Fighting corruption

The lone rangers of justice

Major corruption cases are being handled by judges subject to pressure from the same powers- that-be they are investigating

Judge Pilar de Lara.
Judge Pilar de Lara.eliseo trigo (efe)

Pilar de Lara is a slight-framed, mild-mannered judge who arrived at Lugo's 1st Juzgado de Instrucción (examining court) in 2007. Lugo, a provincial capital often blurred by a melancholy drizzle, seemed like a nice, quiet placement for a 37-year-old magistrate fresh out of another courthouse in Mieres where she had dealt with drug traffickers and even an accessory to the Madrid train bombings of March 11, 2004.

But that was until she ran into a hot potato of a case involving a Civil Guard officer who obtained favors from Brazilian prostitutes whom he knew to lack residency papers. De Lara interrogated hundreds of prostitutes, tapped their clients' conversations and ordered searches of police precincts. What she uncovered was a widespread web of corruption extending out from the brothels of Galicia and affecting law enforcement and elected officials. De Lara found that police chiefs were deliberately ignoring abuse by the owner of a sex club called Queen's (this was the basis for the Carioca case). This same brothel provided cover for a group of businessmen who boasted about having mayors eating out of their hands and awarding them no-bid contracts (the basis for the Pokémon case).

Now, De Lara's investigations are extending to the regions of Asturias and Catalonia (Operation Manga). In total, her fact-finding work has led to over 100 indictments for people trafficking, sexual abuse, drug trafficking, money laundering, embezzlement, bribes and other crimes. Some of the high-ranking officials facing charges include the mayors of Lugo, Santiago de Compostela and Ourense, and the Ourense chief of police.

The prize for De Lara's bravery has been a life of isolation, surrounded by powerful people who have declared war on her. The judge has received all kinds of threats and been the subject of political attacks and police plots to run her out of Lugo.

The judge was told: "Leave Lugo or the police will come after you"

First the prostitutes delivered messages to her: "Leave Lugo or the police will come after you." A police officer admitted he was offered 22,000 euros to file a complaint against De Lara. Online police forums are full of insults against her and the other Galician judge who is fighting corruption, Estela San José, who has divorced as a result of the relentless pressure put on her private life.

In order to cover her own back, De Lara leads the life of a monk, going straight from her home to the courthouse, where she works long hours regardless of whether she is sick or weak to the point of fainting. The local press watches her so closely that it has even reported that she drinks too much Red Bull to stay awake. But De Lara shuns the media, and her only statements to the press have been to ask for more resources to do her work. Some people suspect her lack of material means is no coincidence. A few of her workers have been known to put up the money for office material just to help her out. Her dedication is appreciated by her circle of loyal aides, which include her friend San José, two Civil Guard officers and one court worker.

It is a familiar pattern: a new judge arrives in town and starts asking questions (under the inquisitorial system of law used in Spain, the judge does much of the investigative work in a case, as opposed to the adversarial system used in Britain and the United States, where evidence is gathered and presented to the judge). The magistrate finds something odd, and immediately becomes the local enemy. The most vulnerable judges are the ones who work in small municipalities, with few resources and lots of guts, exposing the corruption that permeates the country, from the lowest to the highest levels.

Pressure is the key to keeping examining judges at bay. "Social fear makes some judges opt for low-profile crimes. This in itself generates a corruption of sorts," says Miguel Ángel Torres, the presiding judge in the Malaya case, the largest raid against corruption ever conducted in Spain. The man who brought down the entire local government of Marbella now carries out routine work in a courthouse in Granada, and he once confessed to his friends that he felt quite alone during the Malaya proceedings, a time when it was him being held up as the bad guy rather than the individuals who had sacked the southern city's coffers for years. Torres feels that judges, attorneys and police officers who investigate well-known, well-connected suspects are not sufficiently protected from this pressure by the state.

Fear makes some judges opt to only go after low-profile criminals"

The more political the case, the greater the pressure - and not just from the targets of investigation. Josep María Pijuan, the judge in charge of the Palau case, should know. The case involves the Palau de la Música, one of Catalonia's premier cultural institutions, whose manager Félix Millet siphoned off over 35 million euros over many years. Judge Pijuan is investigating whether part of that money was used for illegal party financing.

