I Will Find You

Matilde Gattoni

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.

{{ readMoreButton }}

  • Spain - Santa Susanna - Portrait of Clara Alfonsa Reinoso, 47. Clara Alfonsa Reinoso had just turned 15 when, on the 18th of June 1987, she gave birth to what she was told was a baby boy at the Institut Dexeus, a top-notch private clinic in Barcelona. The girl came from a troubled family - her mother was a prostitute, her father a heavy-drinker and violent man - and the local Juvenile Court had just taken legal custody of her and her 9 siblings. Reinoso had spent the previous weeks in a shelter for vulnerable pregnant women, where she had been brought to by a woman who had identified herself as a social worker. On the day of the delivery, the young mothers left the shelter and was put on a taxi a given two tranquilliser pills. She doesn’t remember entering the clinic and given birth. “I was probably sedated”, she explains. “When I woke up afterwards and asked for my baby, a female doctor told me the boy was too small and didn’t make it”. Reinoso never asked to see the corpse. “I believed what the doctor had just told me”, she continues. “She was holding my hand and wiping away my tears as I couldn’t stop crying”.
    On the 10th of May 2013, she received a phone call from a psychologist from the Government of Catalunya who asked her if, on June 1987, she had given birth to a baby. Reinoso confirmed and told him the boy had died. “It wasn’t a boy and he didn’t die. Your daughter is alive and she is looking for you”, he replied. Reinoso collapsed to the ground, overwhelmed and dizzy.

  • Spain - Leganés - Portrait of Maria Begoña García Bernal, 53. “I suspect the initial plan was to rob Julio, the one who weighed more”, explains Garcia Bernal. “Then came a sudden request for another baby, and they took the second one as well”. In 1981, the military administration went to her parents’ village to look for Juan Carlos. According to their registry he hadn’t shown up for his compulsory military service and was considered a fugitive. “When I held this document in my hands I couldn’t stop crying”, continues Garcia Bernal. “It was the first time I had something proving that one of my brothers had existed. It was an indescribable emotion”.

  • Spain - Castellón de la Plana - Portrait of Vanessa Muñoz Mallen, 45. Vanessa Muñoz Mallen was supposedly born on the 27th of July 1974 at the Clínica Virgen del Consuelo, in Valencia. The clinic doesn’t have any medical report of her birth, only a logbook where her unknown biological mother was registered as “patient of Doctor Carbonell”. The nuns at the clinic told Muñoz Mallen’s adoptive parents that the biological mother didn’t want to keep the baby.Muñoz Mallen was given to a young couple in their 20s who could not have kids and who desperately wanted a daughter. In the previous months, her future adoptive mother had staged a pregnancy, wearing large clothes in order to deceive the family’s acquaintances. For the first years of her Muñoz Mallen’s life, she lived in fear that the biological mother could come and claim her back.When Muñoz Mallen was a child, her schoolmates used to laugh at her and say her parents were not her real ones. Her father and mother eventually followed the advice of a psychologist and confessed she had been adopted. “Since then, my birthday has become the worst day of the year”, explains Muñoz Mallen, nowadays a 45-year-old woman. “When the date approaches I only wish that my mom remembered me as much as I remember her”. Muñoz Mallen never found her birth mother’s written consent to the adoption, only a few hospital receipts with the money her adoptive parents paid “as if I was a car”, she bitterly says. When she contacted a local association of stolen children in 2010, she was relieved to hear she might be one of them. “I would rather be stolen than abandoned”, she explains. “That’s how I felt for most of my life, even if my adoptive parents treated me well”. Last January, she was finally able to connect with a second cousin thanks to a US-based DNA testing company. She hopes he will be able to help her locate her mother.

  • Spain - Huelva - Portrait of Esperanza Ornedo Mulero, 48. Ornedo Mulero is looking for her sister, born on the 23rd of March 1968 at the local Manuel Lois Hospital. Her mother managed to get a glimpse of the baby before a midwife took him away. One hour later, a man in a white gown entered the room. Without identifying himself he curtly said the baby had died, and gave no further explanation. The father was later shown a bundle wrapped in gauze - the baby had already been prepared for the burial.

    Although her parents are still alive, Ornedo Mulero has decided to take the search upon herself. “My mother already told me several times to leave it all, because we will never achieve anything, but I don’t see it as a sacrifice”, she explains. “Nothing forces me to continue, and I know I will get to the end anyway. Finding my sister is a necessity to me as well”.

