CORONAVIRUS

Spanish Civil Guard official sacked over Covid-19 report

Interior Ministry denies the move is connected with a court investigation into the government’s authorization of large public events just days ahead of the coronavirus lockdown

Colonel Diego Pérez de los Cobos after testifying in court over the Catalan independence referendum of October 2017.
Colonel Diego Pérez de los Cobos after testifying in court over the Catalan independence referendum of October 2017.Mariscal / EFE

Spain’s Interior Minister, Fernando Grande-Marlaska, on Monday dismissed the head of the Civil Guard command in Madrid, Colonel Diego Pérez de los Cobos, citing “loss of trust.” The dismissal follows a report sent by the Civil Guard to a Madrid judge who is investigating alleged links between the Women’s Day marches of March 8 and the spread of the coronavirus.

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The Civil Guard’s second-in-command, Lieutenant General Laurentino Ceña, resigned on Monday after learning of the dismissal. Ceña was meant to retire on March 23, but had agreed to remain in the role until June 2, sources from the Civil Guard told EL PAÍS. His resignation, just days before the end of his mandate, shows his disagreement with the decision. Ceña said the chain of command was not respected, as he himself "was not consulted by anyone in the ministry regarding the decision to dismiss Diego Pérez de los Cobos.”

This government is remarkable for its kind words inside parliament and its iron fist when it comes to sacking anyone who gets in the way of its totalitarian plans
Teodoro García Egea, PP secretary general

At a news conference after the Cabinet meeting on Tuesday, the interior minister announced that Ceña will be replaced by General Pablo Salas, who currently heads the Civil Guard’s anti-terrorist effort. Grande-Marlaska did not comment on Ceña’s resignation, and justified the dismissal of Pérez de los Cobos as part of “a rational policy of creating new teams.” Grande-Marlaska also announced pay raises for members of the Civil Guard and the police.

The feminist demonstration of March 8 and other mass gatherings were authorized by the government, which just a few days later decreed a state of alarm and introduced a national lockdown to fight the epidemic. Madrid has been the epicenter of the Covid-19 crisis in Spain.

Teodoro García Egea, secretary general of the main opposition Popular Party (PP), said that “this government is remarkable for its kind words inside parliament and its iron fist when it comes to sacking anyone who gets in the way of its totalitarian plans.” The conservative party’s number two official accused the coalition government, made up of the Socialist Party (PSOE) and leftist Unidas Podemos, of “putting ideology ahead of health.”

The report

Several sources have confirmed that it was this report, drafted by the Civil Guard at the request of the investigating judge and leaked to the media, that triggered the dismissal of Pérez de los Cobos.

The 83-page document, which EL PAÍS has seen, analyzed 177 public gatherings in the Madrid region between March 5 and 14, and concluded that “from March 5, 2020 onwards there should not have been any demonstrations” due to the health crisis. It crititizes the fact that the Cabinet did not halt direct flights between Spain and Italy, which was by then already struggling with a coronavirus outbreak, until March 10.

The report speculates that “there is a possibility that numerous citizens who came in from risk zones infected the Spanish population [...]and that the former and the latter may have attended the various gatherings and demonstrations that took place in the region during those dates, facilitating the exponential growth of contagion if that was the case.”

“It has been evidenced that the [government] delegation [ìn Madrid] was aware of the danger inherent in holding gatherings and demonstrations in the days that preceded the declaration of the state of alarm,” says the report. The emergency powers were invoked on March 14, and have been extended in two-week periods since then.

The report was sent to the judge on Thursday, and sources familiar with its contents said that it targets Fernando Simón, the head of the country’s health emergencies coordination center and one of the most visible government officials during the Covid-19 crisis.

The document notes that the health emergency director cancelled an evangelical event due to take place in Madrid between March 19 and 21 over Covid-19 concerns, yet facilitated the feminist marches of March 8. It claims that Simón had information about the gravity of the pandemic, yet did nothing to stop large public events that may have contributed to spreading the disease. It even goes so far as to accuse him of crimes.

