Spain on Thursday began exhuming the embalmed body of Francisco Franco from a grandiose state mausoleum in order to relocate it to a more discreet grave in a country still conflicted over the dictator’s decades-long regime.
“The exhumation process at the tomb of Francisco Franco has begun,” a government spokesman said, indicating that members of Franco’s family were on hand to witness the opening of the grave at the Valley of the Fallen site near Madrid.
Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez has made moving the remains of “El Caudillo” (The Leader) a priority since coming to power in June 2018, saying Spain should not “continue to glorify” a man who ruled with an iron fist after the bloody 1936-39 civil war that his Nationalist forces won.
“It is a great victory for dignity, memory, justice and reparation – and thus for Spanish democracy,” Sanchez said of the historic moment, which comes just over a fortnight before a general election.
Since his death 44 years ago, Franco’s body has reposed inside a vast, imposing basilica in the Valley of the Fallen, some 50 kilometres (30 miles) northwest of Madrid, which has long attracted both tourists and rightwing sympathisers.
Ahead of the operation, 22 members of the late dictator’s family arrived at the site carrying wreathes to witness the exhumation, which began shortly before 11 am (0900 GMT).
Justice Minister Dolores Delgado was also on hand to represent the government, but no journalists were allowed in.
Four relatives will carry the coffin bearing his remains from the grave and out into a square where it will be placed in a hearse that will take it to one of two waiting helicopters.
From there, the Franco’s body will be flown to El Pardo where it will be reburied alongside that of his wife in Mingorrubio state cemetery just north of the Spanish capital.
In the event of inclement weather, the coffin will be driven to El Pardo by hearse.
Initially scheduled for June 2018, the operation was delayed by more than a year due to a string of legal challenges filed by Franco’s descendants.
Critics on both the left and the right have accused Sanchez of electioneering, with Pablo Iglesias who heads the radical leftwing Podemos saying the Socialist premier was unearthing “Franco’s mummy” to win votes.
Spaniards are divided over the exhumation, with 43 percent in favour of the move, 32.5 percent against and the rest undecided, according to a poll published this month in El Mundo daily.
Ordered by Franco in 1940 to celebrate his “glorious (Catholic) crusade” against the “godless” Republicans, construction of the Valley of the Fallen lasted for almost 20 years.
Partly built by the forced labour of political prisoners, the site is one of Europe’s largest mass graves, housing the remains of over 30,000 dead from both sides of a civil war that was triggered by Franco’s rebellion against an elected Republican government.
Most had fought for Franco but the monument also contains the bones of many Republican opponents who were moved there from cemeteries and mass graves across the country without their families being informed.
A 150-metre (500-feet) cross towers over the site which Franco dedicated to “all the fallen” of the conflict in what he called a gesture of reconciliation.
Since Franco was buried there after his death in 1975, flowers have been placed daily on his tomb.
Franco’s descendants have battled to stop the exhumation, or failing that, to have his remains moved to a crypt at the Almudena cathedral in central Madrid where his daughter is buried.
The Francisco Franco Foundation, which defends the dictator’s memory, had called for supporters to protest outside the El Pardo cemetery on Thursday, but the demonstration was banned by the local authorities.
In 2017, the parliament approved a non-binding motion calling for Franco’s remains to be removed from the Valley of the Fallen, but it was ignored by the former conservative government of Mariano Rajoy.
Conservatives repeatedly accuse the left of opening wounds from the past with a so-called historical memory law, approved by a previous Socialist government in 2007.
That law ordered the removal of all symbols of the Franco regime and called for the identification of those bodies dumped into mass graves during the civil war.
Rajoy, who governed from 2011 until 2018, proudly said his government never gave any money to apply this law.
Earlier this week, an editorial in the conservative daily ABC called the planned exhumation a “desecration” of a grave.