Clara Alfonsa Reinoso had just turned 15 when, on 18 June 1987, she gave birth to what she was told was a baby boy at 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 nine siblings. Reinoso had spent the previous weeks in a shelter for vulnerable pregnant women. On the day of the delivery, she was put in a taxi a given two tranquilliser pills. She doesn’t remember entering the clinic and giving birth. “I was probably sedated,” she explains. “When I woke up afterwards and asked for my baby, a doctor told me the boy was too small and didn’t make it”.
In the following years, Reinoso got married and gave birth to three more children. On 10 May 2013, she received a phone call from a psychologist from the Government of Catalunya who asked her if, in 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 by the shock.
Since December 2013, Reinoso has waged a fierce legal battle in order to prove her daughter was stolen. Hers has become one of the most high-profile cases in the stolen children scandal—involving, among others, Spain’s current minister of defence Margarita Robles, who was a senior judge at Barcelona’s Juvenile Court at the time of the events.
The penetrating gaze of Maria Vega Martinez Loza burns with fury as she stares at her husband. The man stands in front of her, head down, unable to look back at her. The table separating the two is covered with papers documenting the suspicious death of their twins on 9 October 1970 at the Hospital Provincial of San Sebastián. “I do think our kids were stolen, but a lot of time has passed,” says the man, breaking the uncomfortable silence. “With the little evidence that 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. “Aren’t you ashamed to leave this burden to me alone?” The man falls silent, guilty and visibly embarrassed. Tired and disappointed by the disinterest of Spain’s justice system, Martinez Loza keeps on fighting alone.
Her husband’s reluctance to help her has permanently affected their marriage. Deep in his heart, Javier knows his wife will never forgive him.
Vanessa Muñoz Mallen was supposedly born on 27 July 1974 at 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”.
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 adoptive daughter’s life, she lived in fear that the biological mother would 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. The adoptive parents 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. “When the date approaches I only wish that my biological 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.
Despite her precarious state of health, Dolores Pimienta Cuecas hasn’t lost hope to reunite with her son Félix after almost 60 years.
He was born at 6.15pm on 29 May 1960 at Hospital Clínico in Barcelona. Pimienta Cuecas held him briefly in her arms before 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 Cuecas never believed it, but there was little she could do. She was alone at the hospital and had no family in Barcelona—she and her husband had recently emigrated from the south of Spain. The illiterate couple could not question the doctors’ words. In 2011, with the help of her eldest son, Pimienta Cuecas was finally able to retrieve Félix’s medical report. There was no mention his death and neither the civil registry nor the cemetery had any record of his decease.
Pimienta Cuecas’s most realistic chance to reunite with her lost son is a DNA match. She had left hers at several Spanish and foreign laboratories, hoping to receive a phone call from Félix before leaving this world. “I don’t even know what I would tell him, but I would be the happiest person on Earth,” she concludes.
Josefa Zamorano Madera’s sixth son was born on 3 June 1968 at the Manuel Lois hospital in Huelva. The baby weighed almost 5kg and kept on growing while the mother breastfed him during the first two days. “On the third day, a nun handed me a much darker and gracile baby,” she continues. “This is not my son!’ I told her. Her only reply was ‘if you want you can have this one, otherwise I’ll take him away’.” As the mother protested, the nun walked away with the newborn. Zamorano Madera was dismissed the following day, while her son was kept in an incubator. She came back several times to check on the baby, but she was never allowed to see him. On the 12th day, she was told by phone that her son had died.
Isabel Maria Gil Pérez’s 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. “Without it, what happened would have only been a nightmare”. The picture was taken on 17 March 1978 at the maternity ward of a hospital in Terrassa, where Gil Pérez had just delivered a baby boy weighing around 4kg. For three days, Raul would stay with his mother during the day and be brought to a common nursery at night. At 5am on the fourth day, a doctor and a few nurses walked into the room to inform her of the sudden death of her child. The mother was incredulous and wanted to speak to the nurse who had discovered the death, but the doctor replied that she had fallen ill because of the shock and had gone home. Gil Pérez gave birth to three more children, but her young couple struggled to recover from the senseless loss of their first child. “My husband and I would constantly blame each other for what had happened. It was a constant torture and it almost caused us to break-up,” explains Gil Pérez. In July 2011, Raul’s supposed remains were exhumed from the family niche in the local municipal cemetery and DNA-tested by a private laboratory. The results were a devastating blow: the laboratory couldn’t establish any paternal relationship between the tests and the two parents. The baby who had been buried was not Raul.
Práxedes Maxía Piqueras weeps uncontrollably while caressing the doll she had made for her daughter Jessica. “I still have a little dress I had sewn for my baby,” she adds, gulping down some tranquillisers to compose herself. “To come back from the hospital alone was the toughest thing I had to endure.” Jessica was born on 23 August 1982 at Hospital Sanjurjo in Valencia. She supposedly died 10 hours later because of several malformations and was buried in a municipal common grave. “According to the medical reports my daughter was
a monster, but when I held her on my lap she was perfectly fine!” continues Maxía Piqueras, with a desperate voice. “She had marvellous blue eyes and hair so blonde as if they had been dyed in saffron.” In 2013, Maxía Piqueras camped for 68 days in front of Valencia’s main square, enchained, in order to press the authorities for the exhumation of her supposed daughter. Her case was dismissed a few weeks later.
For seven decades until 2001, an estimated 300,000 Spanish babies were abducted at birth and sold to affluent couples in Spain and abroad by a complicit network of medical, religious and administration officials. Mothers were separated from their babies immediately after delivery through various pretexts and later informed the child had died for health complications. They were not shown the corpse and were told the hospital would take care of the burial at no cost.
Their stolen babies were instead being sold to couples who could not have kids. They were either adopted or inscribed as biological children of their new parents, thanks to forged birth papers provided by the traffickers. Many ignore their real origins to this day.
A few years ago, some of the mothers finally found the courage to denounce the scandal. When they started looking for papers proving their babies’ deaths, they encountered blatant incongruences and tampered documents. In some cases, there was no proof that their children were ever born. Since then, exhumations of supposed stolen children have revealed empty coffins, adult body parts or remains whose DNA do not match those of the searching parents.
Spain’s judicial system—unwilling to confront one of the country’s darkest secrets—is systematically dismissing cases in spite of recommendations from the EU and the UN to investigate the issue seriously. Not a single person has been condemned so far. Victims have lost faith in local authorities and are now turning to international tribunals in their quest for truth and justice.
While a few have managed to reunite with their loved ones—mainly thanks to DNA testing services—the vast majority continue their search, determined to find them at all costs. Here are their unbelievable stories.
Words by Matteo Fagotto Photographs by Matilde Gattoni