On the morning of February 6, 2009, dozens of police officers entered the exclusive gated community of Sotogrande, near the Atlantic port city of Cadiz, while at the same time their colleagues began knocking on doors in smart apartment blocks in Madrid's upscale Salamanca neighborhood, as well as waking up residents at addresses in a number of wealthy outlying districts of the Spanish capital. Judge Baltasar Garzón had signed several search and arrest warrants, and among those taken into custody that day were Francisco Correa and Pablo Crespo, the alleged heads of a corruption network extending deep into the Popular Party (PP). After months of planning, Operation Gürtel had begun.
Five years later, almost 200 people are awaiting trial in the High Court in Madrid and Valencia's regional High Court. One of the judges who worked with Garzón on the case says that what initially looked like just another small-scale scam involving a few people has turned into the largest probe into the illegal financing of a political party in Spain's history. Another judge goes further, saying that all the pieces in the puzzle began to fall into place as, once the suspects were in police custody, investigators saw the way that a group of men and women committed to crime behaved when their wrongdoing was exposed.
It is hard to draw a clear line between Gürtel and the accusations involving illegal payments to senior PP figures by former party treasurer Luis Bárcenas, in part because corruption is a messy business. The so-called Bárcenas case is, for the moment at least, just one part of Gürtel. Bárcenas, who has already given testimony about Correa's activities, is currently in jail awaiting trial, and will be one of the key witnesses in the Gürtel case.
This is not a plot dreamed up by the PP; it is dreamed up against the PP"
The PP insists that Gürtel is nothing more than a few bad apples taking advantage of their position and the name of the party. Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy said as much at one of his rare press conferences, surrounded by the PP high command, on February 11, 2009, an event worthy of a banana republic rather than a mature democracy. But it revealed his deep concern about the likely impact of the police investigation.
"This is not a plot dreamed up by the PP; it is a plot dreamed up against the PP," he insisted during a speech that, five years on, merits close reading so as to compare what he said with the facts that the police and courts have established, one by one, since then. The supposed plot against the PP involved judges, prosecutors and police officers, all of whom Rajoy accused of being in the pocket of the then-Socialist Party Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, and his Interior Minister Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba. It's also worth taking a close look at the family photograph of that day: on either side of Rajoy are party secretary Dolores de Cospedal and Ana Mato, the latter the wife of Jesús Sepúlveda, both of whom are accused of receiving up to 50,000 euros' worth of gifts from Correa. Behind her stands Francisco Camps, who stood down from his post as head of the regional government of Valencia before standing trial on corruption charges linked to Gürtel; Javier Arenas, a former PP secretary general, is also there, as is Esperanza Aguirre, the head of the regional government of Madrid during the years Correa was supplying bogus services to local councils around the capital. Then comes Rita Barberá, who has held onto her post as Valencia mayor, and Federico Trillo, a former defense minister and the man tasked with bringing down Garzón; Rajoy even mentioned him by name during his address.
Over time, the involvement in Gürtel of the men and women standing by Rajoy that day has been, to varying degrees, exposed. The simple fact of the matter is that, contrary to what Rajoy would have the Spanish electorate believe, Gürtel is indeed a plot dreamed up by the PP. And what is more, it affects the party at every level, right to the very top: from the party's national headquarters in Madrid, in Valencia, and in municipalities, right down to minor officials.
There is no separating Gürtel from the PP. There are more than 70 former party officials under investigation for a range of alleged crimes. In a report from December 30, 2013, the Interior Ministry's UDEF anticorruption unit points out on five occasions that the PP has used the Gürtel network for many years as a source of financing for, among other things, electoral events. The receipts are there, and so are the names of the suppliers.
There is a sort of black comedy surrounding the whole affair, with a cast of characters that includes a fixer who could have come straight out of Boardwalk Empire and who liked to be addressed as Don Vito. And let's not forget "El Bigotes" (the mustache), a throwback to the bawdy Spanish comedies of the early 1970s. There is also "el Albondiguilla" (little meatball), "el Gafitas" (four eyes), "el Rata" (the rat), "la Perla" (Pearl), "la Barbie" and even a certain Luis "the bastard," who by all accounts was not a pleasant customer to deal with. There is also no shortage of luxury holidays and swanky watches. A great many swanky watches. Correa and his business partner El Bigotes also spent 481,000 euros on a stage show that included minor celebrities and showgirls. It premiered in Barcelona in 2005, and ran for exactly three days. The title? Las Corsarias (The Lady Pirates). You couldn't make it up.
