The man raises the recording device to his lips.
– Esteban Cabal. November 6, 2020. I have Juan Quesada, from EL PAÍS here…
– Juan Diego.
– Right, Juan Diego. Sorry, do I have your permission to record this conversation?
– Yes, go ahead.
Esteban Cabal is a 62-year-old ecologist. He lives in a beautiful stone house built on a rock, next to a river. On the table in the living room is a thick book called World Government. Its blurb reads: “The conspiracy hatched 300 years ago by the financial elite to take over the world is reaching its end.” Below is a portrait of Cabal, 10 years younger, in a pastoral setting.
“I give a whole series of hints in the book about what was about to transpire and now it has happened,” he says. “I foresee and I explain the ins and outs of real power – of the financial elite.”
Clutching the tome, he claims that all the knowledge he has gathered over the years has helped him come to the following conclusion on the coronavirus pandemic: “It is a fake pandemic invented by the multinational chemical-pharmaceutical companies. This is because they are not only pharmaceutical companies, but large chemical corporations that also manufacture poisons. [...] These multinationals are dedicated to inventing diseases, to making them chronic and turning public health into a lucrative business.”
Cabal has prepared thoroughly for our interview and records it to give to his legal advisors. Within the pages of a spiral notebook, he has written the points he wants to cover in careful handwriting. “I know your boss has sent you here to talk about me, not about my ideas, but my ideas are more important than I am,” he says.
Let’s go with the ideas, then. Three months ago, Cabal created a think tank to advocate an alternative to the official narrative on the coronavirus pandemic. “The official one is absolutely false,” he says. Without going into details, he explains that there are doctors, psychologists, educators, biologists and scientists in his movement who aim to demonstrate that the pandemic is a scam. “A global, monumental [scam] to sell extremely dangerous vaccines that can modify our DNA with unknown consequences,” he says. “If you want to know the truth, I’ll tell you...”
He then starts to read from a word document on his computer. Meanwhile, his dog, an old German shepherd, checks out his visitor before going off to take a nap. Fifteen minutes later, Cabal issues a conclusion, one that divides the world into two separate camps. “The kindest and wisest people are with us and the most malicious people are on the other side, together with the real financial powers.”
He doesn’t make a direct reference to anyone but there are only two people in the room and it is clear what he is getting at.
“Now you will quote from the Barbastro report.”
Cabal is not surprised by the suggestion. Of course he’s going to mention it. It is an internal document by three members of the Barbastro hospital in Huesca drawn up after studying 20 deaths in a nursing home. Their theory is that the use of the synthetic compound polysorbate 80 in flu vaccines could pose a greater risk to patients over 65 who catch the coronavirus. One of the authors of the report, Juan F. Gastón Añaños, has acknowledged that the study was carried out on a very small sample of patients and is in its initial phases. The purpose of the report was to nudge the authorities into investigating further. However, it ended up on the internet and was used by conspiracy theorists and perpetrators of fake news to spread erroneous, or at least, precipitous, conclusions.
Cabal is convinced of the conspiracy and adds that the study “determines that the component that has caused the devastating mortality [during the pandemic] is polysorbate 80, which is a detergent and an ingredient in some vaccines – only in those that are given to the civilian population, not to doctors.” There is no proof that this is the case.
The conversation continues. Cabal also refers to one of the conspiracy theories that went viral during the spring lockdown – that Italian doctors had allegedly discovered that the problem was not the virus but rather a bacterium that kills via thrombosis rather than pneumonia. “If it were not for those Italian doctors, we would all have died,” he says. The theory has some connection to reality: Italian doctors discovered in 50 autopsies of Covid-19 patients in Italy that the coronavirus not only causes pneumonia, but also other life-threatening conditions, including thrombosis.
Cabal claims to have first-hand information proving the mortality statistics in Spain have been invented. A nephew of his, a Shaolin monk, was living in Wuhan province in China when the pandemic broke. Apparently, he escaped the lockdown by a day, fleeing to the countryside where he survived with no money or food until he was able to get back to Spain. “He speaks perfect Chinese,” says Cabal with pride.
The sun shines on Cabal’s vegetable patch outside. The sky has suddenly cleared. Cabal turns off his recording device. He walks around his garden, indicating the vegetables that he will have to pick before the frost starts. The rushing of the river is audible in the background. We go down to look at it and he points out signs of wild boar. In the distance, a native species of donkey in danger of extinction can be seen in the distance.
