as permanent residents in Italy is relatively small — around 19,000 — though there are an estimated 50,000 who own homes in the country and live there for part of the year. “Brits who moved to live here with a view to working or setting up businesses are in a rather different situation from those who went to countries where English is more widely spoken,” Shaw stresses. “In Italy you pretty much have to learn the language, and you also have to battle with so much more red tape than in other countries, so most will have done a lot more homework before moving here in the first place.”

Expatriates working in Italy are also less likely to be affected by the credit crunch than those elsewhere, argues Bill Thomson, head of the Italian department at the international estate agents Knight Frank and a Tuscany resident for more than 20 years. “There’s much less of a debt culture here, mainly because Italian banks are so strict in their criteria for lending money. So people live more according to their means.”

Those who are selling up and leaving Italy are more likely to be driven by the opportunity to capitalise on the increased value of their property by converting any profit from its sale in euros into sterling, argues one estate agent in the more recently popular central area of Le Marche.

“The market has changed,” says Gildo Ercoli, of A & G Immobiliare in the medieval hill town of Amandola. “There are more English selling and fewer buying, though their place is being taken by the Dutch, for instance, who are not affected by the problems of the falling pound.”

This underlines a point also made by Tony Martin in Eymet in the Dordogne: that many who are now moving back to the UK from Europe never intended to “stick it out” anyway. “Those who were never completely committed to living abroad are using the economic downturn as an excuse to return home,” says Martin.

It is a view echoed by the novelist and screenwriter Frederic Raphael, who divides his time between the Dordogne and London.

“I certainly don’t want to imply that it serves anyone right, because it is very easy to jeer at others’ misfortunes. A lot of people went abroad on fixed incomes thinking they were going to play golf for the rest of their lives, and they have been hit very hard — and I don’t think anyone should gloat about it.

“But for those who only went abroad for financial advantage, it is some kind of warning,” he says. “I don’t feel frightfully sorry for people who used to splash it about and now don’t have enough water in the bath to splash. To them I’d say: have a good wash with a flannel, ducky.”

Private eyes, public lies

February 10, 2008

Paid £50,000 a month to find Madeleine McCann, the Spanish detective Francisco Marco said he hoped to have her home for Christmas. He issued this photofit of a suspect last month; it set off a media frenzy, but Portuguese police say it has ‘no credibility’. Christine Toomey turns the tables on a private eye who is anything but

Francisco Marco might have been thinking about other matters on the day he apparently spoke out about his hopes that Madeleine McCann would be home for Christmas. It was the day his Spanish private detective agency, Metodo 3 – paid an estimated £50,000 a month to help find Madeleine – moved from cramped premises above a grocer’s shop specialising in sausages in Barcelona’s commercial district to a multi-million-pound suite of offices in a grand villa on one of the city’s most prestigious boulevards.

When a taxi driver drops me off at Metodo’s new premises, he tilts his finger against the tip of his nose and says “pijo” – meaning stuck-up or snobbish. Pointing to the restaurant on the ground floor, he says: “That’s where people who like to show off go – so others can see their Rolex watches and designer clothes.”

It is in his office on the second floor that Marco has agreed to meet me, the first British journalist, he says, to whom he has ever granted an interview. When I point out that he was filmed by a Panorama documentary crew in November claiming he was “very, very close to finding the kidnapper” of Madeleine, he corrects himself: “Well, apart from that.” Marco will tell me later how who he has spoken to, and what he has or has not said, has been misunderstood.

But first I must wait, taking a seat at a long, highly polished boardroom table surrounded by pristine white-leather chairs. At one end of the room, discreetly lit shelves display an impressive collection of vintage box cameras and binoculars. Stacked against the walls are modern paintings waiting to be hung. It feels more like an art gallery than the hub of one of the most frantic manhunts of modern times.

There is no discernible ringing of telephones; little sign of activity of any kind, other than a woman searching for a lead to take a pet poodle for a walk and the occasional to-ing and fro-ing of workmen putting finishing touches to the sleek remodelling of the office complex.

It is not clear whether this is where the hotlines for any information about Madeleine are answered. Opposite the boardroom is an open-plan area of around half a dozen cubicles, equipped with banks of phones and computers. Most are empty when I arrive; admittedly it is lunch time. But I cannot ask about this.

“We won’t answer any questions about Maddie. Maddie is off limits – is that understood?” Marco’s cousin Jose Luis, another of the agency’s employees, warns me sternly.

Catching me eyeing the setup, he is quick to explain that Metodo 3, or M-3, bought the premises earlier last year. Though I say nothing, I get the distinct impression he wants to make it clear that this was before M-3 persuaded those involved in decisions regarding the £1m Find Madeleine Fund – partially made up of donations from the public and partly from business backers such as Brian Kennedy – to sign a six-figure, six-month contract with the firm, whose financial fortunes now seem assured by the worldwide publicity they’ve since received.

“All the remodelling work took months, so we only moved in on December 14,” he says, hesitating slightly before adding: “Moving is better at Christmas.” The implication that this was a quiet period for M-3 is strange, as it was exactly the time Marco is reported to have said his agency was “hoping, God willing” that Madeleine would be imminently reunited with her family. Marco has since denied he said this.

I cannot ask him to clarify what he did say, or whether talking about an ongoing investigation is potentially detrimental. Instead, I am left to discuss the matter with a handful of other private detective agencies in Barcelona, the private-eye capital of Spain. What they tell me is disturbing.

