The judicial ordeal of the mayor who had a cow seized for daring to exhume a mass grave

Historical memory today it is still a pending subject, but promoting it when Franco's death was recent was a real challenge. Those who sought to put an end to impunity for the crimes of the dictatorship at a time when Spain was beginning to launch democracy faced obstacles, pressure, threats or even denunciations. This is what happened in Torremejía, a town in Badajoz marked by Franco's repression, in which promoting the exhumation of the common grave in which those who had been shot lay led its first democratic mayor to a judicial ordeal in 1979, after the denunciation of those who They opposed reparations for the victims.

Two expert researchers in historical memory from the National Distance Education University (UNED), Paloma Aguilar and Guillermo León, have rescued the story of Benito Benítez Trinidad in the article The origins of historical memory in Spain: the costs of the memorial enterprise in the Transition, published in the magazine History and Politics. The experts have accessed for the first time the judicial file and the municipal archive and have compiled testimonies to portray a case whose relevance transcends the local sphere and serves to illustrate the limits with which what we today call historical memory found.

This type of action "occurred almost exclusively" on a small scale and thanks to the efforts of relatives, who used to know where the murdered were buried. "They thought it was their time and that with the approval of the Constitution, the system would give them an answer," says León. But they ran into a scenario of "hostility" on the part of the pro-Franco sectors and of social and institutional "indifference". "The Administrations were not sensitive to it, so the repair measures that were carried out were few and fragmented," he adds.

It was not even part of the agendas of the left-wing parties and unions then. "It was marginalized from the political strategies at the provincial and national levels, but at that time the PSOE, the PCE or the ORT (Revolutionary Organization of Workers) were working on the ground to build municipal candidates, so many families approached them in the villages to ask them about their parents, their children, their uncles...", explains the expert.

In practice, the initiatives ended up depending on the "determination" of mayors, councilors and even priests thanks to the local approach to families. Although not without costs. Sometimes, as happened in Motril, funerals in honor of the victims were suspended due to pressure and some publications such as Notebooks for Dialogue they even received threats for publishing reports on the subject. "On many occasions the pioneers of historical memory suffered pressure, threats and intimidating actions," summarizes the article, which focuses on what the extreme right wanted to avoid was "that the version of history offered by the Franco regime be sullied ".

Benito Benítez Trinidad doing so earned him a complaint and a long judicial process instrumentalized for political purposes, what today we would call lawfare. "You have to keep in mind that it was a local context where the right was displaced from the power it had held for decades and who occupied it was a day laborer. This in a rural area where social differences were very marked generated impotence among the conservative sectors," explains León.

A member of the ORT, a now-defunct Marxist party, and until then an agricultural worker, Benítez was elected mayor of Torremejía at the age of 30 in the first democratic elections, in 1979. The town, eminently agricultural and marked by the traumatic memory of Franco's repression , voted in those elections mostly for the ORT, followed by the UCD, the PSOE and the PCE. A heterogeneous corporation was formed that gave rise to tense moments and attempted motions of censure against the mayor.

But the most convulsive moment came with the request of the relatives of the reprisals to open the clandestine grave located in a street of the cemetery where people stepped as they passed. There were 40 murdered, according to historian Francisco Espinosa, although 33 names appear in the mausoleum that was erected to house the remains. The moment is remembered by Ángel Calle, then a councilor in Mérida and a leader of the ORT: "A series of women confronted the mayor and me and suggested that we had to get their parents out. The gravedigger from the old municipal cemetery told us the location because I knew by heart where they were [...] And he told people: 'here is your father', 'here is your uncle', 'here is your grandfather'".

According to the article, Benítez did not hesitate and took it to the plenary session on July 28, 1979. Less than a month later, Torremejía would carry out the exhumation. The remains were placed in plastic bags and the transfer act took place in the form of a procession without party flags, according to the report prepared by the Civil Guard. Some media echoed the event, highlighting the massive nature of the event. The testimonies collected by the investigators confirm that there were moments of "emotion" and "pain" and that the atmosphere in the town was "tense" on those days. So much so that several graffiti appeared with threats and insults against the mayor, who on one occasion was attacked and insulted by several right-wing militants.

These actions did not have legal repercussions, but the exhumation did, as a result of two complaints filed by the civil governor of the province and the UCD councilor in Torremejía, doctor and local head of Health, Julián Membrillo Bote. They were not "any two actors", but "relevant" figures from the sociopolitical point of view, the article adds. After months of investigation, on January 25, 1980, the judge issued an indictment against Benítez in which he charged him with two crimes: one against public health for not having requested permission from the Head of Health and another for embezzlement of funds. public, accused of using for the exhumation of Community Employment workers, a temporary employment formula in works financed by the State that governed until 1983 to alleviate agricultural unemployment.

The judge also imposed a bail of 50,000 pesetas, but since he did not have the amount or even own a home, the court could only seize one of the two cows that the family had. Although now it may be somewhat "comical", the investigation highlights, it was a traumatic event at the time because they were the only assets they owned. In fact, his son Antonio still remembers the moment in which the authorities took the animal from his house. However, the town "overturned" in the legal case and made a collection of "aid bonds" of 100 pesetas to unseize the cow, something they got.

The case was highly publicized, published in national media such as El País and even reached the Congress of Deputies, where the then Euskadiko Ezquerra deputy, Juan María Brandés, questioned the Government so that, if Benítez was convicted, it would be processed " immediately" the pardon. Finally, the mayor was acquitted on June 19, 1980, almost a year after the exhumation. The judge considered that he had not committed the crimes he was charged with: "The public health crime was not sustained because they had been buried for more than 40 years. On the other hand, several Community Employment workers testified that no one had ordered them to carry out the exhumation, some were even relatives of those buried. Even so, the activities would fit in with what these employees did," summarizes León.

To this was added the social pressure of the town and the repercussion that it came to have, which began to put the focus on the fact that "what was really being settled was a moral and not a legal question," emphasizes the expert, who points to how the "legal torment" that the mayor faced was constituted as a "dissuasive effect" of similar actions. Benítez ended up being mayor of Torremejía for almost 25 years with different political formations: from the ORT he went to the IU and then to the PSOE, until 2003. He died in 2013, at the age of 64.

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