Charges against gynaecologist Eduardo Vela could shed light on thousands of other cases
An 85-year-old doctor accused of abducting a newborn girl from her mother almost half a century ago will appear in court in Madrid this week, becoming the first person to stand trial over Spain’s long and infamous “stolen babies” scandal.
Thousands of families are thought to have been caught up in the illegal practice, which began shortly after the end of the Spanish civil war and continued until well after the death of the dictator, Francisco Franco, in 1975.
Some estimates suggested that as many as 300,000 babies may have been taken from their birth mothers and placed with other families who supported the Franco regime. Among those women targeted were single mothers, those with “degenerate” political views or those from poor backgrounds.
Eduardo Vela, who worked as a gynaecologist at the San Ramón clinic in the Spanish capital, is alleged to have separated Inés Madrigal from her biological mother in the spring of 1969 and given her to the 46-year-old woman who was falsely certified as her birth mother and who would raise her.
Vela faces an 11-year sentence if convicted of unlawful detention, falsifying official documents and certifying a non-existent birth.
A nun who worked with him at the clinic had been due to face trial five years ago but died days before she was set to appear in court.
Madrigal, who is now 49, says her mother told her the truth when she turned 18 and had supported her daughter’s efforts to discover more about her origins until she died two years ago aged 93.
“I always say she didn’t give birth to me but I was born in her heart,” Madrigal told the Guardian. “She lived to look after me and see me happy.”
Madrigal, a railway worker and president of the Murcia branch of the SOS Stolen Babies association, said that she did not expect the two-day trial to yield the answers she had spent years searching for.
“Obviously I don’t think that Eduardo Vela is going to tell me the truth,” she said. “He’s not going to tell me who my mother is or about the circumstances in which I was taken from her. I’m not so naive as to believe that’s going to happen but I’d love it if we could get the records of all the women who gave birth at the San Ramón clinic. But that probably won’t happen and I have to resign myself to reality. I’m just hoping there’s a favourable sentence.”
Far more important, said Madrigal, was the trial’s potential to give rise to similar actions and see thousands of shelved cases reopened: “This is a really important issue because, for 60 years, we were the baby supermarket for Europe and for South America, not just Spain.”
Madrigal’s lawyer, Guillermo Peña, said that while Spanish police had known about the scandal since at least 1981, years of cover-ups had ensured that the activities at the San Ramón clinic remained opaque to this day.
“We know what the East German border police and Stasi did,” he said.
“But when it comes to the stolen babies, we’re talking about a more closely guarded secret than the elixir of eternal youth. There’s just no way of finding certain files and records.”
Peña said Madrigal’s case offered Spain a chance to move past the sociological and psychological barriers of the past and recognise what had happened to so many families.
“It’s about making sure that nobody can doubt that or or say it was made up by some mothers and fathers who couldn’t get over the death of their children,” he said. “No. This happened here. And if there’s one conviction, many more could follow.”