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Spain’s stolen baby scandal

Docs and nuns took thousands of infants at birth and sold them to childless couples. The painful truth is now emerging.

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Babies wait for El Colacho to jump over them during the festival of El Colacho on June 26, 2011 in Castrillo de Murcia near Burgos, Spain. The festival, held on the first Sunday after Corpus Cristi, represents the devil taking away original sin from the newly born babies by leaping over them. (Denis Doyle/AFP/Getty Images)

BARCELONA, Spain — Antonio Barroso cried himself to sleep every night until he was 12, haunted, he says, by a taunt from other children: "Your mother isn't your real mother."

He asked his mother repeatedly, and even secretly checked his official birth certificate. But she insisted, and the documents confirmed, he was her son.

It wasn’t until 2008, when he was 38, that he discovered the lie: He was stolen from his biological parents and sold into adoption.

“My old friend Juan Luis called me one day and told me our parents bought us from a nun in Zaragoza." Barroso, 42, told GlobalPost, recalling the chain of events that changed his life. “It was his father’s deathbed confession.”

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His story is one of hundreds that have come to light in Spain over the past two years. No one really knows for sure how many of these cases exist. Enrique Vila, a Barcelona lawyer who specializes in adoptions, estimates there might be as many as 300,000, about 15 percent of the total adoptions that took place in Spain between 1960 and 1989. At the moment, more than 900 cases are being investigated by regional prosecutors across the country. That amount is increasing every month.

After his friend’s revelation, Barroso secretly checked his DNA against his mother's. The results showed that there was no chance she was his biological parent.

He confronted her. She finally admitted that she paid 200,000 pesetas (about 1,200 euros) for Barroso — an enormous sum in 1969, particularly for factory workers like Barroso's parents. Spain at the time was a poor country, struggling under the dictatorship of General Francisco Franco.

“That was the price of an apartment back then," Barroso said. "My parents paid it in installments over the course of 10 years because they did not have enough money.”

Barroso said his mother told him the nun who sold him and his friend was Montserrat Vivas Llorens. Her name also appears in police reports on the case. Since then, the two men have twice traveled the 165 miles to visit Llorens. Last year, their efforts paid off: She told Barroso that another nun had asked her for "two children for the Penedès region."

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“Your cases were special,” she told Barroso on a taped recording. “(Because) your parents were friends of friends of Montserrat Rius, another nun.”

The Catholic church declined to comment on the matter. The Spanish Confederation of Religious Orders, a prominent Catholic organization, declined to comment due to the ongoing investigation. But a spokesperson added that the cases are "very unpleasant" and hope that the full weight of the law is applied to the perpetrators "whether they were members of a religious order or not."

Llorens, who is over 80, has not been charged in the case, which is under investigation. GlobalPost’s efforts to contact her were unsuccessful. The second nun, Rius is deceased.

Despite the staggering numbers and the fact that these cases are spread across Spain, prosecutors say they don't believe it was a "baby mafia," but a macabre business involving public and private hospitals, doctors, nurses, midwives and even nuns who wanted to make money.

Typically, doctors and nuns would tell mothers their babies had been born dead, or that they had died shortly after birth, Barroso said. Then they would sell the newborns to adoptive parents and forge all official documents. After being told their newborns died, mothers would usually request to see their children, but doctors and midwives would deter them.

This is what Barroso learned when he started digging for answers.

A quest for answers

Determined to find the truth about their origins and similar cases, Barroso and Juan Luis Moreno founded the National Association for Victims of Irregular Adoptions (ANADIR), a support group dedicated to shedding light on the issue.

Since February 2010, more than 1,800 people searching for their blood relatives have joined. ANADIR has set up its own DNA bank and every Friday, a lab crosses the genetic profile of members looking for matches. So far, they have reunited five families through this profiling.

In most of the cases ANADIR handles, he says it has been the siblings of stolen children that have led the search.