Holding a handful of earth, he talks about his years at the head of a political party called Los Verdes (The Greens) when he was a counselor in the Rivas-Vaciamadrid city council. Before that, there were dark years of political struggle. Cabal was tortured by Antonio González Pacheco aka Billy El Niño or Billy the Kid, an infamous police inspector during the Franco dictatorship. After that, he fled to France with little more than the shirt on his back. “I was only a boy,” he says.
When we get back to his house, he opens the automatic gate at the entrance. It’s time to say goodbye. As a parting shot, Cabal says, “Be careful – very soon we will be the majority and the prime minister of Spain will be one of us.”
Sonia Vescovacci, a police officer on unpaid leave, holds a microphone in her hands. All around her are Spanish flags, signs with anti-communist and anti-vaccine slogans and the all-seeing eye from the Big Brother TV show. This afternoon, investor George Soros, Bill Gates, Melinda Gates and Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez are being constantly blamed for the pandemic.
Vescovacci draws breath, then tells the crowd: “We took an oath to serve and protect citizens, not to repress them. That is our principal duty. Again we say to ministers and the main chiefs of police that the Police for Freedom movement is offering to collaborate in any investigation that serves to clarify why our relatives and neighbors are dying and demand that those who act against life be held responsible.”
The crowd cheers. Coronavirus denialism, once confined to the internet, is now beginning to spill out onto the streets. Last Saturday, the fledgling Police for Freedom movement launched a protest that brought around a thousand people together in Madrid. According to the organizers, its supporters include Civil Guard officers, municipal and regional officers, firemen and security guards. In reality, there are no more than 10 police officers marching through the city alongside members of the public who learned of the protest on social media and websites that share fake news. Observers look on at the marchers in disbelief.
“We are normal people, not freaks,” says Cabal, who was among the protestors – a melting pot of the far left, the far right, addicts of UFO documentaries, anarchists, ecologists, YouTubers and even members of spiritual movements. “The Chinese communist regime is at the root of the problem,” says Maya Marinova, 54, a member of the Falun Gong religious movement. “Now Spain is copying its methods.”
Most of the protesters believe that the coronavirus does not exist despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, arguing instead that it is a conspiracy cooked up by governments and multinationals to control ordinary people.
Estalin Orlando, a 24-year-old computer consultant, carried a banner proposing a collective of geniuses as a solution to the “organized and violent conspiracy to install a dictatorship” using the pandemic as an excuse. “It will be a government of competent people voted by competent people,” he says. “There are people voting now without the competence to do so. That is a mediocracy. With the geniocracy, the level of love and empathy shown by those governing will be taken into account.” He adds that his parents listen to him carefully, but encourage him to focus and study and work. “They are more conventional,” he explains.
But not all of the protesters dismiss the existence of the virus. Maxi, a 54-year-old psychologist, says the virus is killing a lot of people – “whole families.” However, he believes that politicians are taking advantage of the situation to repress the public: “We’re not going to stand for that anymore.”
The protest ended at the Neptune fountain on the Paseo del Prado where people who had only met previously online hugged for the first time. Vescovacci, meanwhile, was keen to give the floor to anyone with something to say. The speeches went on for an hour-and-a-half.
Wearing hiking boots, a violet hippy sweatshirt and a beard, Fernando Vizcaíno, 42, drives an old white van he sometimes spends the night in, stretching out on a mat in the back. This way, no one can lock him down – it is his stand for freedom.
– I thought they were going to lock us down earlier, but what we’re doing is having an effect. The public is becoming aware of many things and not just our work. This is going to collapse under its own weight and your heads are going to roll if you don’t change your tune.
– Noooo, but the first to go to jail will be the journalists. And the politicians.
Vizcaíno has a YouTube channel which he uses to spread conspiracy theories about the pandemic. In fact, right now he is secretly recording our conversation from inside the van. Later, he will upload it to his channel. While the videos don’t have millions of views, they do have a loyal audience that leaves comments. It is this audience he is referring to when he says the public is finally waking up.
He drives through the streets of Guadarrama, 50 odd kilometers from Madrid, until the tarmac road peters out, and he parks. An icy draft comes in through his windows. On the windscreen, he has a sign that says, “Timovirus” – a combination of the Spanish word for scam (timo) and virus. He claims to be waging a counter-information war on the media with an endless stream of anti-pandemic messages.
Vizcaíno explains that he lived “as a hermit” for 20 years in Latin America. He says he got used to rural life, dedicating himself to writing, introspection, personal development and nature. He learned a lot, he says, both about himself and about human beings in general. He was in Valencia when the March lockdown was declared. “I have always done what I wanted; I have been free; I have not been a part of the system. The only time in my life I have made Social Security payments was when I was 18 for two months. When I saw that they were shutting us up in our homes – when I saw what they were trying to do, I said, ‘Shit, they’re going to take away our freedom.’ That’s what got me started. After that, I realized what they were doing – you can see that they are killing old people.”
