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Hell’s kitchen

As I write, scandal after scandal is bubbling its way up out of the darker conduits of the Spanish state, revealing a network of corruption, dirty tricks, coercion, blackmail, and illegal funding that involve at least two previous Partido Popular (PP) governments. Much of this has been overlooked in the international press, perhaps because the financial fraud and extramarital fornication indulged in so enthusiastically by the former King of Spain (now exiled against his will in a luxury hotel in Abu Dhabi, where, according to the Daily Telegraph, he is ’getting bored’) makes for more easily digestible copy than do the aforementioned scandals, which are complex and difficult to put in context.

Lurking at the heart of them all is a personage called José Manuel Villarejo, who between 1972 and 1983 worked mainly in Euskadi, in the anti-terrorist department of the Spanish National Police. Between 1983 and 1993 he moved into the private sector, running 46 different companies, including a detective agency, before being put back on the state’s payroll as a secret investigator for the Ministry of the Interior. One of his jobs was to investigate an impostor called ’Little Nicolás’, a law student who managed to bluff his way into the highest echelons of Spanish society, royalty included. Villarejo’s investigation turned out to have been carried out using allegedly illegal recordings and tampered evidence. When threatened with jail, he threatened the state back with secret information he had gathered involving the then King Juan Carlos (yes, him again) and the dubious methods of the Spanish Intelligence Services. He was jailed in 2017, and Spain’s National Court launched a multiple investigation – known as ’Operation Tandem’ – into his activities. Part seven of Operation Tandem has been dubbed ’Operation Kitchen’.

To understand just which operation this is, and please bear with me, it’s necessary to know that Luis Bárcenas, the PP’s treasurer, had been slipping illicitly tax-free sums of money in the form of ’gifts’ from various companies and individuals to prime ministers Aznar (allegedly) and Rajoy as well as at least seven PP cabinet ministers between 1990 and 2008 (including, for example, an annual payment of €26,000 to Rajoy over an 11-year period). When Bárcenas was rumbled by the media, the PP decided to use the police to locate and destroy the documents in which Bárcenas had conscientiously recorded every last one of these generous kickbacks. The PP’s first port of call was none other than the secret agent Villarejo, who, together with one Eugenio Pino, a ranking Spanish police officer, greased the palm of Bárcenas’s chauffeur (nicknamed ’the cook’ in coded messages) to the tune of €48,000 taken from ’reserved funds’ controlled exclusively by the Spanish minister of the interior at the time, Jorge Fernández Díaz, in the hope that the ’cook’ could find out where Bárcenas kept his incriminating evidence. Villarejo and Pino had direct lines of communication both to the PP’s general secretary and to Rajoy himself.

Although Operation Kitchen is now dredging up a slag heap’s worth of institutional corruption, the devil, as ever, is in the detail. For example, Eugenio Pino – the police officer who is implicated together with Villarejo in ’Operation Kitchen’ – let slip during a court hearing that the Spanish police had carried out other operations that ’would make your skin crawl’, but were for the ’good of Spain’. (The presiding judge irritably asked him to stick to the case in hand). Even more revealing are the taped conversations between Villarejo and various top bananas in the PP, in which he reveals his involvement in ’Operation Catalonia’ (designed to stop the independence movement, in part by destroying the Catalan public health service and coercing the Banca Privada Andorrana into illegally disclosing the balances of any pro-independence politicians it might have had as clients). On the tapes, the moaning tone of Villarejo’s voice, his easy swearing and domineering delivery make him sound like one of those boring boors you hope don’t try to strike up a conversation if you find yourself alone in a bar. The PP governments, on the other hand, seem to have been more than happy, for years on end, to lend his kitchen Spanish an ear.

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