The life of a plumber from the eastern Spanish region of Valencia crossed paths with Julian Assange for the second time in 2016, when he received a call from a familiar voice and was asked to complete a special assignment. He needed to travel from the small town in Valencia where he lived to London to fix a problem with a bathroom. The blockage was in the restroom of the most wanted cyberactivist in the world, in the Ecuadorian embassy. It had been four years since the former journalist and hacker – who was born in Australia in 1971 and was the founder of WikiLeaks, the organization that in 2010 leaked to the media a huge amount of documents and hundreds of thousands of internal US communications about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan – had been taking refuge there.
Txema Guijarro, former advisor to the Ecuadorian Chancellery
Months before seeking refuge in the embassy, Assange had lost his appeal to avoid being extradited to Sweden, which had issued an international arrest warrant against him over alleged cases of rape and sexual abuse. Once he was in the embassy, Ecuador first granted him asylum, then nationality. But as soon as he stepped out the door and onto British soil, he would be arrested. Assange and those who surrounded him in the embassy became obsessed that they were being spied on.
The plumber was called to do the job by the private security guards in charge of protecting the diplomatic mission. They needed someone they could trust to fix the bathroom, and they knew the plumber because he had worked with them as a guard for four and a half months, a year earlier. The security guards were worried that British intelligence would use the broken bathroom as a pretext to sneak in. The pay for the four-day repair job was just as unusual as the assignment: €4,000. Assange could once again let the shower water run – something he did to make it more difficult for someone to listen in on his conversations, the guards remember him telling them.
This episode reveals the degree to which an ordinary problem becomes a complication if it affects the world’s most inconvenient guest, who at that moment was not only wanted by the United Kingdom, but also by Sweden. Assange was called “guest” in the reports written by security guards, but colloquially, some called him “El Juli,” after a renowned Spanish bullfighter.
Assange would wake up late and go to sleep in the early hours of the morning, so as to not cross paths with diplomatic personnel
But why were Spanish security guards working in the Ecuadorian embassy in London? The guards were employed by UC Global, a defense and private security company registered as Undercover Global S.L. in Puerto Real, in the Spanish province of Cádiz. One of the owners is David Morales, a diver and a marine, who shared the job of protecting the diplomatic mission with Blue Cell, a business owned by a man who had close contacts with the Ecuadorian government of then-president Rafael Correa.Morales contracted former military members and guards, but also personnel with lower qualifications. They were paid €2,000 a month, plus expenses. Some were employed for just a few weeks, others for years. UC Global began working in the embassy shortly after Assange’s arrival up until 2017, when the firm fell out of favor when Lenín Moreno was elected as president.
“The embassy was filled with cameras, both inside and out,” says Txema Guijarro, a deputy of Spain’s anti-austerity party Podemos, who at that time was an advisor to the Ecuadorian Chancellery (the equivalent of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs) and had been sent to London to help manage the diplomatic problems caused by the WikiLeaks founder’s presence in the embassy.
“Assange was always obsessed with the idea that these images could be hacked and that, as such, we were doing the counterintelligence work for the British ourselves,” the former advisor explains. Monitors, a video recorder and an autonomous power supply system were installed in a filing room. The guards dubbed this room the “Batcave,” after Batman’s underground command center. According to the person in charge, the equipment allowed audiovisual signals to be seen in real time in Quito.
Indeed, it was not the embassy nor the Ecuadorian Ministry of Foreign Affairs that paid for the security service, but rather the Senain, the National Intelligence Secretariat, the Ecuadorian ambassador confirms in an internal document sent to their government, and which has been seen by EL PAÍS. Set up by Correa in 2009, this agency was accused of spying on the opposition and was dismantled by Correa’s successor Lenín Moreno. An investigation by The Guardian estimated that Ecuador spent $5 million on the operation to protect – and surveil – Assange. On Wednesday, a day before his arrest, WikiLeaks reported that it had uncovered a “major spying operation” against its founder. But according to one of the organization’s lawyers, Aitor Martínez, this operation took place while Moreno was president, when UC Global was no longer in charge of security.
Not long after he arrived at the embassy in 2012, Assange began to become suspicious and asked the diplomatic staff for permission to work with the recording equipment. He wanted to work out who was the person on the street throwing objects at his window in the early hours of the morning. He was granted permission but days later, when he was using the equipment of the “Batcave,” the security guard on duty tried to stop him. They argued and struggled. It was one of the first disagreements.
The staff at the embassy also distrusted Assange. In November 2014, a security officer at UC Global wrote a report to the Ecuadorian ambassador of the time, Juan Falconí, explaining that he found a briefcase with a listening device, and that the briefcase had been seen in one of the rooms occupied by Assange. “This proves the suspicion that he is listening in on diplomatic personnel, in this case against the ambassador and the people around him, in an effort to obtain privileged information that could be used to maintain his status in the embassy,” the report reads.
Falconí told EL PAÍS that he informed the Chancellery as soon as he learned of the finding and decided to “separate Assange’s internet line from that of the embassy.” When Assange was asked to explain himself, “he evaded the question,” according to Falconí.
In this atmosphere of mutual suspicion, surrounded by security guards and cameras, Assange sought privacy. He would wake up late to work on his computers and go to sleep in the early hours of the morning, so as to not cross paths with the diplomatic personnel at the embassy. Although he could not leave the embassy, he received hundreds of visitors. Each visit request had to be processed two days in advance and registered. The ambassador was responsible for greenlighting each visit. Celebrities came to visit Assange, such as pop icon Lady Gaga, actor John Cusack, Yoko Ono and her son Sean Lennon and the designer Vivienne Westwood, who used to bring Assange food. He was especially grateful to eat meat and drink red wine. But the constant flow of visitors upset the day-to-day work of the diplomatic office. “The officials and the diplomatic team were tired of the feature articles and interviews, of Assange and his people using the meeting rooms,” says one guard.
Many celebrities came to visit Assange, including pop icon Lady Gaga, actor John Cusack, Yoko Ono and her son Sean Lennon
The security guards recorded the names of the visitors in reports, which were sent periodically to UC Global. The reports were uploaded to a draft folder in simple Hotmail accounts. The guards commented among themselves that this delicate information should have been better protected. They say the reports were often misplaced and had to be rewritten and sent again.
As time passed and the entrenchment worsened, Assange became more distressed. On one occasion, officers had to enter his room to calm him down.
“The situation Assange is in is not easy because of his emotional state. Throughout the length of his stay, he has gone through different stages in which he was more or less in agreement with the [security and surveillance] procedures, but that is an area that does not correspond to him, but rather the client,” says David Morales, the owner of the monitoring company.
Not only did his spirits suffer, but he also had physical problems. As the years passed, he began to drag his feet as he walked and complained of vision problems due to being shut inside. He couldn’t focus properly. The doctor recommended he looked into the distance and the embassy gave him another room where he could see the street. The same street he was pulled out on to – against his will – after 2,494 days in the embassy.
English version by Melissa Kitson.