I expect a certain amount of rivalry, and some of what they say about M-3 could be dismissed as jealous gossip. But they claim otherwise.

They say there is nothing they would like more than to see M-3 succeed in solving the mystery of Madeleine’s disappearance. But they worry that M-3’s inflated claims of progress in the case is making a laughing stock of the rest of them. References to Inspector Clouseau cut deep. They are proud that, unlike their UK counterparts, Spanish private detectives have to be vetted and licensed. They must also have a specialised university degree in private investigation. More importantly, in a profession where discretion is critical, they worry about the effect of such public declarations on the progress of any investigation. It is in the days following reports that the Find Madeleine Fund is considering sacking M-3 that I talk to Marco – though of course I cannot discuss this with him.

Clarence Mitchell, the spokesman for Kate and Gerry McCann, Madeleine’s parents, says he believes M-3 “put themselves forward” for the task, as did a number of other companies. Just a week after the four-year-old’s disappearance from the McCanns’ holiday apartment in Praia da Luz in the Algarve on May 3 last year, Portuguese police had announced that official searches were being wound down. Initially, the British security company Control Risks Group, a firm founded by former SAS men, was called on for advice. Mitchell confirms that the company is still “assisting in an advisory capacity”, but he says that the reason the

Spanish detective agency was hired was because of Portugal’s “language and cultural connection” with Spain. “If we’d had big-booted Brits or, God forbid, Americans, we’d have had doors slammed in our face, and it’s quite likely we could have been charged with hindering the investigation, as technically it’s illegal in Portugal to undertake a secondary investigation,” Mitchell explains. “But because it’s Metodo 3, [Alipio] Ribeiro [national director of Portugal’s Policia Judiciara] is turning a blind eye.” Portuguese police are reported to dismiss M-3 as “small fry”.

Mitchell says the decision to hire M-3 on a six-month contract from September was taken “collectively” by Gerry McCann, and the family’s lawyers and backers, on the grounds that the agency had the manpower, profile and resources to work in several countries. “You can argue now whether it was the right decision or not,” he says, referring to widespread reports that M-3 will find its contract terminated in March – if it hasn’t been already – and not just because the Find Madeleine Fund is dwindling. “But operationally Metodo 3 are good on the ground,” he insists.

It was M-3, for instance, who recently commissioned a police artist to draw a sketch of the man they believe could be involved in Madeleine’s disappearance, despite Portuguese-police claims that the sketch had “no credibility”.

Clearly, the McCanns are desperate to keep Madeleine’s disappearance in the public eye. And the release of photofits by M-3 will help to achieve this. The McCanns insist, however, that they are not engaged in a bidding war for interviews with American television.

But when 35-year-old Marco finally breezes into his company boardroom and throws himself into a chair opposite me, I do not get the impression that the prospect of losing the contract that has brought his company such notoriety is playing much on his mind.

Marco slaps on the table a 144-page pre-prepared dossier of articles written in the Spanish press about himself and M-3. He goes on to list some of those in the city he says I have already been speaking to about his company. Had my movements been monitored? If so, why would a private detective agency be interested in this at a time when they were supposed to be tirelessly searching for the most famous missing child in the world? This confounds me until, after talking to Marco for half an hour, I conclude that what motivates him – as much as, if not more than, his professed desire to present Madeleine with the doll he boasts he carries around in his briefcase to hand to her when he finds her – is a sense of self-regard, self-publicity and money.

) ) ) ) )

In most of the many pictures of himself included in the material he hands me, Marco looks a little nerdy. He wears the same serious expression, slightly askew glasses and suit and tie in nearly all of them. But when we meet he has a more debonair look. He is wearing a black polo-neck jumper underneath a sports jacket, sharper, and better-adjusted half-rimmed glasses, and a fringe that looks as though it has been blow-dried. It is as if his image of how a suave private eye should be has finally been realised.

In contrast to the other private eyes I meet, however, Marco is anything but relaxed. While most of them sit back easily in their chairs, trying to size me up, Marco leans towards me as we talk. He presses his hands hard on the table, almost in a prayer position, to emphasise a point, and has an intense, slightly unnerving stare.

He seems eager to please. He summons a female assistant on several occasions to bring me material, including a book he has recently written, to illustrate what he is talking about. Even when I make it clear this is not necessary – aware that these distractions eat into the time we have to talk – he insists, partly showing off.

When I ask about his background, Marco summons her to photocopy the first pages of his doctoral thesis on private investigation: he has a master’s degree and a PhD in penal law. He gets strangely agitated when she can’t find it, telling her to carry on looking, then mutters that he will have to look for it himself. Eventually he starts to reminisce about his youth. As a teenager, Marco says, he was so keen to become a private detective that he would get up at 5am to follow people on his scooter and record their movements before starting and after finishing his studies. His mother, Maria “Marita” Fernandez Lado, founded M-3 in 1986, when he was a boy, and he used to help out in the agency every holiday.

I hear several different accounts of what Marita was doing before she set up the agency. According to her son, she was working on a fashion magazine when, by chance, through Marco and his brother’s boyhood love of sailing, she met and became friends with a private detective. “From that moment, she decided she wanted to create her own detective agency, and wanted it to be a big company with big cases, a real business. She wanted to change the public image of a small private detective concerned with infidelities,” Marco says.

