The Spanish scientists who are literally under fire

Who is behind the stray bullets hitting Madrid’s prestigious Institute for Mathematical Sciences?

Manuel Ansede

Staff at one of Spain’s leading scientific establishments, the Institute for Mathematical Sciences (ICMAT), have been told to change offices and use alternative entrances after bullets and other projectiles shattered windows and slammed into the center's walls, allegedly fired from the nearby Madrid Olympic Shooting Federation firing range.

A window at the ICMAT hit by a stray bullet.
A window at the ICMAT hit by a stray bullet.Manuel de León

The two installations are just 800 meters apart within the Campus of Excellence of the Autonomous University of Madrid and the National Research Council (CSIC) in the northern outskirts of the capital.

The shooting federation denies that the bullets have been fired by its members, although the Civil Guard has temporarily closed down part of the facility as a “precautionary measure.”

One of these days there is going to be a tragedy Manuel de León, mathematician

“As some of you will know, the management has decided to take measures to avoid the risk of any possible impact from projectiles hitting the side of the building that faces the firing range,” said a statement issued to ICMAT staff on October 18, adding that some researchers were being moved to new offices.

The ICMAT is part of a larger establishment that includes the Center for Theoretical Physics and Mathematics (CFTMAT) and the Institute for Theoretical Physics, where a total of some 250 people work on a range of research projects. Among the leading scientists based there are Nobel Prize winners Simon Donaldson and Charles Fefferman, along with Spaniard Ignacio Cirac, a pioneer in the field of quantum computing.

Bullets allegedly found at the research center.
Bullets allegedly found at the research center.Manuel de León

Aside from training Spain’s Olympic marksmen and women, the firing range also offers Cowboy Action Shooting, where participants dress up as cowpokes and after freeing themselves from handcuffs are invited to let loose with replica Colt Peacemakers and other revolvers. The Madrid Shooting Federation also offers civil guards and police officers the opportunity to practice at the reduced price of €5 an hour.

“We are very worried about the safety of personnel,” says a source at the science coucil CSIC. It has made seven complaints to the police and Civil Guard since September 2012, when a member of staff reported “the impact of a bullet on one of the windows of the ground floor, along with the projectile” to police. The police report into the incident added that a cleaning lady had found a bullet in a door, while a third was discovered by the vice dean of the center, also in a door.

In the latest incident, which took place in September, a window of one of the offices of the Institute of Theoretical Physics was shattered. Quantum physicist Germán Sierra, who was working in front of one of the windows, had to move to a different workspace.

The firing range trains private security guards, a lucrative revenue earner

“One of these days there is going to be a tragedy,” says Manuel de León, a mathematician at the center who says he has made numerous complaints about stray bullets. He has posted photographs on the social networks of handfuls of slugs he says he has found on the campus, among them 9mm parabellum, the type used by the Civil Guard and the Spanish police.

The Madrid Shooting Federation says that it has placed screens to prevent certain angles of fire in some of its ranges and asked for the installations to be fully reopened.

Conspiracy theory

Andrés Martínez, president of the Madrid Shooting Federation, says he has carried out a 19-page “ballistic report” that he presented to the Civil Guard on November 17 in which he concludes that the bullets found at the ICMAT are not from the Madrid Olympic Shooting Federation.

He contends the whole affair is a conspiracy to undermine his presidency. On December 17, the federation’s more than 5,000 members will vote to elect a new head. The vote is a repeat of the 2012 elections, which were annulled after irregularities were presented by opponents of Martínez. “The bullets always appear in election years, in visible places. Somebody is planting them there to create problems and damage our reputation,” he insists.

The shooting range offers the public access to firearms.
The shooting range offers the public access to firearms.FMTO

Writing on a website he has set up in the run up to the elections, Martínez explains that the firing range is used during exams that armed private security guards must undergo, and that these can bring in income of up to €1 million over a 10-year period.

He said the projectiles that hit the Institute of Theoretical Physics in September were from a shotgun. “We are aware of poachers hunting wild boar in the area,” he explains.

Sources at the Civil Guard in the nearby Madrid dormitory town of Tres Cantos, which is overseeing the investigation begun in 2014, say the investigation is ongoing: “We still don’t have the ballistics results, because they take time and murders have priority.”

Meanwhile, the CSIC says a solution must be found, insisting: “We don’t care where the bullets are coming from, we want this to stop now.”

English version by Nick Lyne.

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