There was a time when the only two families who lived in the remote and rundown hamlet of Santoalla, in the Galician province of Ourense, killed a pig together when the cold weather set in.
The new arrivals – new meaning 17 years ago – were a Dutch couple who dreamed about a life filled with crystal-clear waters, clear air and organic cattle breeding, far away from Amsterdam.
They learned the local traditions from the only family who remained after the migration of most of the village’s inhabitants, which left 50 homes empty.
But the peace and harmony did not last long. The foreign couple found out they had rights over the communal mountainside, and went to court to defend the claims.
Verfondern never walked out of his house without a camera or cellphone ready to snap a picture
And so war erupted in this beautifully desolate, hilly terrain that belongs to the municipality of Petín.
The Dutch resident, Martin Albert Verfondern, began recording all the violent clashes with his neighbors using cameras and video recorders.
Then on January 19, 2010, when he was about to turn 53, they killed him. The murderers hid his body and vehicle in the hills, 12 kilometers as the crow flies from the scene of the crime. The remains were found in June of this year by a police helicopter flying over the spot where Verfondern had been dumped.
A judge from O Barco de Valdeorras has remanded Juan Carlos Rodríguez González in custody for allegedly murdering Verfondern. He was arrested on Saturday and confessed to the crime on Sunday.
In one of the recordings that the victim sent EL PAÍS four months before he disappeared, Rodríguez González, who has an intellectual disability, is heard telling his neighbor that “I’m going after you. You’re nice and fat now and ready for killing.”
Rodríguez González had a rifle slung over his shoulder when he made the comment, which was in response to Verfondern’s question: “What are you doing, going after boar?”
Although the reply might have been construed as a joke, Verfondern did not see it that way. He traveled back to the Netherlands to take out life insurance, and asked his wife Margo Pool not to repatriate him if he should die.
“Just bury me in the earth with a sign reading ‘Here grows Martin, the Dutchman from Petín.’”
He had coined a term for the dangerous coexistence with his neighbors: “rural terrorism.” Verfondern never walked out of his house – located on the opposite end of the village from his enemies’ home – without a camera or cellphone ready to snap a picture. In his later years, particularly since February 2009, he had built up a large file of graphic material, part of which was sent to a courthouse and part to several media outlets.
In September 2009, EL PAÍS received photographs of people who Verfondern claimed could end up killing him. There were also shots of sick and dying animals, and of rotting animal corpses left in the once crystal-clear waters of the local brook, next to piles of trash, broken-down kitchen appliances and a rusty car.
Bent on carrying out his life project in a pristine natural setting, Verfondern condemned the village’s backwardness and accused his neighbors of animal abuse and dumping trash in the river.
Verfondern and Pool bought a house in Santoalla 17 years ago after spending some time in Argentina. They were looking for a place “free of nuclear energy.”
At first they shared meals with their neighbors, and even used their hot water and telephone. But the dispute over nearly 500 hectares of nearby pine forest, which represented a lot of wood to sell, turned the friendship into hatred.
The mayor of Petín, Miguel Bautista, said shortly before Verfondern’s disappearance that to top it all off, “the wind energy folks” had been to the village and “got them all excited” with promises of €6,000 for every one of the 25 wind turbines they meant to set up in the area. “I hope it doesn’t come to blows,” he said, unaware of what was to come.
They’ve already attacked me with the ax, with sticks, with sickles ... Any day now Carlos will shoot me”
Juan Carlos Rodríguez, 47, and his brother Julio, 51, were arrested last weekend. Juan Carlos, who has a 70 percent disability rating, was the first to confess. His older brother resisted at first, but admitted to the facts on Monday.
Verfondern was shot, and the Civil Guard has found the weapon they suspect was used to kill him. The suspects may also be charged with illegal possession of firearms, although the Rodríguez family were hunters and used rifles regularly.
Verfondern also captured footage of his neighbors ruining his crops, the slow death of a sheep left to its fate, and a blow delivered by the patriarch of the clan, who was apparently offended by being constantly recorded. This man, in his eighties, on one occasion allegedly broke one of Verfondern’s fingers, as his court complaint shows.
“They’ve already attacked me with the ax, with sticks, with sickles ...” he said. “Any day now Carlos will shoot me. He’s got the brains of a 10-year-old boy, and when he gets nervous he yells: ‘I’m going to get my rifle!’”