In Spain, private eyes are sometimes called huelebraguetas – “fly [zip] sniffers”. One of the reasons Barcelona has always been the home of so many of them, Marco explains, is that Catalonia – traditionally one of the wealthiest regions in Spain – had many rich families wanting to safeguard their inheritance. So parents would employ “fly sniffers” to check out the backgrounds of the people their sons or daughters wanted to marry. M-3 took a different track. It started specialising in investigating financial swindles, industrial espionage and insurance fraud. His mother was the first private detective, Marco says, to provide video evidence used in court to unmask an insurance fraudster: she filmed a man reading who had claimed to be blind. Marco also speaks about how in the early 1990s his mother had helped advise the Barcelona police, who were setting up a new department dedicated to investigating gambling and the welfare of children. He says his mother advised them on how to track adolescents who had run away from home, helping them to trace 15 or 16 of them at that time. (It is when I try to bring the interview back to this subject, to see if these were the children the agency has talked about finding in the past, that the interview grinds to a halt.)

But the agency almost came to grief early on, when police raided its offices, and Marco, his mother, father and brother were arrested and briefly jailed in 1995 on charges of phone-tapping and attempting to sell taped conversations. They were never prosecuted, as it was clear that the police had entrapped them.

Their big break came nearly 10 years later, when M-3 was credited with tracking down one of Spain’s most-infamous spies, Francisco Paesa, a notorious arms dealer and double agent also known as “El Zorro” (The Fox) and “the man with a thousand faces”. Paesa fled Spain after being charged with money-laundering. His family claimed he died in Thailand in 1998 and arranged for Gregorian masses to be sung for his soul for a month at a Cistercian monastery in northern Spain. Acting for a client who claimed to have been defrauded by Paesa’s niece, M-3 traced the fugitive to Luxembourg. At the behest of the Spanish national newspaper El Mundo, the agency then traced him to Paris. Paesa remains on the run, however.

“This was just one of our great achievements. Our biggest successes have never been made public,” boasts Marco. “If you speak to other detectives in Spain, I don’t think they will speak very highly of us because they are envious. But as far as other detectives around the world are concerned, we are the biggest, the most famous; the ones who work well.”

Again in collaboration with El Mundo, and again by following an illegal money trail, M-3 last year tracked down the daughter of the wanted Nazi war criminal Aribert Heim to a farm in Chile. “This was pro-bono work, and we only do it when we have time,” says Marco. The hard-pressed detective did have time just before Christmas, however, to launch a book he had co-written with a Spanish journalist. The book claims that clients of M-3 sacked directors of a charity involved in sponsoring children in the Third World, were victims of a plot to discredit them by people associated with a Spanish branch of Oxfam who were jealous that the public was giving them large donations. The sacked directors are still under investigation for fraud.

It is perhaps because Marco has spent so much time collaborating with journalists in the past that he feels so comfortable talking to the press – the Spanish press, at least – about his investigation into Madeleine McCann. In November he gave two lengthy interviews about the case, one to El Mundo and another to a Barcelona newspaper, La Vanguardia.

In the interview with El Mundo, Marco talks touchingly about how his six-year-old son asks him the same question every evening when he kisses him goodnight: “Papa, have you found Maddie?” Because the little boy is learning to read, the article continues, he knows that his father is “the most famous detective in the world”.

But why, the journalist Juan Carlos de la Cal asks, would anyone in the UK, “the country of Sherlock Holmes, with all its cold-war spies and one of the most reliable secret services in the world”, have chosen M-3 to help? “Because we were the only ones who proposed a coherent hypothesis about the disappearance of their daughter,” Marco replies, explaining that M-3’s “principal line of enquiry” at that time – the article was published on November 25 – was “paedophiles”. He talks about how he “cried with rage” when he investigated on the internet how paedophiles operate.

Apart from these comments made by Marco, little concrete is known about how M-3 has been conducting its investigation. In the same article, Marco’s mother says the agency, which she claims has located 23 missing children in the past, has “20 or so” people working exclusively on the McCann case. M-3 was said at that time to be receiving an average of 100 calls a day “from the four quarters of the globe”, and to have half a dozen translators answering them in different languages. The agency has distributed posters worldwide bearing Madeleine’s picture with the telephone number of a dedicated hotline it has set up to receive tip-offs. The interview was carried out just after Marco returned from a two-week trip to Morocco, a country he describes as being known for child-trafficking and a “perfect” place to hide a stolen child. The north receives Spanish TV, he says, but the rest of Morocco knows nothing about the affair.

Yet in an interview published three weeks earlier in the newspaper La Vanguardia, Marco claimed that the agency had “around 40 people, here and in Morocco” working on the case, on the hypothesis that the child was smuggled out of Portugal, via the Spanish port of Tarifa, to Morocco, “where a blonde girl like Madeleine would be considered a status symbol”. At that time he said he didn’t want to think about paedophilia being involved. Asked how often his agency contacts the McCanns with updates, Marco replies “daily”. He adds that the fee that M-3 is charging for its services is not high. He says that it is “symbolic”.

In the same article – accompanied by a photograph of Marco holding a Sherlock Holmes-style hat – he says with absolute certainty that Madeleine is alive. “If I didn’t think she was alive, I wouldn’t be looking for her!” At first he states categorically that he will find her before M-3’s six-month contract runs out in March. But also in the same article the journalist explains that Marco proposes taking him out to dinner if he does not find the missing four-year-old before April 30. Unless all such statements are “misunderstandings”, Marco is in danger of leaving everyone with hopes that are not fulfilled.

