Opposition calls for minister to quit over leaked memo about Civil Guard colonel’s sacking

The confidential document contradicts Interior chief Fernando Grande-Marlaska’s version of events about the dismissal last week of Diego Pérez de los Cobos

Interior Minister Fernando Grande-Marlaska in the Senate last week.
Interior Minister Fernando Grande-Marlaska in the Senate last week.Marta Fernández Jara (Europa Press)

A Civil Guard colonel was sacked from his post by Spain’s Interior Minister Fernando Grande-Marlaska after he “lost the confidence” of his superior for “not reporting on the progress of investigations and actions by the Civil Guard.” That’s according to a classified document that was signed on May 24 by the general director of the Spanish law-enforcement agency, and which was published today by Spanish online newspaper El Confidencial.

The revelation compromises the version of events offered up until now by Marlaska, a minister in the Socialist Party (PSOE)-Unidas Podemos coalition government, who last week insisted that the firing of Colonel Diego Pérez de los Cobos was solely due to an internal restructuring.

Opposition parties have called on Marlaska to immediately resign, on the basis that Pérez de los Cobos was sacked “for not leaking the investigation” into the Women’s Day marches

Marlaska also denied that anyone from his team was seeking information about the content of a report that Civil Guard chiefs in Madrid were preparing for a judge, who is investigating the central government’s delegate in Madrid for allowing feminist marches to go ahead on March 8 of this year, despite the fact that coronavirus cases had already been detected in the country.

Opposition parties have called on Marlaska to immediately resign, on the basis that Pérez de los Cobos was sacked “for not leaking the investigation into 8-M,” as Women’s Day is referred to in Spain, “and for complying with a judicial order,” said the head of the conservative Popular Party (PP) Pablo Casado on Tuesday.

Earlier, however, and just minutes after the internal document was published, the Interior Ministry offered explanations for the exit of Pérez de los Cobos. “He failed to comply with the procedure for communicating operations, for the sole purpose of awareness, not the actual content of the same, which is the duty of the leadership of the Civil Guard via the chain of command,” the ministry said on Tuesday.

According to the Interior Ministry, Pérez de los Cobos reported at the end of March that the judge in question had tasked the Civil Guard with an investigation into all of the demonstrations that were held as the coronavirus was spreading through Spain, and which included, among others, the 8-M march in the capital. “Days later,” the ministry stated, “it was reported that the proceedings had been halted due to the state of alarm,” which was implemented by the Spanish government to halt the spread of the coronavirus. But the Civil Guard chief did not report to his superiors that in the end the investigations did not stop or at least were restarted.

All of these new explanations are in conflict with the version offered by Grande-Marlaska last week, when he repeated on a number of occasions that the exit of the colonel was nothing more than a reorganization. He also denied in parliament, and in contrast to Pérez de los Cobos’ version of events, that anyone in his department was interested in the report being prepared for the judge.

“It’s a change of teams,” the minister said at the time. “Nothing more.”

The publication of the classified document has once again put the version of the Interior Ministry into doubt and has invited fresh attacks from the political opposition

Pérez de los Cobos’s side of the story is very different, according to sources close to him, who said that Interior Ministry chiefs called him on May 24 asking about the information in the report that was sent to the judge. The colonel is said to have told them that he did not know the details, and that in any event, he wouldn’t be able to get them from his subordinates, given that the investigation was under judicial orders and as such was confidential. Pérez de los Cobos was dismissed the next day.

The sacking caused a political earthquake in just a few hours. The opposition claimed that the government was trying to interfere in the Civil Guard’s affairs, and the judge investigating the demonstrations sent a brief to the State Secretariat for Security in which it warned the ministry that she had given strict instructions to the investigators that they should only report their findings in the case to her.

The publication today of the classified document has once again put the version of the Interior Ministry into doubt and has invited fresh attacks from the political opposition. The PP’s spokesperson in Congress, Cayetana Álvarez de Toledo, announced that her party is going to call for Marlaska to be censured in Congress, as well as demanding his immediate resignation. Far-right Vox and center-right Ciudadanos (Citizens) have also called for the minister to go.

The government, meanwhile, is backing the Interior chief. María Jesús Montero, the government’s spokesperson, said today that “any team, when it comes to the carrying out of its functions, has the right” to appoint trusted staff. “A loss of confidence comprises many different aspects,” she added. “There was no interference.”

The report

The Civil Guard report in question was commissioned by Judge Carmen Rodríguez-Medel, who is investigating the central 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. This included the feminist marches held on International Women’s Day, March 8.

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.

But the report, which took two months to draft, omitted relevant information, got important dates mixed up, offered erroneous contagion figures, and made reference to numerous false news stories.

In one instance, the authors claimed that authorities cancelled 12 demonstrations between March 5 and 14 due to health concerns, proving that the government already knew about the risk of coronavirus transmission. But there were no records of the telephone conversations in which government authorities allegedly informed organizers that their events were being cancelled. And nine of the organizers told this newspaper that this was not the case.

On March 7, Spanish health authorities were still saying that the coronavirus situation was under control, based on figures provided by regional governments, which were reporting a few hundred cases, mostly in Madrid, La Rioja and the Basque province of Álava. In reality, a national epidemic was already underway but going undetected due to lack of testing. It was not until Monday, March 9, when the scenario officially changed.

English version by Simon Hunter.

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