The evidence points to a major construction company, Ferrovial, paying commissions to Convergència, one half of the CiU bloc that rules Catalonia. These commissions were apparently disguised as cultural sponsorship of the Palau in exchange for hefty public contracts. Pijuan has set a bail of 3.2 million euros for the region's most powerful party.

Pijuan's is a special case because he did not unwittingly open a can of worms but went out looking for it. A 60-year-old who confesses openly to his leftist and Catalanist sympathies, Pijuan was leading a placid life at the Provincial Court of Barcelona, but asked to be transferred to Barcelona's 30th examining court when a spot opened up. This happens to be the court investigating the Palau case. His arrival speeded up proceedings that were going too slowly under his predecessor. Pijuan has a strong personality and an incisive style (some people describe it as inquisitorial) that have made him famous. He handles his job with the aplomb of someone who has spent many years dealing with political issues, and insists on the need to create teams of specialists to work together against corruption, rather than rely on a star system of investigative judges.

His proposals come at a time when the very concept of the examining judge could soon disappear. Justice Minister Alberto Ruiz Gallardón has already taken the first steps to reform criminal procedure legislation and make the public prosecutor, rather than the judge, responsible for investigating the facts of cases.

Seville investigative judge Mercedes Alaya.
Seville investigative judge Mercedes Alaya.julián rojas

The prosecutor is theoretically independent, although in practice he is appointed by the government, and many voices in the judiciary fear that the public prosecutor will have even more problems taking a stand against political maneuvering in cases involving wrongdoing in government or law enforcement.

Jacobo Pin, the young magistrate in charge of the case against the politician Carlos Fabra -- the longtime head of Castellón province -- for influence peddling, bribery and tax fraud, knows how hard it is to remain independent from political oversight. When he first pulled in front of the Nules courthouse in his Jaguar, looking no older than his 27 years, many people lost hope that the Fabra case would ever prosper. The case had already gone through eight judges as Fabra and his stable of lawyers kept delaying the investigative work in a stifling climate dominated by the local power of the defendant's clan.

Pin did not seem like the hero who would face down this well-oiled machine. He came from a good family (one brother is a diplomat, the other is a doctor and his father is a well-known lawyer with connections to the Popular Party) and he chose this placement simply because it is just 10 kilometers from his house. Despite the fact that he had once worked for a non-profit organization in Bolivia, it soon became clear that Pin was not really the adventurous type. His procedural style was dry and his interrogations not particularly daring. But little by little he made his way through the reams of evidence in the case. He showed diligence in his information requests to banks, he reopened blocked avenues of investigation, and he applied the law rigorously. He also began getting pressure from Carlos Domínguez, president of the Provincial Court of Castellón and a personal friend of Fabra.

And then Pin dropped a bombshell. He did an absolutely unheard-of thing for a judge from a small village: he asked the General Council of the Judiciary (CGPJ) for protection from his superiors. In a written brief to the Spanish judges' oversight body, Pin displayed a firmness that nobody had seen in him before. His conclusions were crystal clear: the powers that be in Castellón were "trying to indirectly impose a stay of proceedings on the alleged crime of bribery," which Pin wanted to add to the other charges against Fabra. "Stop perturbing my independence," he wrote. Against all odds, the CGPJ did not dismiss the request, and the Supreme Court has ordered that Fabra also be tried for bribery.

These are small triumphs that examining judges mark like notches on their pistols. Judge José Castro already has a few of them. The chief investigator of the Palma Arena case has lost weight in recent times, but not for the same reasons as his most famous indictee, royal son-in-law Iñaki Urdangarin, who is alleged to have appropriated millions of euros from no-bid public contracts he obtained because of his connections. Following doctor's orders, the 67-year-old Castro has traded his powerful motorbikes for a bicycle and, watching him pedal the five kilometers that separate the courthouse from his semi-detached beach house, one would be tempted to think that he leads the quiet life of a pensioner. He has a girlfriend, grandchildren and a Yorkshire terrier, and shuns public appearances. It is not easy to catch him at any of Palma's restaurants or cafés, although he does like to have a coffee with all the parties in a case to overcome bad feelings resulting from his endless interrogations. He has a good working relationship with public servants and the police, and never misses out on a single house search, whether at the posh home of former Balearics premier Jaume Matas or at the shantytown of Son Banya. He is not a member of any judge association, but he does not need to: Castro is one of those rare consensus figures in a profession rife with backstabbing. Even those who do not appreciate his short fuse and inquisitorial character respect his obsession for the truth.