When I start to touch on these themes – the claim, for instance, that M-3 traces around 300 missing people a year – Marco is quick to clarify. He says that, of the 1,000 or so investigations his agency undertakes every year, “between 100 and 200 involve English people who owe money and have fled England for Spain; the same with Germans, etcetera, etcetera”. This makes it sound as if much of the agency’s work

is little more than aiding bailiffs or debt-collecting, though I do not believe this to be the case. But when I ask him to elaborate on the 23 missing children his mother is reported to have said the agency has located in the past, Marco eases himself away from the table for the first time, tilting far back in his chair. He cannot talk about that on the grounds of confidentiality, he says. Shortly after this, his cousin Jose Luis, who has sat mostly silent until now, calls time on the interview with a chopping motion of his hand.

As I leave M-3’s office I pass another door discreetly announcing it is that of a private Swiss bank. As I take a seat in the restaurant downstairs for lunch, I notice Marco’s father, Francisco Marco Puyuelo, sitting close by. I nod at him and smile. He does not smile back. I have heard unsettling reports about Puyuelo.

He is rather menacing-looking, and I feel uncomfortable as he sits staring at me, slowly spooning chocolate ice cream into his mouth.

) ) ) ) )

It is easy to feel a little paranoid in Barcelona. Nearly every quarter seems to have its own private detective agency. Offices are prominently advertised; on the short ride in from the airport

I pass four. The city’s yellow-pages directory has six sides of listings. According to Catalonia’s College of Private Detectives, the professional association to which private detectives working in the region are obliged to belong, of the estimated 2,900 licensed private eyes in Spain – around 1,500 of them actively working – 370 are in Catalonia, mostly Barcelona.

The city has traditionally had a prestigious record for private investigation. One of Spain’s most well-known detectives, Eugenio Velez-Troya, was based in Barcelona, where he helped set up the first university course in private investigation, covering subjects such as civil and criminal law, forensic analysis and psychology.

One of the largest private detective agencies in Spain, Grupo Winterman, founded by Jose Maria Vilamajo more than 30 years ago, is based in Barcelona, though the company now has 10 offices in different cities with a staff of around 150. Vilamajo is the only detective prepared to talk on the record; the others prefer to remain anonymous for fear of professional reprisal. He talks about how Barcelona came to have so many private detectives, pointing out that competition in the field is now so intense that it is pushing individual agencies to “specialise”.

Vilamajo is the only private detective apart from Marco to receive me in a spacious company boardroom, which, it strikes me, might be the model on which Metodo 3, anticipating rapid expansion, is basing its new office setup.

I meet the other private eyes either in bars or in their more modest premises, with more cloak-and-dagger decor, though nearly all have an impressive array of certificates praising their work. One has the theme music from the film The Godfather as a mobile-phone ring tone.

All talk of the “different way” M-3 has of operating from other agencies in the city. Most of what they say I have no way of substantiating. Traditionally, they say, M-3 has wined and dined clients more than others, sometimes holding grand “round-table” suppers to which it invites important figures in the community.

One ageing sleuth slides across the table a Spanish newspaper article entitled “Detectives with marketing” , in case I might have missed it. A short piece referring to the book Marco recently co-wrote about the alleged charity conspiracy, it makes the point that the book “is another step in the direction of incorporating marketing into the business of private investigation”.

When I ask what’s wrong with a business marketing itself, my question elicits a long sigh. Suddenly I can see that underlying much of the rancour M-3’s rivals feel towards it is a sense that they are not “old-school gumshoes” working in the shadows. One of their criticisms of Marco is that “he doesn’t know much about the street. He’s good at theory. He’s like a manager, always dressed up in a suit and tie”.

So he has a team of others to do the legwork, I argue. Another long sigh. “Not as many as he claims,” comes the response. On this point, all those I speak to agree. None believes M-3’s claims that it has 40 people working on the hunt for Madeleine, since the maximum number M-3 employs in its Barcelona office, they believe, is a dozen, with another few in its Madrid branch.

But again, I point out, it could have any number of operatives working for it in other countries, namely Portugal and Morocco.

My comment draws a weary smile. Metodo 3 company records for the six years up to 2005 appear to show a decline in the number of permanent employees listed – from 26 in 1999 to just 12 in 2005 – although there could be some accounting explanation for this.

Perhaps the most worrying of the detectives’ concerns is the consistent complaint that M-3 is using its involvement in the search for Madeleine to raise its profile and that Marco’s statements about how close he is to finding the child could be seriously prejudicing attempts to find out the truth. “If the agency fails to solve the mystery of Madeleine’s disappearance, that failure will be forgotten in a few years,” said one. “But M-3 will be famous and, ultimately, that is what they want.”

“They are making us look ridiculous,” says another detective. “The English are looking at us and laughing and we are very worried, very upset about it. They [M-3] are denigrating the ethics of our profession.”

To seek guidance on how private detectives are expected to behave, I visit the president of Catalonia’s College of Private Detectives: Jose Maria Fernandez Abril. After making the point that he is unable to speak about any individual member of his professional association, he proceeds to carefully read me a statement that begins: “Following the media impact of affairs in which detectives belonging to the college are involved…” It clearly echoes the concerns that others I have spoken to voice about the conduct of Metodo 3.

“No general conclusions should be drawn about the profession from the actions of any individual,” Abril reads, before helpfully explaining that this means: “You can’t go around saying you are the best in the world, implying that everyone else is somehow worse.”