  • Spain - Collado Villalba - Portrait of Cristina Moracho Martin, 52. In the evening of the 14th of May 1984, Cristina Moracho Martin was alone at home in Collado Villalba, a small village on the outskirts of Madrid, together with her 15-month-daughter Jesica. Moracho was 17, and 7-month-pregnant of her second baby. The contractions started suddenly. “Moments later I broke water, and my son was born”, she recounts. Unable to notify her husband - the house didn’t have a telephone - Moracho cut the umbilical cordon herself and tied it with a sewing thread. After leaving her newborn in bed beside her daughter, she went out to seek help.When the medical first aid arrived the mother was in danger - she had bled profusely - but the baby looked fine. Both were put on an ambulance and brought to the Hospital Clínico San Carlos.“I heard him crying and moving all the way to Madrid. He was full of energy”, continues Moracho, who never saw her child again. He apparently died at the hospital, while his mother was having the placenta removed. Despite several requests, the family couldn’t see the corpse and was never told in which cemetery the body had been buried.

  • Spain - Barcelona - Portrait of Dolores Pimienta Cuecas, 94. The fragile silhouette of Dolores Pimienta Cuecas commands immediate respect. Despite her precarious state of health, this 94-year-old mother still attends all public rallies and gatherings organised by the niños robados association in Barcelona. Her wrinkled face, which betrays a pugnacious woman who hasn’t lost the hope to reunite with her son Félix after almost 60 years, is one of the most powerful examples of the victims’ relentless struggle for justice. Félix was born at 6.15pm, on the 29th of May 1960. Pimienta Cuecas held him briefly in her arms and noticed his blond hair were similar to those of his father. Then a nurse took him away to give him his first bath. A few hours later, the mother was informed he had died for having swallowed liquid during the delivery.Pimienta never believed it - her boy looked healthy and his death happened too abruptly - but there was little she could do. She was alone at the hospital and had no family in Barcelona - she and her husband, who was working in a car factory at that time, had recently emigrated from a village in the south of Spain. The illiterate couple could not question the doctors’ words. Pimienta Cuecas was dismissed two days later, without any document.

  • Spain - Pamplona - Portrait of María Teresa Quintana, 36. “My poor little baby who is about to be born, if only you knew how sad I am when I think about what I am about to do to you… I cannot keep you, not because of my parents, or for lack of money, but because I don’t want you… Your parents will love you more than anyone else, and certainly more than me…” This anonymous text, typewritten on an ordinary sheet of paper and titled “Don’t cry, you will be fine”, was shown to María Teresa Quintana 11 years ago by her adoptive parents. It had been handed out to them by the nuns at the Clínica de la Milagrosa, Madrid, where Quintana was born in November 1982, and had supposedly been written by her biological mother. “When I read it, I couldn’t stop crying”, recounts Quintana, nowadays an strong-willed woman of 36. She only wanted to know something about her origins and she didn’t expect to find such a heartless message, so crude and insensitive that her adoptive mother had refrained from showing it to her for all those years.

  • Spain - Sant Adrià de Besòs - Portrait of Antonia del Carmen Carrasco Pérez, 73. It was Antonia del Carmen Carrasco Pérez’s sixth delivery, the most difficult and painful of all. “I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy”, she recounts from her apartment, in a working-class neighbourhood on the outskirts of Barcelona. “I was asking for some anaesthetic, but the doctors wouldn’t give it to me because I had to push”. After a long labour, the child - a baby boy named Oscar - finally came out. Carrasco Pérez remembers he was dark-haired and looked like his sister Ester, his buttocks darkened and bruised because of the breech birth. Before she had time to touch him the baby was quickly whisked away to be placed in an incubator. The mother was promised they would bring him back early next morning. “I heard him crying all the way from the elevator doors”, remembers Carrasco Pérez. “It was as if he was trying to tell me we would never see each other again”.

  • Spain - Alcalá de Guadaíra - Portrait of Lidia Acebo Fortes, 69. It took Lidia Acebo Fortes decades to learn how to deal with the loss of her son José Manuel. It was a period marred by depression, legal battles and public appearances - university talks, TV programs, a personal book that was presented at the European Parliament - which eventually helped her cope with the pain. “Every time I speak about him I feel something burning inside me”, explains the women. “I will never forget my son, but I can’t let what happened destroy my life”. Acebo Fortes was 16 when she fell pregnant of José Manuel. The boy was premature and was placed in a hospital incubator. His father used to visit him twice a day - the mother was staying at home to recover from the delivery. The baby looked healthy, and was rapidly gaining weight, but on the morning of the 17th day Acebo Fortes woke up with a ominous presentiment. She immediately called the hospital to check on her son. A nurse told her not to worry, the baby was fine.That same night, when her husband came home, Acebo read desperation in his face. The doctors had told him the baby had died the night before. “That’s impossible, I called this morning and a nurse told me he was fine!” Acebo Fortes told him. Her husband didn’t know what to say. A nurse had taken a baby corpse from the cold room and showed it to him through a glass. He was wrapped in cloth and the father couldn’t tell if that was their baby. Acebo Fortes’s concerns grew even stronger the following day, when her husband came back from the burial and told her the coffin seemed empty. “He had carried it and felt it was too light”, she explains. “He was a carpenter, he knew very well how much a coffin weighed”.

