He has gone after South American dictators and Middle Eastern terrorists, but now it seems Baltasar Garzon has finally met his match in tackling Spain’s forgotten past
THE days following his 53rd birthday have been somewhat of a subdued affair for Baltasar Garzón. First, he underwent surgery to remove nodules from his vocal chords and then his latest in a long line of high-profile legal crusades has seemingly fallen before clearing the first hurdle.
Garzon, a judge at the High Court in Madrid, recently claimed for himself jurisdiction over a probe into alleged crimes commited during the Civil War and subsequent Franco regime. Many of the relatives of the estimated 114,000 people who lie in mass graves have been calling for some form of investigation into the murder of their loved ones for years and decades.
In the first days of autumn this year, Garzon announced he would open these communal burial places, research the circumstances surrounding the many thousands of deaths and launch a criminal investigation into atrocities committed during General Francis Franco’s dictatorship. It was seen as a watershed in the history of Spain’s 33-year democracy. It was the chance to give voice to those who had been silenced as the veil of forgetfulness descended upon the country following Franco’s passing in 1975.
The judge’s campaign was met with support. Sections of the Left as well as victims’ families championed Garzon for his decision to undertake the controversial task of finding out what really happened during those years of war and military rule. It was also met with resistance, however, as the state prosecutor, the Right, the Church and fellow judges in the High Court have criticised him for “reopening old wounds,” as a Partido Popular spokesman has put it. Even the President of the Government of Spain, José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, has said the “past must remain forgotten.”
The nation’s chief attorney, Javier Zaragoza, was also in fierce opposition to his close friend’s decision to probe, stating that any alleged crimes comitted in the name of the dictatorship are already prescribed under the 1977 Amnesty Law. As the High Court voted 10 to 5 to take away any jurisdiction from Garzón, their amistad is said to be strained.
Now, Garzón has agreed to drop his involvement and give local magistrates the say so whether mass graves can be opened.
The second child of Ildefonso Garzon and Maria Real, Baltasar Garzon was born on October, 26, 1955 in the modest town of Torres, Jaén. When he was younger, he did not want to work in the judiciary, rather as a missionary in Africa. But according to childhood friends, the ill-disciplined Garzon liked members of the opposite sex too much to dedicate his life to the Church (although he himself says in his autobiography, A World without Fear, that he was a “shy teenager”).
When he was 16, he decided to leave the “oppressive” seminary in Baeza and turn his attentions to law. After ten years studying, he passed the examinations that allowed him to join the legal profession as a magistrate. It was 1981 and Garzon, who once said it was his goal in life to change the World “one court sentence at a time,” had found his true calling in life.
His first posting was in Valverde del Camino in Huelva. He spent two years in this provincial town before being transferred to Villacarrillo, close to his home town in Jaen. By 1987, he was the chief judge of Andalucía before his big promotion 12 months later. In 1988, 33-year-old Baltasar Garzon became the youngest ever magistrate at the nation’s highest court, the Audiencia Nacional in Madrid.
A left-wing sympathiser, Garzon soon found himself in direct confrontation with the first socialist government since the return of democracy in Spain. The judge had already taken on the Guardia Civil – that police force synonymous with Franco’s right-wing regime – during Operation Necora, which saw a number of civil guards from the drugs division jailed for the trafficking of narcotics. Garzon jailed two PSOE ministers for their role in a dirty war against Basque separatists Eta, which claimed the lives of 27 people. The judge found that the Interior Ministry (a department in which Garzon worked during his brief flirtation with politics in the 1990s) had hired mercenaries to kill suspected members of the terrorist group over a four-year period between 1983 and 1987.
One should not be mistaken that Garzon supports the radical Basque cause for independence. Since the murder of a close friend in a terror attack in 1989, he has maintained a two decade-long battle against Eta, ordering arrests, closing down newspapers that support Basque terrorism and banning affiliated political groups.
Fresh from his battle with Spain’s government, Garzón then turned his attentions to General Augusto Pinochet, the former Supreme Chief of the Nation of Chile. The judge took advantage of international jurisdiction to order the detainment of the former dictator while he was receiving medical attention in the United Kingdom.
Garzon’s counterparts in London acceded to the 1998 arrest warrant, which charged Pinochet with the torture, forced disappearance and murder of Spanish migrants in the South American country. He was placed under house arrest in rural England, but was released in 2000 by the then Home Secretary of the UK government, Jack Straw, on medical grounds and sent back to Chile.
His campaign against tinpot dictators, corruption, injustice, political corruption and human rights offences did not stop there. Next in Garzon’s sights was Marbella’s very own King of the Backhander, Jesus Gil y Gil, while there still remains a Baltasar Garzon-signed warrant for the arrest of the spiritual leader of global Islamic terrorism, Osama bin Laden. And then there is Adolfo Scilingo, the Argentine naval officer accused of genocide during that country’s dictatorship. Scilingo was sentenced to a 1,000-year jail term for his crimes, but his co-defendent in the charges of genocide – Miguel Angel Cavallo AKA Serpico – has so far slipped through Garzon’s net.
Others that the judge can file as The Ones Who Got Away are former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger (for his alleged role in financing anti-Communist South American terror plots), Silvio Berlusconi (Garzon wanted that perma-tanned, on-off leader of Italy to lose his immunity within the Council of Europe), the US government (for human rights abuses in the prisons of Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib in Iraq) and the BBVA bank (for alleged money laundering). Now, it seems, he can add Franco’s name to that list.
Following his failed attempt to tackle Spain’s past, many are now wondering what the judge’s next campaign will be. “Garzon is a pioneer,” says Lola Delgado, who has worked with Baltasar at the Audiencia Nacional since 1993. Another collegue adds: “He is not afraid. He gets the biggest cases because he is the only one who dares to take them on.” And his next challenge could have global ramifications: Garzon has promised to tackle climate change, cracking down on the companies that pollute the most.