More importantly, there are repeated references to how members are obliged to comply with the college’s strict code of conduct, which includes: not stating with certainty the result of an investigation and not revealing information about an investigation without agreeing it first with the client.

In other words, if M-3 was to argue that announcing just when it believed it would find Madeleine would help its investigation, the announcement should have been cleared with the McCanns. Given the deep dismay Gerry McCann is reported to have expressed over Marco’s comments about how close the agency was to finding his daughter’s kidnappers and about her being reunited with her family for Christmas, it seems unlikely any agreement over such statements was ever made.

As I leave, Abril informs me that the college has in recent years organised an annual “Night of the Detectives” supper. This year it will be held in March. He invites me to attend. At the supper, various prizes are presented. Among them is one for the fiction author they believe has contributed most to the public understanding of investigative work. This year they have awarded the prize to Dan Brown, author of the worldwide bestseller The Da Vinci Code.

They are a little hurt that he has not replied to, or even acknowledged, their invitation to attend.All this could be almost funny if I were not constantly aware that the reason I have come to Barcelona is because an exhausted little girl enjoying a family holiday went to sleep in pink pyjamas alongside her twin brother and sister on the night of May 3 last year, then disappeared. The anguish and desperation of her parents account for the Spanish detective-agency’s lucrative contract. The boasting and apparent false hopes fed to them by Marco could yet prove to be his downfall.

Shadows in the sunshine

May 13, 2007

Spain is being forced to look again at the bitter schisms created by its civil war, as thousands of bodies are exhumed from the mass graves of republicans killed without trial. But will unearthing the past lead to reconciliation?

There is a place of eerie silence close to the centre of Malaga. Outside its walls, the roar of traffic tearing at speed to tourist destinations is almost constant. But inside this sad oasis of calm, the only sounds are the delicate scraping of trowels and brushes against human bones and the soft weeping of the elderly relatives of those whose skeletons are being exposed.

Walking into this place, just a few miles from the airport that decants thousands of visitors every day onto the beaches of the Costa del Sol, is chilling; a jarring contrast of cheerfulness and sorrow, prosperous present and the remains of a devastating past, thinly carpeted with red earth. It takes a few moments to register what that earth is now yielding up. At first, the four large rectangular pits in an unkempt corner of the now disused San Rafael cemetery, overlooked by cranes from adjacent building sites, appear to be preparations for another construction project. But look down into them a few feet and a giant white jigsaw puzzle of bones emerges. Stare a bit longer and the outlines of individual skeletons become clearer. Follow the lines of splayed arms and legs and you realise that their crooked positions reveal the way each man and woman fell or was pushed into this series of mass graves.

Seventy years have passed since the estimated 3,600 buried here were lined up against the cemetery wall or at the edge of these trenches they themselves had been forced to dig before being shot. This is the site of just one of the innumerable massacres carried out by both sides during Spain’s barbarous 1936 civil war. Those buried here, however, are all from that war’s losing side. All denounced as republicans – supporters of the democratically elected Second Republic, known as “la nina bonita”, or “beautiful child”, which was eventually crushed.

The memories of what happened during those brutal years are all that the families of those killed here had, until work began a few months ago to exhume their remains. This exhumation comes at a time when Spanish politicians are locked in a bitter struggle over a proposed law that would help fund such work. It is part of a broader move to make remembrance of the civil war and its victims legally mandatory – an initiative that has provoked much painful debate in a country that has chosen for decades to draw a veil over the past. Yet the past has dominated the lives of many whose loved ones lie buried in the killing field that San Rafael cemetery became during the conflict. Those such as Francisca Cordoba, whose father was brought here in the early hours of July 21, 1937. Francisca vividly remembers sitting as a small girl on her father’s knee just hours before he was taken from Malaga prison that day to be shot. “He wrapped his arms around me, hugged me tight and kissed me. I never saw him again,” the 74-year-old grandmother recalls as she huddles in a makeshift waiting room at the entrance to the cemetery.

Her father, Vicente, had been a cobbler. His only crime was to pay a compliment to a woman customer who took offence at his attention. She denounced him as a republican sympathiser to the nationalists, who had seized control of Malaga in February of that year – one of the war’s early offensives by the military fighting to crush the left-wing Popular Front coalition government.

The Spanish civil war, in which an estimated 500,000 died, was hailed internationally as an ideological struggle between the “two Spains” of right and left, a curtain-raiser for the global war between fascism and communism that was to follow, a battle between authoritarianism and democracy, rich and poor. Yet the mutual killing was also a cover for the settling of personal scores.

Unlike the families of many of those whose remains lie piled in the pits of San Rafael in layers five or six deep, Francisca had always known that her father was buried here. Shortly after her husband was killed, Francisca’s mother went to the cemetery’s perimeter wall, notorious as the site of dawn executions. As she washed the blood from the face of his corpse, she was spotted by a cemetery worker who had been a friend of her husband. He promised her he would lay her husband’s body on the top layer of one of the pits and would make sure no lime was spread at that spot to speed the rotting of his remains. Once the fighting stopped, Francisca’s family hoped to be able to move him to a decent resting place.

Every week for years after, Francisca and her mother stole into the cemetery to the place they knew her father was buried. Her mother hid, leaving the laying of flowers to her daughter, whose tender age she believed would protect her if she was caught. But instead of peace or reconciliation after General Francisco Franco declared the war over in April 1939, more blood-letting ensued, with violent reprisals against the vanquished republicans. It is estimated that between 60,000 and 100,000 more were killed or died in prison in the early years of Franco’s dictatorship. Any hope Francisca’s mother might have had of giving her husband a burial was lost in the climate of fear endured for more than three decades by any who opposed Franco.

