2018 - 2019
For seven decades up until 2001, an estimated 300,000 Spanish babies were abducted at birth and sold to affluent couples by a complicit network of doctors, nurses, religious and administration officials.
Nowadays countless victims are looking for their lost relatives in a maze of falsified documents, ageing witnesses and uncooperative authorities. While a few managed to reunite with their loved ones - mainly thanks to foreign DNA testing services - the vast majority continue their search, determined to find them at all costs.
The phenomenon of the niños robados (Spanish for “stolen kids”) started under the dictatorship of Francisco Franco as a way to assign children of leftist parents to families sympathetic to the regime. It slowly morphed into a criminal enterprise that continued well after Franco’s death in 1975 and into the democratic era.
According to anthropologist, sociologists and historians who studied the issue extensively, the usual targets were young and inexperienced women at their first pregnancy, or mothers from poor, illiterate families with several children already. They were separated from their baby immediately after delivery through various pretexts and later informed the child had died for health complications. Families were prevented from seeing the corpse and were told the hospital would take care of the burial at no cost.
Thefts took place mostly at night, or during weekends and festivities, because of the reduced number of hospital staff on duty. Adoptive mothers were often registered as parturients at the same hospitals, so that they could receive the babies and leave the premises as soon as they were born. In the preceding months, they were instructed to wear pillows to fake pregnancies and not arouse suspicions within their communities.
Stolen babies were then either adopted or inscribed as biological children thanks to forged birth papers provided by the traffickers. Some of the adoptive parents knew they were committing a crime, while others thought their adoptions were legal. A marriage who could not have children was frowned upon, and many infertile couples would do anything to avoid social condemnation. Delighted at the idea of finally having a child, they didn’t ask too many questions.
The trafficking operated through several regional and national networks. In order to throw off investigations, children were often sold to other regions of Spain - sometimes abroad - at exorbitant prices equivalent to the cost of a flat.
Even when the real parents realised they had been robbed of their children, there was nothing they could do. The national-catholicism permeating Spain at that time made it impossible to challenge authoritative figures such as medical and religious personnel - until 1990 the latter were in charge of a vast network of maternity centres and foundling houses. The few mothers who dared to look for their lost babies were often derided as crazy women unable to accept the death of their children. They hid their pain for decades, thinking they had been victims of an atrocious but isolated act of injustice.
When the first cases came to light, victims finally realised the circumstances of the suspicious deliveries described in the press were the same they had experienced. More and more parents started looking for papers proving their babies’ deaths, often encountering blatant incongruences and tampered documents. In some cases, there were no proofs their children were ever born. Throughout the past years, exhumations of supposed niños robados have revealed empty coffins, adult body parts or remains whose DNA do not match those of the searching parents.
The United Nations and the European Union have repeatedly asked Spain to shed light on one of the country’s darkest chapters, yet investigations are minimal and superficial. Spanish courts rely on scant, disputed documentation to shelve cases for lack of evidence or the statute of limitations, even though most stolen children are alive and their cases can be considered as ongoing abductions. The 1977 Amnesty Law - which prevents the investigation and prosecution of Francoist human rights violations - and the reluctance of religious authorities to open up their archives constitute further hurdles. Not a single person has been condemned so far.
Victims carry the enormous psychological and economic burden of finding the truth alone and receive no assistance. None of their requests - the lifting of the statute of limitations, a special public prosecutor solely dedicated to the niños robados cases, free legal assistance and free DNA tests - has been implemented.
Many have lost faith in the State’s willingness to confront an issue that could bring about uncomfortable truths and massive indemnification suits, and are now turning to international tribunals in their quest for truth. The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights is already investigating a case, and others will soon follow.
Here is a collection of personal stories recounted by parents, siblings and adoptees who are, or believe to be, among the victims of this inhuman traffic. Despite the harrowing events they relate - verified through the documentation available - and the indisputable evidence some of them have, none has been recognised as such by the Spanish judicial system.