For more than three decades, Spain’s “Pact of Silence” has held. In return for allowing democracy to flower after the 1976 death of dictator Francisco Franco, right-wing politicians got an amnesty law and a tacit agreement to leave the nation’s tortuous history firmly in the past. But the deal is breaking down under the onslaught of Baltasar Garzón, a crusading investigative judge. Last Thursday, he announced a formal probe into the disappearances of 114,266 people between July 1936 and December 1951. At the same time he stated that Franco and 34 of his lieutenants were guilty of crimes against humanity for starting the 1936-39 civil war, when they overthrew the elected government, as well as eliminating political enemies. Garzón also ordered that 19 mass graves be opened, including one where the poet Federico García Lorca is believed to lie buried. He was executed by Franco’s men in 1936.
Garzón’s actions came exactly 10 years after British police, acting on his orders, arrested former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet for war crimes. Though Pinochet was able to dodge the charges, Garzón’s idea—that any court can hear such cases regardless of where the crimes occur—also known as “universal jurisdiction”—has taken hold in Spain and elsewhere. Also, because the remains of the missing in Spain haven’t been found or identified, Garzón argued that they were still technically kidnapped, and thus not covered by the amnesty. (It’s the same tactic used by Chilean prosecutors to go after former members of their military junta.)
While Spain’s right wing vehemently condemned Garzón, the left pleaded that now was the time to confront the past. On Monday, government prosecutors appealed Garzón’s launching of a probe.