The generalissimo ensured the remains of thousands of his nationalist supporters were exhumed and reburied – in the case of Malaga, in an elegant crypt in the city’s cathedral. But those of tens of thousands of republicans were left to rot in mass graves across Spain. Even after Franco died in 1975 and democracy was restored, few dared raise the subject of these graves for fear of stirring up the ghosts of the past. A shroud of silence regarding the years of bloody conflict descended on the country as a pact was sealed by politicians for peaceful transition to democracy.

The movement to start exhumations began slowly seven years ago, but has gathered pace since the prime minister, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, and his centre-left Socialist party won a surprise victory at the polls in March 2004 – just days after the Madrid train bombings, after which voters had lashed out at the ruling conservative Popular party for its support of the Iraq war. Zapatero’s grandfather had been a captain in the republican army and was executed by Franco’s military. During his election campaign, the would-be prime minister repeatedly spoke of his grandfather’s life and death, as a rallying cry to the left. In his inaugural speech, he quoted his grandfather’s last words as “yearning for peace, love of good and the social betterment of the less fortunate”.

After decades during which the civil war had largely fallen from public discourse, if not private grief, remembrance of the conflict was suddenly thrust to the top of the legislative agenda. To mark the 70th anniversary of the coup to defeat the Second Republic, Zapatero last year drafted legislation called the Law of Historical Memory, intended to heal with “justice and concord” hidden scars from the country’s civil-war past. Among the proposals is the removal of reference to Franco from public places. Hundreds of street names and squares are still named after him. The law also demands the drawing-up of “morbid maps” marking the sites of known and suspected mass graves of those killed during the civil war and shot without trial during the dictatorship. Further financial and technical help for exhumations would follow. The law also offers former exiles, political prisoners and relatives of the victims the option to apply to a committee to clear their names. If successful, prison sentences and death penalties meted out during this time could be declared “unjust” – though not illegal, given the huge financial implications for the state in terms of compensation this could entail.

Far from healing rifts, however, the planned law has become mired in controversy. The left condemn it for not going far enough. They believe the law should annul all convictions of Franco’s courts on the grounds that his regime was illegitimate. The right have dubbed it “a necrophilic way of doing politics”, denounced it as divisive, and called for it to be thrown out. With little hope of reconciling these views, the government is deadlocked. But as far as many are concerned, the genie of the country’s internecine conflict is once more out of the bottle. The spectre of its past again haunts Spain. With the bandage that had so long covered wounds lifted, still-festering sores have been exposed.

Psychologists called in to counsel those now seeking to exhume the remains of loved ones – an estimated 5,000 applications by groups and individuals have been lodged – argue that this is the result of a society trying to cover up its trauma for too long. Finally facing the truth 
of the past will, they say, lead to healing and reconciliation. But it is only through talking 
to those like Francisca, and others who have 
lost loved ones at the hands of the republicans, 
that it is possible to understand how deeply 
these injuries are still felt.

It was a cold day in October last year when excavation work began at San Rafael cemetery, which had been closed for nearly 20 years. For decades it was known that thousands of republicans lay here in unmarked graves. But when Malaga city council announced plans to turn the cemetery into a municipal park, more than 300 families who believed their relatives were buried here formed an association to halt the plan until their remains had been recovered. It was not until the families set up an association and approached Malaga University to undertake the excavation work, however, that both the council and regional government agreed to back and fund the exhumations.

On the first day work began, Francisca brought a chair to the cemetery and sat waiting for what her mother had sought to do all her life. Because her father’s body had been placed near the top of one of the pits, as his friend had promised, what are believed to be his remains were among the first to be recovered. They now sit in a 1ft-by-2ft box, one of hundreds that contain the remains of 445 corpses recovered in the first six months since the work began, and which are stacked in two Portakabins. None of the boxes carry names, just numbers – according to which level and in which pit they were found.

Only DNA testing, which the association has not yet secured funding for, will determine if 
the bones Francisca believes belong to her father are his. But a plastic bag lying on top of the bones, containing a few personal effects found with them, confirms their identity to her. As well as a zip, a buckle and a few buttons, are the soles and fragments of boots her mother had described her father as wearing when he was hauled off to jail. “I won’t rest in peace until I can give my father’s remains a dignified burial,” says Francisca. “I still come here every day out of solidarity with others seeking their parents or grandparents.”

One of those who accompanies Francisca is 76-year-old Juliana Sanchez. She makes a round trip of over 100 miles a day from her home near Cordoba to be near the archeologists as they crouch on their hands and knees prizing skeletons from the soil and lime. She too hopes to recover the remains of her father, also called Vicente, whom she last saw when she was six.

Vicente Sanchez was a hairdresser in a small community near Cordoba called Ruete, where Francisca still lives. As Franco’s forces swept north from Seville in 1936, Juliana’s father was among the masses that fled for fear of being killed. The only contact his family had with him after that was a letter sent from Malaga prison to one of his brothers in March 1937, pleading him to take care of his wife and five children. But, like hundreds of thousands of families left without their main breadwinner, Juliana, her mother and siblings were left destitute. Juliana worked as a maid at just nine years of age in the house of a local landowner, and in the evenings swept the streets.

