The fall of los intocables

Michael Gillard looks at the machinations of a Spanish judge's crusade against corruption in the highest government ranks

Phoney companies set up to secretly channel kickbacks into party coffers; a fugitive police chief charged with embezzling public funds to amass a £2 million real estate portfolio and rogue elements in the intelligence service who bug judges, journalists and even the King.

These are just some of the scandals which engulf the 12-year administration of Spanish Prime Minister Felipe Gonzalez and prompting unwanted comparisons with Italy, a country long considered the bastion of European political skulduggery.

There is, however, another scandal with revelations so obscene and political implications so grave that it has been dubbed the Spanish Watergate. And like Watergate, this scandal is causing a bruising confrontation between a belligerent judiciary and an embattled executive.

Thanks to the tenacity of a young judge, a small team of journalists and two supergrasses, government ministers now face charges of having financed with public money a death squad to fight a dirty war against the Basque separatist organisation, ETA.

The Grupos Antiterroristas de Liberacion or GAL was run by two policemen turned supergrasses, who recruited international mercenaries to carry out kidnappings, bombings and assassinations in Spain and southern France. Active during Gonzalez's first administration from 1983-87, GAL murdered 28 people and wounded 17 others, among them innocent children and adults who had nothing to do with ETA.

The judge responsible for investigating the GAL affair is the flamboyantly named and natured Baltasar Garzon.

To his supporters, Garzon, 39, known as superjuez, or superjudge, is respected for his courage and honesty. To his detractors, he is vain, ambitious and intent on bringing down Gonzalez.

Garzon cuts an unlikely figure among his older and more conservative colleagues, who are split over the merits of his crusader image.

In his spare time Garzon likes to fight bulls, play football and practise karate. As a judge he has taken on ETA's military command, corrupt police officers and the Galician drug barons. Now he is taking on the government – an end game likely to result in the fall of Felipe Gonzalez.

Last April, Garzon filed a 75-page indictment in the Criminal Court of the Audiencia Nacional. Fourteen men, among them four senior Interior Ministry officials and 10 police officers, are variously charged with involvement in GAL, kidnapping, misuse of public funds and planning a murder.

In preparing the indictment Garzon has been subject to a vicious smear campaign orchestrated by nervous, hidden forces inside the political establishment. Stories have been planted questioning his impartiality, sexuality and integrity.

One obliging paper claimed Garzon and his family had taken a Caribbean holiday on public money. The judge produced receipts to disprove the smear and outlined other rumours about him: “Among them, claims by two prostitutes that I supposedly raped them; that I have various illegitimate children, that I sniff cocaine and that Carlos Bueren (another high profile judge) and I are homosexual lovers.”

Such smears were also familiar to Antonio di Pietro, former chief prosecutor during Italy's 'clean hands' campaign against bent politicians and the Mafia.

The GAL case began for Garzon in 1988. That year he had just been appointed as one of the five leading investigating magistrates of the Madrid-based National Court.

A newspaper investigation had earlier revealed that two policemen, Jose Amedo and Michel Dominguez, were behind GAL attacks in southern France, a known sanctuary for ETA members.

Garzon prepared the indictment of Amedo and Dominguez, who were tried in 1991 and sentenced to 108 years each. Although the government was ruled not to have been involved in GAL, Garzon and the press strongly suspected GAL was financed from a secret fund controlled by the Interior Ministry.

Previously, in what became the first confrontation between the judiciary and executive in post-Franco Spain, Garzon had demanded information from the ministry about these secret funds, but officials used 'national security' reasons to deny it. This position was controversially supported by the judicial establishment, leaving Garzon isolated and the principle of an independent judiciary in tatters.

Amedo and Dominguez took their sentence stoically, in the belief they would be rewarded when the time was right. But questions still remained. Who was the so-called Mr X behind the secret funds? Was GAL the government's brainchild? If so, how much did Felipe Gonzalez know? Questions Garzon would return to four years later.

