A Madrid cemetery has been accused of lying about cremating the bodies of 3,000 civilians executed under the brutal regime of Francisco Franco after heavy rains exposed a mass grave.
Recent heavy rain swept away soil in an area of La Almudena public cemetery, exposing the bare bones of people executed on the orders of Francoist military courts in the five years after Spain’s civil war ended in 1939.
The discovery comes as the Spanish government battles to carry out its plan to exhume Franco’s body from its gigantic mausoleum, amid protracted legal wranglings.
The new finding contradicts a claim by the municipal funeral company, which said the ossuary containing the remains of those killed during Franco’s post-war repression had been located and the bones cremated in the 1990s.
“It was a genuine surprise, because it had been thought that the ossuary was empty,” said Mauricio Valiente, the head of the city’s Human Rights and Historical Memory department. A survey will be carried out to determine the dimensions of the grave and confirm that the dead are victims of fascist firing squads, he added.
“A determining factor will be the discovery of skulls with bullet wounds, indicating that they were shot at close range,” Spain’s foremost forensic anthropologist, Francisco Etxeberria, told the newspaper El País.
Among the 3,000 bodies known to have been buried unceremoniously in La Almudena cemetery are the so-called ‘Thirteen Roses’, 13 women aged between 18 and 29 who were executed on August 5, 1939, accused of anti-Franco activism in a socialist youth party.
“Spain is a land full of secrets,” Francisco Ferrándiz, an anthropologist and leading expert in Spain’s civil war graves, told The Telegraph.
“This is all part of a general process, whereby we first looked for buried victims in the countryside, but there is a growing awareness that there are also mass graves inside cemeteries.”
The discovery comes at a difficult moment for Madrid, with Pedro Sánchez’s Socialist government recently admitting that it may be unable to exhume Franco’s remains. The government has been fighting to remove the dictator’s body from his tomb at the Valley of the Fallen monument, but having called elections for April 28, it may not have time to enact its own policy.
Franco’s family has opposed the move, and one of a series of legal challenges to the licence for the exhumation process was accepted by a Madrid judge, who has frozen the initiative.
Madrid’s Left-wing council has also faced opposition from the conservative Popular Party in its bid to change street names glorifying the dictatorship and erect a monument to civil war victims in La Almudena cemetery.
Last month, vandals attacked the tombs in La Almudena of two prominent Left-wing figures from Spanish history, Pablo Iglesias, who founded the Socialist party (PSOE), and the Communist leader Dolores Ibárruri, better known as La Pasionaria.
The remains of more than 100,000 victims of Franco’s repression during and after the civil war still lie in unmarked graves dotted around Spain.