On Monday, Simón said that he had “no fear” of being investigated, and insisted that the March 8 marches had “a marginal” effect on the spread of the coronavirus.

According to sources from the Interior Ministry, the report lacked “political neutrality.” These sources said that it contained numerous “subjective” assessments that had no place in a document of this nature. “This report is the last straw in a series of actions that reveal the lack of political neutrality that is expected of a civil servant,” said ministry officials, in reference to Colonel Pérez de los Cobos.

Ongoing probe

Judge Carmen Rodríguez-Medel is investigating the government’s delegate in the Madrid region, José Manuel Franco of the Socialist Party (PSOE), for authorizing mass events in early March that may have helped spread the coronavirus. These include the feminist demonstration but also a political rally held by the far-right party Vox that drew 9,000 people, and a soccer match at Wanda Metropolitano stadium attended by over 60,000 fans.

The judge had asked the Civil Guard to investigate how Spanish authorities dealt with a March 2 report issued by the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) that warned about the spread of the virus. Rodríguez-Medel specifically wanted to know which Spanish agency received this report, and whether the latter was distributed to other officials, particularly the government’s delegate in Madrid.

On Monday, the judge summoned government delegate Franco to a court appearance on June 5 as part of the investigation into his responsibility for authorizing the March events. Rodríguez-Medel is trying to determine whether he had “enough information to have banned the demonstrations for health reasons.”

In her court order, which EL PAÍS has seen, the judge complained that parts of the investigation are being leaked to the media, and warns that this could be a crime. She also reminded the Civil Guard officers working on the case that they must only report to her with the results of the investigation.

High-profile official

The dismissal has caused significant discontent within the Civil Guard. High-ranking officials of the law enforcement agency compared the situation with August 2018, when another colonel, Manuel Sánchez Corbí, was also sacked by Minister Grande-Marlaska over “lack of trust.”

Also on Monday, a Civil Guard association called Aprogc issued a release calling the minister’s decision “unfair and partisan.”

Pérez de los Cobos became a familiar name in Spain during the Catalan secession drive, when he was tasked with stopping the unauthorized independence referendum of October 1, 2017. He later also testified in the Supreme Court case against leaders of the breakaway attempt. He had been heading the Madrid Civil Guard command since April 2018 after 12 years serving at the Interior Ministry.

A Civil Guard association called the minister’s decision “unfair and partisan”

Several sources at the Civil Guard said that a high-ranking ministry official telephoned Pérez de los Cobos on Sunday, demanding to know information about the report. The colonel allegedly replied that he was not familiar with its contents, and that in any case he was not authorized to obtain this information from his subordinates who were working directly for the judge on a case under seal. Pérez de los Cobos was then allegedly warned about his upcoming dismissal.

A ministry spokesperson has denied this version of events, and said that nobody demanded information from the colonel. In a written message to State Secretary Rafael Pérez Ruiz sent on Monday, the judge underscored that she has given the judicial police “explicit orders” to report exclusively to her. Rodríguez-Medel also highlighted that if the secrecy of the case is broken, her court could open a parallel investigation.

Political fallout

The leader of the main opposition Popular Party (PP), Pablo Casado, on Monday said he will ask for Interior Minister Grande-Marlaska to appear before Congress to explain “the true motives” for the dismissal.

The center-right Ciudadanos (Citizens) has also asked for explanations about “the real motives for dismissing the head of the Civil Guard command in Madrid in the present situation.”

And the far-right party Vox has filed a similar request in Congress, while also linking the dismissal to an alleged controversy over the Civil Guard security detail posted outside the home of Spain’s Deputy Prime Minister Pablo Iglesias, the leader of the anti-austerity party Unidas Podemos, which is a junior partner in the coalition government with the PSOE.

With reporting by Natalia Junquera.

English version by Susana Urra.

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