Statewatch article: RefNo# 28993
Spain: The Spanish police transition: a paradigm of continuity, by Mikel Aramendi [member of Hik’s editorial team]
Statewatch Bulletin; vol 19 no 2 April-June 2009
Examines the transition from Francoism to democracy characterised as a “reign of forgetfulness”. An Amnesty Law places a "full stop" on any action being taken against those responsible for crimes.

On 27 January 1994, almost 20 years after the death of Franco, police superintendent Roberto Conesa Escudero died at the age of 76 and was buried in Madrid’s cemetery. Brief death notices in the leading newspapers were the only public commemoration of the event. The interior ministry, to which Conesa had devoted his life, was silent. Even the journalist who had delved deepest into the sinuous biography of the deceased took a couple of months before dedicating an epitaph:

Roberto Conesa has died. He died a couple of months ago of old age - only because nobody dies of badness. I may be the only person that owes him something that is not a sentence or a beating; I started out in legal journalism in 1977, with a series of articles in which I sought to reconstruct his life. The sinister biography of a former left-winger who informed on his friends from the Juventudes Socialistas Unificadas (Unified Socialist Youth) commencing a first-class career in the police, [one that was] laden with medals and distinctions, rewards for his betrayal. He became the perfect example of the political police officer under Franco. For decades naming him meant mentioning the most prominent of torturers, a guy who had no children, no passions nor inclinations other than the orgy of the executioner before his victim. He enjoyed the detainee’s humiliation so much, that he sometimes reached an orgasm. There are witnesses. [1]

Conesa was a crucial and emblematic figure in the history of Francoism and the first years of transition towards democracy. His repressive trajectory began after the war in which he served in Republican ranks doing repressive tasks. He developed in an elite police unit that was responsible for the persecution of the political and/or armed opposition, whether in Spain or in exile. In this task, his effectiveness and mastery earned him the nickname “the superagent”. Communists, anarchists, socialists and later Basque and left-wing activists, were the favourite targets of a police officer who combined, with unequalled skill, torture in the interrogations of detainees, infiltration into persecuted organisations and cooperation obtained through terror or corruption. The Julián Grimau case in 1962-1963 brought together the key elements of his modus operandi.

His presence at an interrogation came to indicate the importance of the detainee and served to announce the brutality they would receive. It was said that his head contained a database of the clandestine opposition to Francoism and his small Brigada Central de Investigación Social (Central Unit for Social Research) constituted the main school for the cadres of the Brigadas Político-Sociales (BPS, Social Political Units) of the Cuerpo General de Policía (CGP, the general police force) which, from the 1960s, were the spearhead of a dictatorship that faced increasing opposition in the University, the factories and on the streets. Many of the police officers who attained notoriety during the last years of Francoism (Ballesteros, Anechina, Creix, Escudero, González Pacheco, etc.) began their professional career under the guidance of Conesa.

No dissolution of repressive bodies

From the beginning, Francoism’s reformers ruled out demands for the “dissolution of repressive bodies” and “accountability for responsibilities” that the democratic opposition had initially advocated during the Transition. Conesa was sent into “golden retirement” at the Jefatura Superior de Policía (Police Superior Headquarters) in Valencia in 1976, awaiting, one presumes, a routine retirement. However, this was not how his career was to end. One year later, the GRAPO kidnapping of the president of the Council of State, Antonio María de Oriol-Urquijo, and of lieutenant general Villaescusa catapulted him into the media spotlight. He was given even greater police responsibilities than those he held during Francoism. Adolfo Suárez and his interior minister Martín Villa, both of Francoist extraction, resorted to Conesa, who, with a speed that caused rivers of ink to flow and gave rise to unbounded reflection, freed Oriol and Villaescusa and dismantled a large part of GRAPO’s operational structure.

With memorable historical sarcasm, after the first multi-party elections in June 1977, the man who had contributed so much to Francoism was named Commissioner-General of Information and rewarded with the nascent democracy’s highest police distinction. Conesa spent two more years in this high office, periodically dismantling GRAPO, organising swoops against ETA, which was increasingly active, and overlooking the conspiracies and terrorism of the far-right. He suffered his first heart attack in 1979 that forced him into permanent retirement until his discrete death a decade and a half later.