Leaving farce to one side, there are also any number of high rollers involved in this story. For example, the all-powerful former treasurer Bárcenas, whose office was just a few meters from Rajoy's, along with the heads of regional governments, members of regional parliaments and government, as well as mayors, party officials, and leaders within every regional administration headed by the PP, including Galicia, Rajoy's home turf. And then there are the high-flying business leaders, the odd vice chairman of an oil company, experts in international finance, and any number of friends and relatives of José María Aznar, who headed two successive PP governments between 1996 and 2004. What's more, Gürtel was not just a national affair; its net was cast as far as Switzerland, Miami, New York, Panama and Venezuela, and took in tax havens in the Virgin Islands, Singapore and Polynesia. Even the Vatican found itself unwittingly involved.
Whatever the PP might say about Gürtel, we need to understand that this was a colossal enterprise: robbery on an international scale of public money carried out by bandits with the connivance of upright neoliberals determined to dismantle the state, in the process using its resources and institutions to fund five-star lifestyles.
Rajoy's attempt at solemnity that February day five years ago at the PP's headquarters in Madrid was aimed at staving off the danger he saw coming as a result of the efforts of Garzón and anticorruption agents over the previous two years and that dove-tailed into an earlier corruption investigation into accounts held at the BBVA and Privanza banks. Spaniards had learned just a few days earlier about a man called Francisco Correa, who headed up a gang of crooks worthy of Hollywood; his second-in-command was called Pablo Crespo, and furthermore it looked as though there were bigger fish involved. Soon after, it transpired that they weren't so much linked to the PP, but that they were inextricably part of the party's structure.
According to the party's official accounts, the relationship dates back to 1993. The first receipt recorded in the PP's books, for some 25,000 pesetas, a mere 150 euros, appears alongside the initials FCS, Francisco Correa Sánchez. After that, using dozens of companies such as Special Events, Easy Concept, Good and Better, etc, the party was billed for more than 50 million euros as a longstanding and mutually beneficial relationship was established.
Correa began by organizing trips for PP officials and ended up taking control of arranging thousands of electoral acts in the 14 general, regional and local elections between 1993 and 2004. He and his cohorts then continued their dirty work in other regions, notably Madrid and Valencia. In the meantime, toward the end of the 1990s, he had discovered another seam to mine: airline tickets and electoral events were not enough for these guys. They realized that the real money was to be found in the nascent property boom. And the place to find it was in local councils and city halls occupied by the new generation of PP leaders that Correa would set about making friends with.
Throughout the 1990s, Correa was rubbing shoulders with all the senior members of the PP. Aznar took his calls, and he frequently chatted with Bárcenas, who stayed in the shadows for so many years, and who is likely to spend a few more out of circulation. He was on first-name terms with Francisco Álvarez-Cascos and Javier Arenas, who both served as PP secretary general. Correa made sure that he was on the best of terms with the men who ran the election campaigns, such as Jesús Sepulveda and Ana Mato, or Aznar's personal secretary, Antonio Cámera. He also found time to befriend Alejandro Agag, who would soon become Aznar's son-in-law. Correa was a witness at Agag's ostentatious wedding in El Escorial in November 2002, where he upset many by wearing brown shoes.
As mentioned, the police had been working on Operation Gürtel for two years prior to the arrests of February 2009. They had searched the offices of several lawyers known for their ability to launder money by channeling it into tax havens. At the offices of one Luis de Miguel they found several leads regarding accounts in the name of Correa: another piece of the puzzle. At the same time, the police and public prosecutors had been working on another case in which Correa's name came up. On November 7, José Luis Peñas, a former PP councilor in the middle-class Madrid dormitory town of Majadahonda, accompanied by his lawyer, Ángel Galindo, made an explosive statement to the UDEF. Backed up with documentary evidence, he described in great detail the close relationship between Correa and several town halls in the Madrid region controlled by the PP. He also provided the police with a CD containing 18 hours of recordings, along with a transcription of the conversations. In March 2008, Peñas and Galindo ratified their statement to the anticorruption unit.
