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"We're gonna have to take our guns out on the streets again"

Valle de los Caídos, Spanish dictator Francisco Franco's final resting place, provides an annual flashpoint

Thirty-five years after the death of Francisco Franco, nearly 100 people gathered on Saturday near his grave in Valle de los Caídos, north of Madrid, to pay tribute to the late dictator. There were families with children, teenagers and a group of neo-Nazi skinheads who were looking for trouble. They had come to pray for Franco's soul- although they were unable to go inside the basilica, which is undergoing construction work- but they were here in particular to wait for another group of people with opposing views who advocate blowing up the great mausoleum cross, transferring the remains of Franco and earlier dictator José Antonio Primo de Rivera somewhere else, and turning the entire place into a museum of historical memory.

"Do you know how many of those pigs are coming?" said a member of the first group. "They want to win the Civil War now," replied a colleague of his. "We're gonna have to take our guns out on the streets again."

The 2007 Historical Memory Law prohibits this type of demonstration, stating that "in no part of the premises may acts of a political nature or acts that exalt the Civil War, its main figures or Francoism be carried out." Nevertheless, Franco supporters did not back down.

Over 30 riot police officers from the Civil Guard were stationed at the site, and the pro-Franco group was ordered repeatedly to leave the premises. Draped in pre-constitutional flags, some cried out to the police: "Now this is a dictatorship! What about article 20 of the Constitution?"

Most refused to leave (and will be fined for it), so the riot police eventually formed a human barrier between both groups to prevent the hostilities from escalating. In the end, the Franco group took up one side of the road leading to the mausoleum, while the anti-fascist crowd stood on the other. One group raised their fists and the other extended their arms. One side hoisted the Republican flag while the other waved the Francoist banner. Insults were lobbed back and forth all the while, including "shitty reds," "murderers," "scavenging vultures" and "body snatchers."

José María Pedreño, president of the Federation of Forums for Memory, which convened the anti-fascist demonstration, tried to contain his group with his loudspeaker. "Do not provoke them, that's what they want," he exclaimed. "We have come to ask for justice, truth and restitution for Franco's victims." It took four attempts before Pedreño's words sank in. Meanwhile, on the other side of the road, people sang the Francoist song Cara al Sol and hailed the dictator.

Pedreño said that the enormous cross that signals the location of Valle de los Caídos (or the Valley of the Fallen) "is just like the swastika in Germany." He noted that all the great monuments built as symbols of fascist regimes in the 20th century, such as the Reich Chancellery in Berlin or the great swastika at the Nuremberg stadium, have been destroyed. Pedreño also said that Franco's mausoleum has become "a place of pilgrimage for international fascism."

The federation is denouncing the government's "fear" of taking steps in Valle de los Caídos, and demanded that the great cross be "blown up as the culmination of a great public act of redress for the victims of Francoism." Pedreña demanded an investigation into the thousands of people who lie buried there "as proof of a mass crime" and asked that "businesses and great fortunes who profited from its construction and the mass use of forced labor be obliged to pay damages."

Last week, the Association for the Recovery of Historical Memory, an advocacy group seeking redress for Franco victims, sent a letter to the government asking: "Until when will the state keep forcing the victims of Francoism to fund with their taxes the grave of the dictator who is responsible for the assassination of tens of thousands of civilians and the persecution of millions of Spaniards?"

The government has run up against a wall in its project to give new meaning to the Valley of the Fallen. One of the chief difficulties lies in exhuming the remains of the Republican combatants who were taken there and buried without the consent of their relatives. The forensic team that recently investigated this option did not deliver an optimistic report. What they did manage to do was to establish the number of people buried there: 33,847, of whom 21,317 have been identified.