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My Dad was an executioner

The children of the last men in Spain who carried out the death sentence recount their memories of this dark trade of the Franco era and its effect on their fathers

Cándido López and Inés Sánchez have never met, but their lives are in fact closely connected by the professions of their fathers: both men were Spain's last executioners until the death sentence was abolished in 1978.

In Britain, it was the rope; in France, the guillotine; in the United States, the electric chair; and in Spain, for centuries, the chosen method of execution for murderers has been the garrote, an iron collar tightened from behind by a handle, both strangling the prisoner and breaking his neck.

Capital punishment was briefly abolished during the Second Republic in the early 1930s, but it's safe to say that executioner had never been a profession that attracted many volunteers. Consequently, there was no official training, and the usual method of recruitment in the early Franco years was through the secret police, whose agents would often seek out former conscripts unable to find other work.

Antonio López executed 16 men and one woman during his lifetime

"When my father came back from an execution, he was always drunk"

Many signed up during those difficult economic years in the country just to secure a monthly salary, thinking that it was unlikely that they would ever have to carry out their duties. Such was the case with Antonio López, as his son Cándido, 62, now explains.

"My father was born in 1913 in Badajoz; his father was a shepherd. He fought on Franco's side in the Civil War, and then joined the Blue Division, fighting for the Germans in Russia. In 1943, after the Blue Division disbanded, he was in Berlin, working as a street sweeper. He managed to convince the Germans that he had syphilis in order to get a free ticket home.

"But he soon discovered that looking after sheep wasn't going to feed him. He became involved in smuggling and would make a bit extra conning people at the fairs with a guy called Vicente Copete, who would also eventually become an executioner. Around that time, in the late 1940s, a plain-clothes cop asked him if he had enough courage to become an executioner," says Cándido. "If it puts food on the table, I don't care what job I do, executioner or otherwise," was his father's reply to the agent.

Antonio López would go on to execute 16 men and one woman.

On a bright but cold November afternoon, Cándido pulls his thin, imitation leather coat against wind, pushing his hands into his pockets, pausing outside a dreary bar in Madrid's Malasaña neighborhood, where his family moved after his father retired. He says that he wants to tell his story this evening; he wants to drink and once again try to forget, after which he will sleep in a cheap hotel in the city center paid for by social services.

Cándido says that as a child there was never any secret about what his father did for a living. He remembers the suitcase where his father kept the tools of his trade, as well as the telegrams that arrived at any time of the day or night that took his father away. He would return the next day with the smell of brandy on him.

"My father gave the impression that he was a tough guy, but I can assure you that when he came back from executing somebody, he was always drunk," he says.

López became an executioner in 1949, and Cándido says that as a young child, while the family still lived in Extremadura, he would accompany his father to the railway station in the city of Badajoz. "I would watch him board the train, with his suitcase. He was always anxious when he left. I would ask him to bring me a leather soccer ball back with him. I knew where he was going, what he was going to do. There was never any secrecy about it. Somebody had to do it, right? He garroted murderers, not ordinary folk." The López family moved to Madrid in the late 1950s, settling down in the tough working-class Carabanchel district in the south of the capital, close to the prison where most executions took place. Cándido remembers accompanying his father on his rounds of the police stations, talking to detectives about the murder cases under investigation, and then going to the courts to receive his pay check.

His father would scour the newspapers for stories about murders. "It was all quite normal. It was like a game of good guys and bad guys. I was proud to be seen out and about with my father. Everybody knew who he was. The other kids used to call me the son of the guillotiner."

Would Cándido have followed his father into the trade had Spain not abolished the death penalty three years after Franco died in 1975? "Yes, without a doubt. I was ready," he replies instantly.

Would he have been able to handle the psychological pressure the job required, bearing in mind the effect on his father? Perhaps not. "It was hard for him to live with what he did. He sometimes dreamed about the people he dispatched, and he would tell me that you had to have a hard heart to do what he did."

There is a scene in José Luis Berlanga's powerful 1963 black comedy The Executioner, when the eponymous hero has to be dragged, blind drunk, to his first garroting, which could have been taken directly from the life of Antonio López.

In 1959, he was called on to administer the garrote to Pilar Prades, a 28-year-old housemaid who had been found guilty of murdering her employer, Adela Pascual, who ran a shop in Valencia. Initially, López refused to carry out the execution, but was eventually forced to carry out his responsibilities.

Though the execution was due to take place at 6am, it was delayed several hours in the hope that the sentence would be commuted. Finally, by mid-morning, a by-now drunk López was frog-marched through the women's prison in Valencia to an inner courtyard, where he carried out the sentence.

"I can remember him coming home, still in a state of shock, and telling me that what he had done was worse than killing 100 men," Cándido recalls.