The harshness of her life is etched in her features as she recalls her lifelong quest to discover what happened to her father. “The head of the household where I worked as a child used to taunt me that my father didn’t care about his family because he had abandoned us. Those fascists made my aunt parade through the streets with a sign around her neck denouncing her as a communist, and forced resin oil down her throat to purge her of the devil.”

For over 20 years following the fall of Franco, Juliana sought the help of authorities in Cordoba and Malaga for information about her father’s fate. She was consistently stonewalled by officials with little interest in dragging up the past. “But after the new government was elected, some of these officials became more helpful,” says Juliana. Two years ago she received a letter confirming her father had been taken from Malaga prison, almost certainly to San Rafael cemetery, on March 12, 1937, and shot. “The man whose name appears on documents as having denounced my father to the military was the head of the household where I worked. All those years he had my father’s blood on his hands,” Juliana says. “For me, all of those who lie here are my father. My heart breaks for all of them,” she continues, tears rolling down her cheeks. A member of the excavation team takes me aside. He tells me how Juliana has wept every time a comb has been recovered. “She thinks it must be her father’s because he was a hairdresser. But many men would carry a comb in their pocket as a sign that however poor 
 they were, they kept themselves tidy.”

Though years younger than Juliana, Emilio 
Silva, 41, understands this longing to know the truth about the past. His efforts to find out what happened to his grandfather led to the first mass exhumation, at a grave in Leon province in 2000. His intention was to write a novel about his grandfather, who was only ever mentioned in hushed tones when he was growing up. “If ever my father or uncles mentioned him, my grandmother would shout, ‘That’s enough!’” says Emilio, a TV producer living in Madrid.

His grandmother’s fear was that the lives of the six children she was left to raise alone would be in danger during the Franco dictatorship if they spoke openly of a father denounced and killed by nationalists. Her husband had been deemed “unpatriotic” because he wanted local schools to offer a secular education. This fear was transmitted to his father, says Emilio. “Even when my father did begin to tell me a little about how his father had gone to New York and ran a shop before returning to Spain, marrying, and running the shop in his village until he was killed, he would always finish by saying, ‘Never talk about any of this!’ And of course if there is something you know you should not discuss, that is what you feel compelled to find out more about.”

What Emilio discovered when he returned to his grandfather’s village was that there were still elderly residents there who remembered the events of October 1936. They talked of how his grandfather had been hauled from jail at night together with a dozen others and taken for a “paseo” – a walk – the euphemism at the time for summary executions. They knew where his body was buried – at a spot under a walnut tree that local children called “the place where people run”, believing it was haunted by the ghosts. With the help of a local archeologist and a team of volunteers, 13 skeletons were recovered from the site. Through DNA testing, Emilio was able to identify that of his grandfather, whom he 
then laid to rest beside his grandmother. She had died three years before.

As news of these first exhumations spread, Emilio was contacted by the families of others who had long sought explanations for what had happened to republican relatives missing, presumed killed, during the civil war. A national Association for the Recovery of Historical Memory was formed, which lobbied the previous conservative government of Jose Maria Aznar to help it open military archives and 
open hundreds of suspected mass graves. Though the government did authorise regional authorities to set aside some funding for exhumations, if requested, its response was deemed lukewarm by the association, which then lobbied the UN for help. Its response, however, was to rule that it had no jurisdiction to investigate the cases of those who had gone missing before it was founded in 1945.

Yet even when Zapatero’s government drew up its memory bill, those within the association complained it did not go far enough. “The law is very light. It doesn’t attempt to rectify what it should. It says very little, for instance, about the Valley of the Fallen,” says Emilio, referring to the giant mausoleum hollowed out of the Sierra de Guadarrama mountains near Madrid where Franco is buried. Though the site professes to pay homage to all of the civil-war dead, many consider it an affront. They point to the only two tombs being those of the generalissimo and Jose Antonio Primo de Rivera, founder of the fascist Spanish Falange party, and the fact that the complex was built by political prisoners during Franco’s dictatorship. “Franco’s family should take his body and bury it privately, not expect Spanish taxpayers to maintain his tomb,” argues Emilio. He, like many others, believes the site should be turned into a museum to educate the public about the truth of what happened during the war. But whose truth?

About as far from Madrid’s Barajas airport as 
San Rafael cemetery lies from Malaga airport, there is another mass grave of civil-war dead. Unlike San Rafael’s unmarked pits, this site can be identified from a huge distance by a giant white cross and rows of smaller ones, most without names. They honour the estimated 4,600 prisoners brought to this hillside of Paracuellos del Jarama by republican militias in the winter of 1936. All were executed and their bodies dumped in seven pits. Some are thought to have been buried alive. Among those killed here is Tomas Garcia-Noblejas, grandfather of Araceli Ezquerro, whose own father, Felipe, also narrowly escaped execution at Paracuellos. Felipe Ezquerro is 95, but vividly recalls the day republican soldiers burst into his home on November 16 that year and arrested him. “They told me, ‘You have the face of a priest,’ which in those days of anti-clericism was a grave accusation,” says the former businessman, referring to the estimated 6,500 priests and nuns slaughtered by republicans during the war.

