GÜRTEL CASE

Why no one wants "Mr Montecristo"

Corruption kingpin Correa gets a frosty Costa response after posting bail

Correa arriving at San Roque courthouse, where he must report daily as part of his bail conditions.
Correa arriving at San Roque courthouse, where he must report daily as part of his bail conditions.JULIÁN ROJAS

In order to be a member of the very exclusive and elitist Valderrama Golf Club, considered one of the world's 10 best courses and famous for being the only club in continental Europe ever to have hosted the Ryder Cup, it is not enough to be in possession of a huge sum of money to cover membership fees. One must also secure the endorsement of several club members who will vouch for your good conduct and faultless reputation.

The thing is, not just anyone can be a member of Valderrama, no matter how rich they happen to be. Something additional is required.

The same spirit of exclusivity presides Valgrande, a luxury estate located just 50 meters from the golf club, on the western edge of Costa del Sol. That is why some of the residents here are not exactly pleased about having a jailbird among them. The alleged mastermind behind the Gürtel network, the bribes-for-political-favors scheme that has shaken the very foundations of the Popular Party (PP), arrived there last Tuesday after spending three years and four months in Madrid's Soto del Real penitentiary, before posting bail of 200,000 euros.

But everyone knows about his past now, and that has stigmatized him. Francisco Correa is no longer welcome here.

We make an honest living and he gets out of prison and comes right back here"

"We're sick and tired of having to live side by side with this scoundrel," says one Valgrande resident after driving by the entrance security barrier (only residents and guests with invitations may come inside) in his Volvo XC60, a car with a retail price of around 35,000 euros.

"We make an honest living and he gets out of prison and comes right back here. And the most likely thing is that in a few months he'll be going back to jail. And to think that we're on TV because of this..."

But the Volvo driver is not the only person worried about the development's image now that Correa is back. "Just because one owner did what he did, the other 164 should not have to pay for it," argues the property administrator addressing the bevy of journalists who had congregated outside Valgrande. Meanwhile, a dozen gardeners went about their business, tending to the ivy and the flowers that adorn the property's entrance.

It is from Valgrande that Correa drives daily to the court in San Roque to prove that he is still here, that he has not fled the country. He does so in a Land Rover Discovery, an all-terrain vehicle worth around 50,000 euros. Of the two properties that Correa owns in Sotogrande (a resort that encompasses Valgrande and several other estates, as well as beach clubs, golf courses and polo fields), he has decided to live in this one. He has the right to enjoy his property, even though the house has been seized by judicial authorities. The only thing he cannot do is sell it.

That yacht was beautiful. Did it really belong to Correa?"

Valgrande, which is enclosed by a wall and protected by closed-circuit television cameras, contains 165 apartments grouped in three-story homes painted a sandy yellow and surrounded by well-manicured lawns, three swimming pools, a fully-equipped gym, a spa, a paddle court and a golf green. The price tags range from 480,000 euros for the two-bedroom apartments to 1.2 million for the larger, four-bedroom homes.

"The ground floors and the top floors are most in demand," explains a sales agent at one of the realtors that commercialize them.

Whether because of his pre-Gürtel life or because of the notoriety he has since gained, Correa is very well known in Sotogrande - especially down at the marina, where he owns another (seized) house in a development called Ribera del Emperador. The workers at the port's control tower remember how, until just a few years ago, Correa used to moor his Carmen 11 - a 23-meter yacht with an estimated value of 700,000 euros. Renting a berth for a vessel that size at this particular marina costs around 30,100 euros a year, not including water and electricity costs, as managers like to point out.

But even this soon seemed too small for Correa. He wanted something even bigger. A few months before his arrest, he decided to sell the Carmen 11 to buy the Montecristo, a veritable ocean-going vessel standing 39 meters long and seven wide, with a four-meter draft, built in 1978.

The managers of the Sotogrande marina remember that Correa took it to the Spanish North African enclave of Ceuta for a complete makeover because it was cheaper on that side of the Strait of Gibraltar, but his detention and subsequent imprisonment put a freeze on that project. The ship is still in Ceuta, there for all to see, in dry dock inside a small shipyard called Marina Meridional, where it is wrapped in a canvas sheet.

And if the Gürtel case were not enough for him to worry about, the Montecristo has brought Correa another lawsuit. Just the maintenance and surveillance costs of such a behemoth are costing the shipyard around 8,000 euros a month, and the unpaid bill is now close to 320,000 euros. Marina Meridional filed a complaint in Ceuta's Mercantile Court to try to get this money back, and the judge decided to seize the ship. He is the second magistrate to do so, since the High Court had already impounded the vessel.

Back on the mainland, the residents of Sotogrande still remember the Carmen 11 moored across from the control tower at the marina, in the port's most spacious wharf.

"It was beautiful. Did it really belong to Correa?" asks one of the employees at the Real Club Marítimo before proceeding to check his computer files to see if his name shows up on the register of this small but exclusive nautical society. It does.

"In fact, he used to be a member, but we just canceled his membership," the sailing club employee asserts, refusing to explain why.

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