López's first execution, in 1952, was that of Ramón Oliva Márquez, a mentally retarded man found guilty of murdering Juana Arribas García. López botched the job, and it took him 20 minutes to send off his victim. A psychologist present at the execution described López as exultant after the event, "like a bullfighter who has finally dispatched the bull, looking to the crowd for acclaim."

López was responsible for the execution of the last person to be garroted in Spain - and the world, traveling to Barcelona's Modelo prison in March 1974 to dispatch Salvador Puig Antich, an anarchist accused of murdering a Civil Guard.

The following year, General Franco died, and Spain imposed a de facto ban on capital punishment. López retired, and became a janitor, with the family taking up residence in a ground-floor apartment of the building he oversaw. The former executioner now spent his days collecting garbage and handing out mail. Nobody in the neighborhood knew who he was, except for a local barkeeper he befriended and the owner of the building, who remembers him to this day.

"He was always very polite. He told me he was letting me know who he was so that I wouldn't find out through other people. The fact of the matter is that he was a man who did what had to be done in those times," she says.

López died in 1986; his wife four years later. Cándido continued living in the family apartment, but after numerous complaints by his neighbors, he was finally evicted.

Cándido is unable to provide a coherent account of the last 20 years of his life. He spent time in prison in the 1980s for a bungled robbery. Now divorced, he has a daughter he rarely sees, and admits that his life has gone downhill. At one point, he spent six months sleeping in the street.

With no job and no income, he lives hand to mouth, relying on religious charities for food and clothing. He spends most mornings at a homeless shelter, and can be found in the afternoons in the bar his father frequented in Malasaña. "You'll never find me begging," he says.

After his father died, Cándido says that the family tried to forget the past. His father's few personal effects: some photographs, his passport, an identity card, a pay slip, are looked after by the barkeeper. Cándido says that one day he might write a book about his father's life. He adds that after López's death, a manuscript he had written with the help of a journalist had been burned by another family member.

Antonio López took up his profession in the same year as Bernardo Sánchez Bascuñana, who was responsible for 17 executions in Andalusia and Extremadura between 1949 and 1959. Having carried out four executions by the time López was required to peform his first, he taught the younger man some of the secrets of the profession.

Sánchez died in 1972, and his wife six years later, orphaning then 10-year-old Inés, who was sent away to a convent-run boarding school. She grew up believing that her father had been a civil guard, which for a time he had.

She says that she has vague memories of him, and playing in the walled garden of their house in Granada's Albaicín neighborhood. When she was in her teens, she was arguing with her aunts one day, when one of them told her that she was "a criminal, just like my father." It was the first she had heard of what her father might have been. "I went and talked to one of his friends, who eventually told me that my father had been an executioner," says Inés, now 43.

She was also told that her father had appeared in a film. "But nobody could remember the name. I just couldn't reconcile my memories of this gentle man with being an executioner, but there was no way I could find out more about him. One day I rang up my half-brother - my father was a widower when he married my mother, but I was told to mind my own business, and that he didn't want to know anything about it. He said that he didn't want his children knowing about who their grandfather was, and hung up." Inés says that she has told her teenage son, and will tell her baby daughter when she is older.

Eventually, Inés discovered the name of the film about her father: Queridísimos verdugos (or, Dearest executioners), a documentary that brought Sánchez, López, and Copete (the latter active between 1953 and 1966) together to tell their stories. It can be seen on YouTube, but without English subtitles. The film was made in secret in 1973, and only shown for the first time two years after Franco's death.

In fact, there is a brief appearance by Inés in the film, as the camera pans round Sánchez's living room. He is also shown out and about in Granada, greeting friends and even enjoying a glass of sherry at a local flamenco hangout. At one point in the film, he says that he rejects the term executioner: "We are administrators of justice. I don't kill anybody; justice kills."

Sánchez Bascuñana was a religious man, and had considered becoming a monk after his first wife died. He attended mass every day, and was fond of writing religious poems.

Inés, who works for a security company, has spent the last twenty years trying to find people who knew her father. "It's been very hard for me to come to terms with what he did, and from what I have found out, he suffered terribly, and that suffering carried him to the grave," she says.

In the documentary about him and his fellow executioners, Sánchez says at one point about his profession: "They are difficult moments, very serious, and I envy those who pass on to the thresholds of eternity. This life is nothing but a vale of tears."

Bernardo Sánchez's modus operandi was to stand behind the condemned man and place a hood over his head, so that his face wouldn't be the last thing the victim would see before closing his eyes. Sánchez would then ask him to say his last prayers, before beginning to strangle him.

Inés says that she has come to terms with what her father did. "I don't judge him. It's not for me to do that, and anybody who does is a hypocrite. I know that he was a good man. I am proud of him, you have to see what he did in the context of this country's history. There is no point in trying to hide it. We are all prisoners and executioners of one sort or another. That's the way of the world."