Felipe narrowly escaped being killed because a sympathetic prison warden warned him that the car waiting for him in the dark outside the jail when he thought he was being released would take him on a paseo – to his death, not freedom. He fled. The father of his future wife was not so lucky. Garcia-Noblejas was arrested for belonging to a Roman Catholic association and was held briefly in Porlier prison, in the centre of Madrid, before being bundled into the back of the last truck of those destined for Paracuellos. “Everyone has their own history of what happened to their family in the civil war. But what good does it do raking all this up now and making it into a new confrontation?” asks Araceli, as she stands at the gates of Paracuellos cemetery. “I respect those who want to recover the remains of their relatives. But there are many who prefer to leave the dead resting together. People need to remember that we all have our own personal histories, our own truths.”

To make this point, Araceli and her father were among those who recently placed prominent death notices in national newspapers in honour of family members killed over 70 years ago. “I would not have thought of doing this if Zapatero had not started talking about his grandfather. But people need to remember there are those on the other side who had grandfathers who died. Their memories need to be respected too.”

Some criticise the present government for reviving the issue of the civil war for political gain. They argue Zapatero is trying to entrench support for the left and undermine the right – especially among younger voters with no memories of that time – by conjuring up the spectre of Franco. “I believe what is going on now is a selective recovery of memory for political reasons,” says Antonio Nadal, a political prisoner under Franco and now professor of contemporary history at Malaga University.

Nadal wrote the first comprehensive account of the fate of thousands of republicans killed by nationalist forces in this southern city. “Historical memory is being used as a weapon to further fracture the unity of this country at a particularly sensitive time,” says Nadal, referring to the increasing autonomy being granted to regions such as Catalonia and the Basque country, which many fear is destroying Spain’s sense of national identity. The government’s controversial anti-terrorism policy – including the recent release from prison of a Basque terrorist convicted 
of multiple murders – and the ongoing political fallout of the Madrid train bombings have polarised public opinion. “Calling up the ghosts of the past like this is madness,” warns Nadal. “There is little understanding of where this could lead.” Some of Nadal’s fears are also expressed by Victoria Prego, a columnist for the right-wing El Mundo newspaper and an expert on Spain’s transition from dictatorship to democracy. “Nobody opposes the right of those who want to recover the remains of their relatives. This should be left to the families to decide,” says Prego. This is not always simple, as is illustrated by the controversy surrounding the proposed exhumation of the Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca (see panel, left).

“The Spanish people know very well what went on here in the civil war. There never was a pact of forgetting, but one of forgiveness, so that we could move on,” says Prego. “Our history has been a very tragic one, full of negative emotions being stirred again by this law of historical memory. My view is that we should look forward and be positive. The younger generation isn’t interested in what happened 70 years ago.”

Paul Preston, an authority on the civil war, reflects the views of many, however, in saying that Spain is poised at a unique moment in time for work to be carried out to uncover the 
truth about the extent of republican casualties and to collect testimonies of those who lived through those bloody years. “There is an urgency to what is going on now. Survivors are dying off,” says the London School of Economics professor. “Forgetting does not mean reconciliation, just as remembering does not mean vengeance. It is simply a matter of elemental justice that people know where their loved ones are buried.”

But one sign of the extent to which the exhumations and proposed law have fuelled controversy, Preston admits, are the calls he has received from young Spanish journalists asking if there will be another civil war as a result. “I’ve never heard anything so ridiculous. Spain is a strong democracy, a country of huge wealth,” he says. “I only hope the political nastiness surrounding these issues will die down soon.”

Far removed from such debate, the work at San Rafael cemetery continues. With the help of student volunteers over the summer, there are hopes that it could be finished by autumn. The remains will then be placed in a memorial in the planned park, each in a separate vault. Some of these vaults could be individually named if future DNA testing permits identification.

“It is fundamental to human nature to want a place to mourn,” says Maria Victoria Alcantara, 51, whose grandfather was gunned down against the wall of San Rafael cemetery after appealing against a 30-year prison sentence for belonging to a bakers’ union. “My father went to the cemetery that day and recognised his father’s body from the jumper he wore. My brother and I grew up knowing about this, and want to give him a proper burial. Perhaps this is the last moment to do such things. I don’t believe the next generation will be interested.”

Poetic injustice

A few miles from the grandeur 
of Granada is a desolate 
hillside spot that has become the focus of fierce controversy. 
It is believed that buried 
 here among the olive trees, close to the small community of Fuente Grande de Alfacar, are the remains of Federico Garcia Lorca, hailed as the greatest Spanish poet of the 20th century.

Lorca, 38 and at the pinnacle of his career when the civil war broke out, was handcuffed to a local schoolteacher and dragged to this spot, together with 
 two bullfighters, on the night of August 18 or 19, 1936, shot by Falangists and buried here in a mass grave. While those shot with Lorca were targeted as trade-union members and leftist sympathisers, there were suspicions that Lorca was killed because he was homosexual. Some even believe he was killed on the orders of his cousins, who were jealous of his success. A recent film has claimed that one relative boasted he had “put two bullets in his [Lorca’s] arse for being a homo!” Such speculation is thought by some to explain why Lorca’s family have resisted proposals to have the grave 
site excavated in order to give the poet a proper burial. Although his family argue that his remains should be left to 
rest in peace, there is talk that they long ago secretly moved 
his body to another site.

While Lorca’s family oppose the exhumation, however, the grandchildren of the teacher, Dioscoro Galindo, and one of the bullfighters, Francisco Galadi, have petitioned the local council for it to go ahead.

The conflicting families’ wishes have led to deadlock. 
For some, this is a metaphor 
for the likely fate of the 
current socialist government’s Law of Historical Memory.