The last kilometer of unspoiled coastline in Orihuela, in the eastern Alicante province, is about to lose one of its most committed protectors. A no-confidence motion that was put forward earlier in December by the Popular Party (PP) looks set to remove Monserrate Guillén from his post as mayor of the resort area.
Guillén - a member of the Green Party - and his Socialist Party (PSOE) coalition partners were committed to preventing the development of an area known as Cala Mosca. The previous council, run by the PP, had approved a project to build 1,700 houses there, right on the last remaining stretch of a coastline that has already seen construction work along a 16-kilometer stretch.
Five of the PP's 12 locally elected officials are currently under investigation for corruption, or have already been convicted. But despite this, the party has been able to push through a motion of no-confidence.
Orihuela is located in the Vega Baja area of the province, which borders with Murcia. Around a third of all the corruption cases in Alicante are being investigated in Vega Baja, most of which are related to construction.
The previous PP council approved a project to build 1,700 houses there
Some 40,000 houses have already been built in the area, a quarter of which have not been granted occupancy certificates. The Cala Mosca project was approved in 2007, when PP Mayor Mónica Lorente enjoyed an absolute majority. She is now under investigation on two counts of corruption, and may see a third case brought against her. At the time, the PSOE drew attention to the fact that environmental impact study of the planned development had been carried out, and pointed to zoning irregularities.
On the approach to Orihuela, Cala Mosca stands out as the only area along the coast that has not been built up. Its 600,000 square meters run along steep cliffs, which look down onto a sheltered cove that cannot be seen from the rest of the seafront. The cove is part of a protected maritime area that is home to several rare species, among them the Tudorella Mauretanica snail, which faces extinction, and a variety of the cistus jara flowering plant, which is only found in a few places in Spain, as well as in Sardinia and parts of North Africa.
European Union representatives visited the area in November at the request of the Green Party. They sent a letter to Orihuela's local council pointing out that no environmental study had been carried out in an area with species at risk of extinction. "The Spanish authorities are under obligation to respect the EU's laws on environmental protection," stated the missive.
Guillén has called on Orihuela's environment department to declare the area a micro-reserve, but it has refused to comment on the matter until the property developers, Grupo Inmobiliario Gomendio, have carried out an environmental study.
Five of the PP's 12 local officials are under investigation for corruption
Guillén joined Orihuela's council in 2003 after making a name for himself during a bitter fight to prevent the construction of a garbage-processing plant in the small community of Torremendo, during which protesters formed human chains to prevent garbage trucks entering the site.
In 2011, he took over as mayor after his predecessor, Mónica Lorente, lost her absolute majority, and a group of rebel PP councilors left their party and joined the PSOE and the Greens to form a coalition. Two of their number have since signaled their intention to vote with their former party to unseat Guillén at a formal vote of no confidence, which is due to be debated and held on January 3.
"There are some very powerful interests at stake here," said Guillén on December 20, aware that his battle to save Cala Mosca was all but lost. "In Orihuela money and power have always been closely entwined. And we are standing in the way," he said.
Since taking over as mayor, Guillén has repeatedly found himself in conflict with powerful interests, in a city where his four predecessors have been investigated for corruption, with two of them found guilty. Among the enemies he made is Ángel Fenoll, the would-be developer of the garbage plant. He is now under investigation for illegal trash dumping in a plant that he built nearby, close to Murcia. Fenoll's project prompted local residents to get organized, with 600 of them camping out in the summer of 2011 in front of the garbage-processing plant, demanding its closure. When Guillén took over as mayor, the first thing he did was to shut the plant down. It emerged that Fenoll did not even have permission to run a plant in Orihuela, even though he had been dumping garbage there for several years. In 2012, Guillén took over the garbage-collection service, taking away Fenoll's contract on suspicion that he was involved in a nationwide kickbacks-for-contracts scandal involving the PP. Fenoll is now under investigation, and also faces accusations that he illegally financed Lorente's election campaign in return for receiving the garbage collection contract. Lorente is among the PP councilors who have signed the no-confidence motion against Guillén.
In 2007, a judge in an Orihuela court ordered Fenoll and two others to be remanded in custody without bail on charges of extortion, bribery and threatening behavior relating to the awarding of the municipal garbage-collection contract.
During the two years he has spent in office, Guillén has reported the illegal burying of rubbish in the garbage plant to the European Union. At Brussels' request he has also recently presented a series of environmental studies that suggest the likelihood of landfill garbage seeping into the underground water supply. He has been a frequent and vocal critic of the provincial administration, particularly its environment department, which he accuses of failing to meet its obligations by allowing the garbage plant to go ahead in its new site.
The PP decided to try to recover its fiefdom this summer, presenting two motions of no confidence, but they had no validity because they were not supported by elected officials. Guillén has worked actively with the courts to bring those suspected of corruption to justice, with four members of the local PP under investigation. Another, Pepa Ferrando, formerly in charge of the tourism office, may well face investigation. In the meantime, she is the most likely candidate to take over from Guillén. An investigation is underway into alleged irregularities into the way that services were contracted relating to the town's presence at FITUR, Spain's biggest tourism trade fair.
The PP, meanwhile, is calling for garbage collection in the town to be privatized once again. Guillén believes that by interfering with garbage collection, he has been forced to face off with deep-rooted powers that have been in place for more than 25 years. What's more, he fears that the snail and the cistus will end up just like him.