“With polisorbate 80,” he says. Once again the Barbastro report is being used and manipulated to back the denialist argument. It’s the same line as the one used by Cabal, the one that is circulating on social networks. Word for word. “This disease doesn’t even exist,” he continues. “The virus has not been isolated or purified. It has not even been proven that Sars-CoV-2 exists. It is the symptomatology that the flu vaccine once caused. If you look closely, nobody is dying anymore from typical pneumonia as they were doing. According to the media and governments, Covid-19 continues to kill people, but it turns out that it no longer kills like that. How come?”
He hopes that people will wake up and embrace the same truth he has found. The youth protests against the coronavirus restrictions that have occurred in recent weeks could be a good start, but Vizcaíno believes these are also suspect. “The system’s agents are closing down everything,” he says. “The protests are now being appropriated by the government for its own ends. These people are not us.” As far as Vizcaíno is concerned, everything is a lie; the world is a farce, a show. Through this lens, the two women we see going for a hike equipped with sneakers and trekking poles start to seem threatening; they could be spies.
Before our meeting, Vizcaíno shared links, videos and documents via the instant-message service Telegram that, according to him, prove his theories. He claims they will not be published because they would reach the public and discredit the official narrative. The reality is that everything he sends is already circulating on social networks, just a click away from anyone who cares to take a look, and has already been widely proven to be false.
The denier label is not one that Vizcaíno relishes. “It’s silly. From where I’m standing, you are the denier,” he says. So what about the overwhelmed hospitals, the crematoriums that were working 24-hours a day, the bodies of the elderly waiting in beds for days until being taken by the funeral authorities?
Vizcaíno doesn’t miss a beat. He claims: “I have two doctors, one from La Paz [hospital] and one from Alcorcón, and when you mention the hospitals that have reached breaking point they say that the hospitals around the city of Madrid were empty. They staged a circus to terrorize the population. The official doctors acknowledge this, but they also remain silent.”
Twenty-four hours later, he will have the audio of the interview uploaded to YouTube with a short introduction. Sitting behind the wheel, he states that he is doing this “to help publish the truth.” Of the more than 360 comments he gets, most are overwhelmingly in his favor. The former hermit has found his niche. “In the last few months, I’ve been on the phone all day, and at the computer because a lot of people are getting in touch with me,” he says. “Telegram, video editing – doing things all day long. From the moment I get up until I go to bed.”
Sonia Vescovacci is in blue. She has a megaphone. She asks people at the demonstration to keep a two-meter distance and not to lower their masks; not because she believes it’s useful, but to avoid getting those policing the event – her former colleagues – into trouble. In a short space of time, especially on YouTube, she has become a familiar face to police officers who share her videos, which challenge the police authorities and question the pandemic.
She says she is not a coronavirus denier, like Esteban Cabal and Fernando Vizcaíno. However, she goes on to voice her doubts. “I don’t know if it is a virus, if it is 5G [a conspiracy theory that went viral online linking the virus to the introduction of 5G mobile technology] or what it is. We don’t know what’s behind it exactly. We don’t think the truth is being told. We have our own criteria and we question if what they are telling us is real.”
Vescovacci, 41, has only recently embraced these ideas. When she went on leave from the police, she wanted to start a project to improve police training. During her master’s degree in entrepreneurship, she set up an initiative called Human Protect. The idea was to incorporate courses on emotional intelligence, mindfulness, verbal defense and persuasion into police training. She started offering these courses to the unions, but saw from the outset that there was not much interest. She applied for a grant from the police foundation, without success. She sent a proposal for Human Protect to Ávila, where the national police academy is located, with the same result. It was a dead end.
Recently separated from her husband – also a police officer – and caring for her mother, she decided to start a YouTube channel. Her first three videos were reasonably well received. She claims that the first one earned her disciplinary action that will be applied when she decides to return to the force, which she says she can do when she chooses. Her videos have dramatic headlines, such as “THE TRUTH, THE BIG LIES, THE REALITY.” The creation of Police for Freedom, a movement that has been established with the help of a municipal police officer, has brought these slogans to the streets. Saturday was her first rally and she was satisfied with the result. She believes that the movement has a future. Like Alice in Wonderland, Vescovacci has gone through the looking glass and she has people on board at last.
English version by Heather Galloway.