Whatever the PP might say, we need to know this was a colossal enterprise
This was dynamite. It turned out that Peñas had been recording Correa's conversations for the previous two years, and those conversations were all about extortion, blackmail and buying politicians and civil servants by somebody who had worked his way to the top and had no scruples about using the power he had acquired in doing so. Without this evidence, it is possible that Operation Gürtel would never have happened. The police now went in search of more, and they found it in the network's nerve center, a law firm in central Madrid: accounts with the names of politicians and deputies in the regional parliament, including references to LB, or Luis Bárcenas, along with hundreds of other equally important documents, all neatly stored on a single pen drive.
The accounts mentioned expensive gifts: watches worth thousands of euros, four-wheel-drive vehicles, honeymoon trips, designer suits and cash. Every bribe was documented and detailed in its corresponding column. There was also information about a state-of-the-art sports center that was never built in Boadilla. In Majadahonda itself, there were details about very expensive information centers that nobody asked to be built, and that were not needed - all paid for out of public funds. Needless to say, the commissions were extremely generous. The link between the property speculation that would eventually sink the Spanish economy and wholesale corruption could not have been clearer.
In 2004, as said earlier, Correa and his sweetheart deals with local councils in Madrid had clearly extended way beyond anything that could be imagined. But perhaps acting unawares, or simply blinded by his greed, Correa had stepped on some powerful toes. In Majadahonda, for example, run by the all-powerful Ricardo Romero de Tejada. Bárcenas, on the other hand, was in no need of Correa's services, and was already headed for greater heights. Correa had also done business with AENA, the Spanish airports authority, when Álvarez-Cascos was public works minister.
Organizing events was not enough; the real money was to be had in property
But the main focus of Correa's activities was still Valencia and Madrid, the latter's regional government then run by Esperanza Aguirre. That was where Correa found the support of Alberto López Viejo, who, despite Aguirre's protestations to the contrary when called to testify in November, is believed by police to have been her personal assistant.
Meanwhile, in Valencia, El Bigotes had launched his own charm offensive to win over the regional government. He owned a summer house in the upscale La Nucía development in Alicante province, along with a luxury apartment in Alicante itself. As well as flashy motorbikes, he had developed a penchant for hand-made suits. He soon became famous for his lavish presents and sweet-talking ways with politicians and their wives. His business was in providing marquees and stands for trade fairs, but he was also involved in the construction of a trade center and in the arrangements for Pope Benedict's visit to the region in 2006, in which the publicly owned Canal 9 television station played a large part. The station has since been closed by the regional government after going bankrupt. His company, Orange Market, soon began operating along the lines that Correa's other service companies in Madrid had been doing for years: billing for public works projects, some of which materialized, and others that mostly never happened. In exchange, party events were put on cheap or free of charge. In short, according to the upcoming trials in Valencia, this was the illegal financing of the PP.
Garzón had upset a very large applecart by ordering the arrest of Correa and dozens of public officials, and would pay for it. The PP, caught in fraganti, went into overdrive and launched its own damage-limitation exercise. This would involve repeated lying and threatening witnesses, as well as openly applying pressure to judges, for example on a seriously ill Antonio Pedreira, and all of it orchestrated by Federico Trillo. The former defense minister - who had emerged unscathed from the scandal over the hiring of a decrepit Russian plane that crashed in Turkey in 2003, killing 75 members of the Spanish armed forces on their way back from serving in a peace mission in Afghanistan - even went so far as to personally visit a tailor called José Tomás, who allegedly supplied free hand-made suits to Francisco Camps, the former Valencia premier. The tailor stuck to his guns, despite the dirty tricks campaign he was subjected to by the PP and its supporters in the media.
But five years on from the arrest warrants of Operation Gürtel, only one person has actually been sentenced: Garzón. The shameful way in which he was hounded by the courts, eventually being barred after being found guilty of overstepping his authority by ordering the recording of conversations between Gürtel suspects and their lawyers, along with the way the case has been dragged out and delayed at every turn, is due to the efforts of Trillo, who has since been rewarded by being made Spain's ambassador to the United Kingdom. Despite his efforts and limited successes, however, the course of justice has ground slowly and inexorably on.
What the PP has failed to understand is that there are still some anticorruption agents, judges and police officers able to withstand political pressure, and who, despite the dirty tricks, mudslinging and lies, have soldiered on with the task of putting the pieces of the puzzle together. The case may be flagging, but it is moving forward. At a time when Spain's institutions are perceived by many to be at their lowest ebb, if not utterly discredited, the efforts of the men and women involved in this case is proof that these institutions still have life in them.