Spain’s ‘Watergate’ erupts ahead of election
Podemos among targets of political spying, theft and smears as ‘state sewers’ stay active
Podemos MPs Pablo Iglesias and partner Irene Montero: Podemos and its allies on the left have expressed frustration at how scandals have failed to prompt a full parliamentary investigation. Photograph: Oscar del Pozo/AFP/Getty
The hacking of a security camera outside the home of a leading leftist politician is the latest episode to cast light on a deep-state apparatus in Spain, which has used espionage, theft and fake news to discredit perceived enemies of the conservative elite.
This week it emerged that the leader of the Podemos party, Pablo Iglesias, had complained to the police last autumn when he discovered that footage from a camera installed outside his house near Madrid was being streamed on a website available for free viewing. Iglesias shares the property with his partner, Podemos spokeswoman Irene Montero, and their two children.
Pablo Echenique, a senior figure in the party, linked the incident to a series of scandals apparently exposing the involvement of police officers and government officials in plots against politicians.
“I think there’s a lot of work still to be done to clean up the state sewers,” he said.
While it is still not clear who was behind the hacking of the security camera, Podemos has frequently complained of being the target of such subterfuge and revelations about the activities of the so-called state sewers have snowballed ahead of the April 28th general election.
Most of the intrigue has been linked to the previous, Popular Party (PP), government of Mariano Rajoy and high-ranking members of the police force who were known as the “patriotic brigade”.
Their activities are reported to date back at least to 2012, when the Catalan independence drive was gathering force, to the alarm of Rajoy’s conservative government.
World View latest
In one instance, the interior minister at the time, Jorge Fernández Díaz, was recorded on tape asking the head of the Catalan anti-fraud office to find compromising material about the then-mayor of Barcelona, Xavier Trías. Several days after that conversation, El Mundo newspaper published the details of a supposed secret bank account containing €13 million belonging to Trías in Switzerland. However, the news turned out to be bogus when the bank issued a statement saying that the account did not exist.
The most notorious figure linked to such smear campaigns is José Manuel Villarejo, a retired police officer who spent much of his career building up an archive of compromising audio recordings of public figures. Villarejo’s recordings have already embarrassed the current justice minister, Dolores Delgado, and they have featured an acquaintance of King Juan Carlos, Corinna Larsen, apparently claiming that the former monarch took bribes.
In his recordings, Villarejo has admitted to using prostitutes to get sensitive information from public figures which he would then use to blackmail them. “I’ve never seen such stupid people,” he says in one recording. “And they would say stuff just to try and impress the girl.”
Villarejo, who is in prison and being investigated for criminal organisation and extortion, is seen as a rogue figure with no political allegiance. By contrast, the other police linked to the “state sewer” scandals have been top-ranking officers with close associations to the conservative PP, which governed from 2011 until last year. They include José Ángel Fuentes Gago, who has served as attaché to the Spanish ambassador in The Hague.
In 2016, the patriotic brigade turned its attentions to Podemos, whose leftist, anti-establishment message had made it a major threat to the traditional parties.
A police investigation into the supposedly illegal financing of Podemos with Iranian money was carried out, only to be shelved due to lack of evidence. The same year, Fuentes Gago was part of a police team sent to New York to meet with the former Venezuelan minister Rafael Isea, who says he was offered a Spanish passport and other perks in return for testifying that Podemos had received money from the Chávez administration. “If you help us to ensure that Podemos don’t [get into power], all the better for everyone,” Fuentes Gago said at the meeting, according to reports published by Spanish media.
The intrigue has also tainted the current Socialist government of Pedro Sánchez. Earlier this month, one of the prime minister’s advisers, Alberto Pozas, resigned just days before it emerged that in 2016, as editor of Interviú magazine, he had received a pen drive containing data, including private texts, from a phone which had been stolen from a close adviser to Pablo Iglesias.
This week, Sánchez told an interviewer that he decommissioned the patriotic brigade on arriving in office last summer and his interior minister, Fernando Grande-Marlaska, has said that “the [state] sewers no longer exist”. However, Podemos believes the hacked surveillance camera incident shows that not to be the case.
“How can we ask people to trust in our democracy if they can see that . . . there is a criminal network fabricating evidence to try to alter the results of elections?” said Montero, the party’s spokeswoman.
A Madrid court is investigating claims by Villarejo that the PP commissioned police officers to steal material from its own former treasurer that incriminated the party in a corruption scam. So far, seven police officers are being investigated by the judiciary for alleged involvement in the patriotic brigade, including Fuentes Gago, although only one of them has been suspended from office.
Podemos and its allies on the left have expressed frustration at how the string of scandals has so far failed to prompt a full parliamentary investigation.
“We’re not being given the relevant explanations about a case which is the equivalent to, or more serious than, Watergate in the United States,” said Alberto Garzón, leader of the United Left (IU), which is in a coalition with Podemos. “It’s too strange.”