  • Spain - Benicassim - Portrait of Luna Garcia Soriano, 45. In the early morning of the 9th of January 1978, Luna Garcia Soriano’s mother was waiting to give birth to her third daughter at the Hospital General, in Castellón de la Plana. The mother was talking to a midwife who happened to be a friend of her brother-in-law, and confessed she was a bit nervous. Six years earlier she had delivered her first daughter Inmaculada in the same hospital, but the baby had died after a few hours for unclear reasons. The midwife listened carefully without saying a word, then excused herself and walked away. She came back at 7am, one hour before the end of her shift, visibly agitated. “You have to deliver while I am still here”, she said to Garcia’s mother, without elaborating. “I will give you a medicine to speed up labour, but don’t say anything to the doctor”. The baby came out at 8am sharp, and was put in the arms of her delighted mother.

  • Spain - Lekunberri - Portait of Estefania Erro Tellechea, 71 and her son Pedro, 46. Erro Tellechea was born and bred in Lekunberri, a small mountain village in the region of Navarra. In 1969 she was 21, and was expecting her first baby. The family had a trusted gynaecologist who lived in a nearby village and had already assisted Erro Tellechea’s elder sisters. They had all given birth at a private clinic in Pamplona where the doctor operated, but when Erro Tellechea was about to deliver he unexpectedly advised her to go to Virgen del Camino, a public hospital, where he would personally supervise her delivery.When Erro Tellechea arrived at the hospital in the morning of the 29th of July 1969, she wasn’t brought to the communal maternity ward like all the other mothers, but to a small private room where her relatives were not allowed to enter.Erro Tellechea gave birth that same night. She just had time to see the baby being wrapped in a sheet and taken away by the nurses - she was immediately sedated and fell into a deep sleep. When she woke up hours later, with her throat dry and swollen, a nurse told her her daughter had been born dead.

  • Spain - Banyoles - Portrait of Joan Beamonte Isern, 53. Beamonte Isern was 6 when he saw his father for the last time, in 1973. The son of a single parent, he was being raised in the outskirts of Barcelona by his paternal grandmother at that time, as his father had just fallen ill of cancer. His grandmother was struggling to take care of both, so the family’s doctor advised her to put the boy into a private college, where he would be taken care of. Beamonte Isern stayed there for two months and received visits from his family every weekend. One day, without notice, he was taken away by a stranger and brought to a hospice for abandoned children. “It was like a prison for juveniles. Food was terrible and the elder ones would harass me in every way”, he recalls. “I stayed there only a few weeks, but they were the worst of my life”.

  • Spain - Guardamar del Segura - Portait of María Vega Martinez Loza, 77. The penetrating gaze of Maria Vega Martinez Loza, 77, burns with fury as she stares at her husband. The man stands in front of her, head down, unable to look back at his wife. The table separating the two is covered with papers documenting the suspicious death of their twins. “I do think our kids were stolen, but a lot of time has passed”, says the man, breaking the uncomfortable silence with a weak voice. “With the few evidence we have, it is like finding a needle in a haystack”. “They are your sons, Javier. Don’t you want to find them?”, replies Martinez Loza matter-of-factly. “How can I succeed without your help? Aren’t you ashamed to leave this burden to me alone?” The man falls silent, guilty and visibly embarrassed. In almost 50 years, this is only the second time the couple has spoken about what happened on the 9th of October 1970.

  • Spain - Elche - Portrait of María José Picó Robles, 57. For decades María José Picó Robles thought she was a lucky woman. She was alive while her twin sister, who had only lived three days back in 1962, was buried in a common grave in Alicante. “Now I think I’m lucky because I had the chance to grow up with my parents”, she explains. “I wonder what kind of life my sister had”.Picó Robles thinks about her every day. Back at the time many girls were adopted by middle-aged couples so that they could look after them when they aged. Some were ill-treated and humiliated by their adoptive relatives, who didn’t consider them part of the family. “She might be having a terrible time, just because someone decided for her”, worries Picó Robles.After two unfruitful exhumations carried out between 2012 and 2013 - no rests of the baby were found - and given the absence of documents related to Picó Robles’s sister at the hospital and the civil registry, the case was archived by the public prosecutor’s office of Alicante for lack of evidence.

  • Spain - Terrassa - Portrait of Isabel Maria Gil Pérez, 62. Isabel Maria Gil Pérez sits in her living room in the city centre of Terrassa, its shutters half-closed to protect it from the scorching midday sun. In dim light, her melancholic hazelnut eyes look at a small, faded photo showing a 20-year-old woman and her newborn baby. “This is the only souvenir I have of my son Raul”, she explains, carefully holding the picture between her fingers. “Without it, what happened would have only been a nightmare”.