The Mortgage Victims Platform (PAH) has been whipping up a storm in recent days with its latest move to stop families unable to keep up mortgage repayments from being evicted from their homes across Spain. The organization has begun taking its protest to the houses of politicians who do not support legislation to allow people to end mortgage agreements by handing over the keys to their house, a process known as dation in payment.
In recent days, PAH supporters have made so-called escrache demonstrations — a kind of protest that originated in Argentina to denounce those not brought to justice for crimes committed during the 1976-1983 military dictatorship — outside the homes of a number prominent Popular Party (PP) figures, including Interior Minister Jorge Fernández Díaz, Cabinet Secretary Jorge Moragas, Justice Minister Alberto Ruiz-Gallardón, Barcelona regional deputy Ángeles Esteller, as well as Esteban González Pons, a senior party figure and policy advisor.
Pons was not at home at the time of the incident at his Valencia residence last Wednesday, but his family was. "They came into the entrance hall, climbed up to the house and pounded on the door for 45 minutes," he said from Madrid after learning of what had happened. "This is not the way to convince me."
The politician, who has filed a legal complaint over the incident, said it was an attack on "representatives of popular sovereignty." "Frightening my family is a mafia-style method. Today they do it to make the politicians change their vote. Tomorrow they will do it with judges and after that with journalists. It is very dangerous. They say they are going to mark me out, but marking out is what the Nazis did to the Jews," Pons told EL PAÍS.
They climbed up to the house and pounded on my door"
The PAH in Valencia has said the tactic is about "approaching" deputies in order to explain in person in a "peaceful and orderly" manner the damage that their rejection of the legal changes proposed in the recent Popular Legislative Initiative (ILP) on evictions, which collected almost 1.5 million signatures, was inflicting on "thousands" of families.
But the escrache campaign has received harsh criticism from a number of major parties, including the PP and the Socialists (PSOE).
Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy pronounced the demonstrations "anti-democratic" and defended his PP government's record on the issue of evictions. "This government is the only one that has taken decisions on the matter," he said on a visit to Paris last Tuesday. "Now we are debating a draft law and a Popular Legislative Initiative, but the solutions have to be balanced."
The government's delegate in Madrid, Cristina Cifuentes, went further, saying "using coercive methods to reach an end cannot be tolerated."
The PP representative said the right to protest was guaranteed in Spain but that did not mean that there can be "coercion or the exercising of violence." She also highlighted the fact that "strangely" the protests were "always against PP deputies, not those of other parties."
Leading PAH spokeswoman Ada Colau explained why this was the case: "We have always criticized the PSOE and to the same degree. When that party was in government, it dismissed five of our proposals. But now the PSOE has said it is going to vote in favor of the ILP, which is the reason why we are not questioning them," she said.
The inviolable limit is physical violence or pressuring family members"
"Those we are going to go on questioning are from the PP, who have already said they are going to vote against it. We are going to keep up the campaign and we are going to ask for their vote there where they are [at their homes]. Now they are worried so much about their privacy, [but] where is the privacy of the people evicted by an illegal law?" she said in reference to the recent European ruling that current Spanish mortgage legislation violated EU regulations.
But are the escrache protests legal? "Citizen movements that breathe down the neck of politics, but only breathe, are more than legitimate," says Jesús María Osés, a professor of the history of political thought at the Public University of Navarre. "The inviolable limit is physical violence or exerting pressure on the family."
The PAH might view its protests as peaceful, but González Pons sees them differently, accusing the platform of "intimidating" his family by ringing the doorbell of their home.
So far, the Interior Ministry has issued the police orders to identify those taking part in escrache actions. This is merely in order to pursue those who behave in a violent manner, ministry sources have said - arrests will only be made in the case of assault, serious insults, objects being thrown or any other violent incident, "like at any other demonstration." Which is to say that peaceful attendance of an escrache demonstration will not on its own bring about identification or arrest.
But the SUP police union said the ministry's instructions are "nonsense" that leave officers out on a limb and endanger their legal security. The command means having "to twist" the law, according to SUP spokesman José María Benito, because "if no crime or administrative infraction is being committed, identifying citizens and proposing they should be sanctioned is to make an unjust interpretation."
On the other hand, the police will provide protection to politicians who file complaints over threats and harassment made during escrache protests on a temporary basis.