The crimes of Franco’s fascist regime 2: Women in Prison

Update: “Danish translation”

This article is now available in Danish.

During the 60s and 70s, General Franco’s fascist dictatorship in Spain responded to an increasing movement for basic human rights with horrific violence. Thousands were jailed, tortured, or assassinated, mostly for doing nothing more than being a member of an “illegal” organisation, such as the clandestine trade unions, and political parties, handing out political leaflets, or going on a demonstration,all types of which were illegal.

In other parts of the world, such as Argentina or Chile, the perpetrators of similar crimes have been brought to justice – but not in Spain. Reel News is in Spain for two weeks to work with La Comuna, an organisation of ex-political prisoners fighting for justice and reparations.

On Sunday we met Pilar Arias, Maria del Valle and Isabel Pérez Alegre, three activists who spent time in Delicias women’s prison in the 70s. All three were active in left wing political parties and in clandestine trade unions as the movements against the dictatorship grew.

Isabel Pérez Alegre

They told us how organising clandestinely affected their lives. Many of their fellow activists were being arrested, and Maria spoke of a constant state of fear and tension, always looking over your shoulder to see who was watching you; of meeting in secret and having to be careful what you said to family or friends; of having to survive on hardly any money, and of living with instability when you did have a job, because of the constant threat of the sack due to being a member of a clandestine trade union.

Dirección General de Seguridad, Plaza del Sol

When activists were arrested, they would be taken first to the interrogation centre in Plaza del Sol, the DGS (Dirección General de Seguridad). Isabel’s memories of this place are so bad that even after 40 years she didn’t want to talk about it. Maria explained that the interrogation seemed to go on forever. She spoke of being beaten and being deprived of sleep. The room had no natural light so you had no idea whether it was day or night, or how many hours or days had passed. When you were finally taken to prison, Isabel said it felt like a palace in comparison; although political prisoners were put in smaller cells than other prisoners, at least she finally had a bed and could take a shower.

Maria del Valle



Pilar agreed that the conditions weren’t too bad in Delicias – there was even a small cinema where they could watch films – but the first time she was arrested, at the age of just 18, she was sent to the notorious Alcara de Henares prison, an old converted convent. She said it was terrifying; the rooms were freezing, very little natural light, the beds were dirty and uncomfortable, and wardens would pull back the shutters on the metal doors to the cells all the time to intimidate you and to see what you were doing.

Delicias Prison

In prison, they organised in communes or “comunas” – hence the name of the group that is fighting for justice and reparations for the crimes of the Franco regime, La Comuna. Pilar explained that it was a mirror of how they organised outside, so the main organising tool was the assembly, where all decisions would be taken collectively. Everything they had was shared amongst everyone; money, food, tobacco etc.

They set up political discussion groups, using the time inside to educate themselves, and they would act collectively to improve prison conditions, not just for themselves but for the other prisoners – many of whom were inside simply for being people that the regime didn’t like. There were many prostitutes inside who hadn’t had the money to pay an on-the-spot fine; women who had been caught smoking a spliff; many women whose only “crime” was to be gay.

Pilar Arias

The ultimate weapon of the “comunas” was the mass hunger strike, accompanied by solidarity actions outside prison. It could be quite difficult to get the message out because you were only allowed visitors from your family. Pilar explained how she would shout loudly into the microphone to her mum “We’re on hunger strike! Tell everyone outside why!” so that all the visitors could hear. Of course they would cut off the microphone and punish her, but the message would already be out.

The biggest hunger strike, involving all the political prisoners in the country, took place in September 1975, when the dictatorship condemned 11 activists to death. 6 had their sentences commuted but 5 were shot by firing squad, triggering huge protests inside and outside Spain. Yesterday we interviewed two of the activists who had their sentences commuted, so more on this later this week.

All three women spoke of the violence that accompanied the transition to democracy after Franco’s death in November 1975, when armed fascist gangs were allowed to operate with complete impunity and hundreds were murdered. The still intact apparatus of the dictatorship was trying to keep the fascist state going, but the people continued to fight back. The failed military coup in 1981 would signal the end for the fascist state in Spain.

15M demo in Madrid, 25.09.12

Obviously the democracy that followed didn’t go anywhere near as far as people had hoped – but as we spoke about the situation now, the women pointed out that the drive for austerity meant that the rights that they did win are gradually being taken away one by one, and that the peaceful popular resistance represented by the 15M movement (the “indignados”) is being met by increasingly violent oppression yet again.

The lessons of the past show how our rulers turn to fascism in times of recession when they are unable to control a growing movement against them – and that’s why the struggle to bring those responsible for the crimes of Franco’s regime to justice, particularly those still in the state apparatus, is so important in the struggle against austerity today.

We will need to make trips to other parts of Spain in order to help in this crucial struggle for justice – but we need money to do it. Obviously there is no funding for a project of this sort in Spain, and with the brutal austerity measures, our fellow film makers in Madrid have no money either. If you can help, please click the donate button below.