Roberto Conesa’s was certainly not an isolated case but rather an emblematic one. Almost all the superintendents and inspectors of the Francoist BPS maintained or improved their employment status in the new political system, largely due to promotions and awards attained “in action”. This was bolstered by systems to effect the functioning of the judiciary and police that made it (and continue to make it) practically impossible to effectively punish ill-treatment and torture, even when there is a political will to do so. To a large extent, this explains why the persistence of torture, which has been repeatedly criticised by international human rights bodies, continues in the Spanish police and judicial system 30 years after the Constitution of 1978 officially abrogated it.

Amnesty Law creates “full stop”

Moreover, the Amnesty Law of 1977 legally settled any responsibilities that police officers involved in the repression of anti-Francoist activities may have incurred. It established a “full stop” that has never been questioned other than by some of those directly affected by it and by minority political groups. The Francoists controlled the most powerful of the newly created police trade unions and not even the connivance of some of them with far-right military coup plots during the years of government by the UCD [2] prevented them from holding important responsibilities. This contributed substantially in lending credibility to the failed coup d'état that nearly materialised on 23 February 1981.

However, it was the ascent to power of Felipe González’s socialists (PSOE) after their overwhelming victory in 1982 that definitively confirmed the Lasciate ogni speranza [“Forget any hope...”, a reference from Dante’s Inferno] for those who awaited in-depth reform of the police bodies. In opposition, the PSOE had depended upon the minority and semi-clandestine Unión Sindical de Policía [USP, trade union] to obtain sensitive information and one can assume that it would have been a source for trusted appointees once they went into government. It was, therefore, a surprise when the new interior minister, Jose Barrionuevo, who had no experience in policing matters, pursued a continuist policy of appointments. He did not merely abandon the PSOE’s USP cadres but promoted former Francoist torturers to key posts; for example the appointment of Jesús Martínez Torres as Commissioner-General for Information. The victims’ public protests went unheeded.[3]

Later journalistic accounts told of a sequence of events in which the inability of the new officials, trade union dissent and the socialists’ deep fear of being sabotaged by civil servants - who were as hostile as they were powerful, - intermingled.[4] Barrionuevo’s interior ministry resorted to paramilitary police force terrorism against ETA under the acronym of GAL, as was verified in court a decade later. The interior ministry set in place a marriage of convenience between socialists and infamous Francoist police officers in a way that nobody would have imagined a few years earlier. ETA’s activity provided a simple argument: in the pressing anti-terrorist struggle all police officers who were experts in this field were indispensable, regardless of what they believed or what they had done. In fact, “those” police officers were the most interesting ones.

In this sense, the case of superintendent Manuel Ballesteros García is exemplary. One of Conesa’s collaborators and well-known for his activities in the repression that characterised the final years of Francoism, he was promoted by UCD governments until he became the chief of the Unified Command of the Anti-Terrorist Struggle. He was not replaced even after his conduct during the 23-F coup attempt was disclosed. The cover he provided for two paramilitary police gunmen in 1980, after they had murdered two people in Hendaye, France, eventually brought him before the Spanish courts. He was ostracised during the first years of the socialist mandate, but from 1987 onwards he was “unearthed” as a special advisor to the powerful Secretary of State for Security, Rafael Vera, (who was to be found guilty a decade later for his involvement in the GAL). As an advisor, Ballesteros was part of the team that accompanied Vera during conversations with ETA in Algiers in 1989. Retired and without any further mishaps, he died like Conesa in January 2008.

Guardia Civil relaunched

The ideological and political turn by the PSOE in security matters found a correlation in its “discovery” of the Guardia Civil (GC). It is a militarised body responsible for policing tasks in rural areas and for the operational defence of the territory, as well as carrying out traffic police functions. Under Francoism the GC had been badly equipped and paid, lodged in scattered barrack-houses that reproduced the relations of the military hierarchy in the officers’ private lives. It had a secondary role in the repression, except for two very different periods and locations: the repression of guerrillas in the post-war period and in the Basque Country during the final years of Francoism. On both occasions, the GC conducted itself with unforgivable brutality. Nonetheless, its information service was primitive and it lacked modern technological means and working practices.

The socialists, who attained power in 1982 with a programme that promised the de-militarisation and democratisation of the GC, quickly changed their mind because they were racked by problems from the unionisation of the Cuerpo General de Policía (general police force) and the Policía Armada (armed police). They came to value the strict hierarchy and discipline of the GC, which went on to gain tasks and resources in the anti-terrorist struggle. To a large extent they followed the working methods of the British FRU in Northern Ireland. This occurred to such an extent that a decade later the GC had become “the best-informed police body on ETA”, one capable of capturing its entire leadership in 1992.