Without her ambition and her patience, the case would have never seen the light

These days, Castro is dedicated exclusively to the high-profile Urdangarin case, but when he arrived in the Balearic Islands in 1990 it was considered to be a quiet placement. When widespread corruption under Matas, of the PP, began to emerge, regional political powers began trying to show the judge who was the boss of the islands. But Castro failed to take notice. It was a terrible fight, with even the state attorney trying to prevent an indictment of the Balearic leader. It was all to no avail. And it was precisely while investigating the building of the Palma Arena cycling track that the Urdangarin case emerged as an offshoot. People who know Castro personally say he thought it over carefully before indicting King Juan Carlos' son-in-law. But something halfway between a sense of duty and love of a good challenge made him do it.

But boldness does not come free. This lesson was learned the hard way by Baltasar Garzón, once Spain's most famous investigative judge. Garzón seemed untouchable: he had a position at Spain's High Court and was well known inside and outside the country because of high-profile human rights cases against people such as former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet. But none of that stopped him from getting suspended over a wiretapping issue in connection with Gürtel, the widespread corruption case he was investigating. His successor at the helm of Gürtel, Antonio Pedreira, is living proof that health is also part of the equation where the administration of justice is concerned: he is now bed-ridden, suffering from a debilitating disease.

Judge Mercedes Alaya also knows how a body under pressure can react. Her trigeminal neuralgia is associated with the tension she has endured for the last two years. Popularly known as the "suicide disease," it causes indescribable pain in the eyes, jaw and even hair, which can be triggered by nothing more than a breath of air. For five months now, every time the judge in charge of the Andalusian ERE case touches a piece of paper, she starts to suffer.

Alaya's return to Seville is awaited as anxiously as people await an apparition of the Virgin Mary. "Doctors have found the key to her illness," says a source at the courthouse, but the truth is her health is as enigmatic as the woman who has revolutionized the entire region of Andalusia with her investigation into a massive scam involving public subsidies for companies making labor adjustment plans.

Without her ambition and her patience, the case would have never seen the light. But it has become such a personal thing that it seems nearly impossible for another judge to take over from her. There are two whole rooms filled with boxes containing documents and personal annotations on post-it notes. Meanwhile, attorneys are despairing over the delay and the difficulty of finding a replacement. Also, Alaya -- who has spent the last two years battling against the regional government, the insurance companies and some very competent law firms -- is not being exactly cooperative. She is dosing out the information as she sees fit. Attorneys fear this delay will ultimately hurt the accusation.

Yet her case is different from most of the other judges in this story. Although she is not short on enemies, Alaya is no martyr. She has a fan page on Facebook, the Seville Provincial Court supports her, and she gets regularly praised by the media -- the fact is, many people are weary of the Socialist Party's ways after 30 years of hegemonic regional rule. The cameras love her, and on days that she knows she will be in the limelight, Alaya wears her best outfits. But a sex object she is not. A mother of four who had her first child at age 20 and still managed to pass public competitions after very demanding studies, Alaya is known for her strong character and tough exterior. Her shouting matches with opposing parties inside her courthouse are by now famous.

Alaya is a good example of the slippery terrain that judges tread when the morality of a city is in their hands. In certain situations, it seems easy to believe that nobody but oneself can clean up a rotten town. This attitude could be construed as messianic, yet it is based on a truth. Who else would be willing to take calls from important people suggesting that it is high time to end the investigation? Who else would be willing to open the newspaper and find comments on one's battle strategy? Probably only someone who believes that the prize is worth fighting for, and that behind an indictee's silence, there is a lie.

With reporting by Silvia R. Pontevedra, Fernando J. Pérez, Jesús García, Andreu Manresa and Javier Martín-Arroyo.

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