The flip-side of this effectiveness lay in the methods that they employed at the barracks at Intxaurrondo, in San Sebastián. Headed by Enrique Rodríguez Galindo, an officer who had started his professional career in the colony of Equatorial Guinea, the centre acquired a sinister reputation, one confirmed by allegations from bodies that were not in connivance with ETA’s terrorism. It intermingled the systematic torture of hundreds of detainees (some of them resulting in death, as in the Zabalza case), para-police force terrorist activities and drug trafficking. In return, Galindo enjoyed unequalled political protection that allowed him to evade extremely serious allegations that were mounting against him, until some of the scandals that ended González’s mandate broke out. They included the resignation and escape of the Guardia Civil’s director-general, Luis Roldán (the first civilian and socialist who held this post, which he used to enrich himself enormously), and the discovery in Alicante of the bodies of two ETA members who had disappeared in Bayonne in 1983. Promoted to general, Rodríguez Galindo would finally be sentenced for the kidnapping and murder of the two youths, although not without being publicly defended by a number of socialist officials.

Among the “pros” of a track record that has such devastating “cons”, one would have to point out the reforms that, slowly and laboriously, the PSOE government embarked upon (the UCD limited itself to managing what it had inherited). These were in the field of police organisation and in the development of newly created autonomous region police forces, particularly in the Basque Country and Catalonia. Organic Law 2/1986, on the State Security Forces and Bodies, unified the Cuerpo de Policía Nacional (national police force – the former armed police, civilian and in uniform, primarily tasked with maintaining public order in cities and the custody of administrative buildings) and the Cuerpo Superior de Policía (superior police force, formerly the CGP, responsible for political-social repression) into a sole “armed institution of a civilian nature under the authority of the interior ministry”.

Ignorance of history in “reign of forhetfulness

However, broadly speaking, a “reign of forgetfulness” was established that, in 2001, led a Spanish judge to write in the introduction of his book about the Francoist Tribunal de Orden Público (TOP, Public Order Court):

If at present a live survey was carried out through any means of communication to ask citizens what they associate the term TOP with and what they know about it, the answers would be, after an initial moment of surprise, that they would either not know about it or they would associate the term with many meanings that, in no case, would have any relation to the acronym of this Court.[5]

This observation can be extended with regards to the police force that provided TOP with the vast majority of its victims. But to date, nobody has felt the duty to even put together a similar monograph on the history of the Francoist political police and the biographies of its most prominent members, most of whom are now retired from office.

Among those who are ignorant of this recent history are new police recruits who, as part of their training, study sanitised texts on the activities of their predecessors a few decades ago:

After the Civil War (1936-1939) the Spanish Police underwent a re-modelling under the dictatorship of General Franco, and its functions were thus divided in 1952 between the Cuerpo General de Policía (formerly Surveillance and Investigation) and the Cuerpo de Policía Armada y de Tráfico (formerly Assault Guards and Road Surveillance). The Guardia Civil did not experience important innovations in this period, nonetheless taking on a role of great protagonism throughout the time that Franco’s dictatorship lasted. The Spanish Police’s long uninterrupted history of public service continued while several historical events followed each other in Spain that were to have a considerable effect on the development of the police institution.[6]

It would be difficult to conceal more in fewer lines.


1. Gregorio Morán. “En los escondrijos de la memoria”. La Vanguardia, 09.4.94.

2. Declaration by the APF of the CGP, “Dolorosamente hartos”, 29 August 1978.

3. Javier García. “Altos mandos policiales proceden de la desaparecida Brigada Político-Social. El director de la Policía afirma que el equipo goza de la confianza del Ministerio”. El País 07.2.83.

4. Miguel González. “Del cambio a la guerra sucia. El PSOE renunció en 1982 a renovar los aparatos de seguridad del Estado por temor al desorden público”. El País, 1.2.95.

5. Juan José del Águila. El TOP. La represión de la libertad (1963-1977). Barcelona, 2001.

6. #p6.

© Statewatch ISSN 1756-851X. Personal usage as private individuals/"fair dealing" is allowed. We also welcome links to material on our site. Usage by those working for organisations is allowed only if the organisation holds an appropriate licence from the relevant reprographic rights organisation (eg: Copyright Licensing Agency in the UK) with such usage being subject to the terms and conditions oof that licence and to local copyright law. Statewatch is not responsible for the content of external websites and inclusion of a link does not constitute an endorsement.