In the meantime, he enjoyed a national reputation as a fearless crusader against drug trafficking, terrorism and official corruption, and renewed his relationship with the Interior Ministry and ruling Socialist Party.

By 1993 the government's re-election prospects were severely affected by continued press revelations of official corruption. Gonzalez persuaded Garzon to become an independent Socialist candidate and following the election victory he was appointed Chief of the National Drug Plan.

Despite election promises to stamp out corruption, one year later Garzon resigned claiming the government lacked political will. He accused Gonzalez of using him as a “puppet”, although critics said he was miffed at losing a promotion battle inside the Interior Ministry. Immediately the press began to ask whether Garzon would return to the judiciary to exact revenge on Gonzalez by unmasking him as Mr X.

Meanwhile, last December, Amedo and Dominguez began signalling to the Interior Ministry that the time had come to pardon them for carrying the can. Negotiations broke down, so both men went to Garzon, who by now was back in the National Court.

The supergrasses revealed the full extent of government and security service involvement in GAL – including official knowledge of the kidnapping and planned execution of a man wrongly identified as being a member of ETA.

The GAL case was reopened and many in the government, once considered los intocables, or untouchable, were now looking very vulnerable.

Amedo confirmed Garzon's suspicion that death squad operations were financed with secret government funds. In this instance the courts had no option but to ignore national security considerations and authorise Garzon to investigate the Interior Ministry officials who controlled them.

During the first five months of 1995, Garzon interviewed and remanded some of the most senior police chiefs, party members and government officials in Spain.

They all denied the charges and attacked Amedo's credibility and Garzon's impartiality. One remanded politician claimed Garzon was behind a “conspiracy” involving opposition parties to use the GAL case to bring down Gonzalez.

The smear campaign, which Supreme Court vice-president Jose Luis Manzanares likened to a witch hunt, had begun.

Party officials, for example, were oblivious to the hypocrisy of attacking Garzon for being allowed (under a law they passed in 1985) to return to the bench so soon after holding political office.

Currently there are 20 men and women from the judiciary in the government. Indeed, the three top Justice and Interior Ministry posts are taken up by ex-judges. Nevertheless, calls have been made for a “period of hibernation” and the main opposition party has committed itself to changing the law.

Questions about Garzon's impartiality are more serious given his acrimonious departure from the government and his professional involvement with the Interior Ministry. Both the current and former presidents of the Constitutional Court argued against Garzon taking on the GAL case.

However, attempts by politicians on remand to remove him on these grounds or due to alleged professional misconduct were emphatically rejected by the courts and the General Council of the Judiciary (CGPJ), the body which appoints and disciplines judges.

Sensing the damage caused by their previous support for the government, the General Council's support for Garzon has naturally incurred the wrath of the government, which accuses the CGPJ of acting like a “judges union”.

Socialists claim the judiciary has entered the executive through the backdoor and that there now exists a “government by judges”.

In reply, professional associations on the left and right-wing argue that the government has confused political with criminal responsibility. Says Jose Maria Vasquez of the Francisco de Vitoria Judges Association: “The politicians have left certain scandals to rot for too long. If they had accepted political responsibility earlier it wouldn't have come to this.”

Indeed, it is precisely the plethora of high-profile scandals which, due to Spain's Napoleonic system, force investigating magistrates to do battle with the political establishment. But these attacks on Garzon are also part of a wider judicial debate to provide the prosecutor with more jurisdictional powers.

“A significant section of the legal community is happy with the current balance,” says Javier Zarza Lejos of the Spanish Embassy, “but there is a trend to increase the powers and role of the prosecutor during the investigation stage.”

Indeed, a government-sponsored Jury Bill will prevent the investigating magistrate from remanding someone without a request from either party.

Pascual Sala, GPJ chair and Supreme Court president, says it would be preferable if remand powers were transferred to a tribunal or another judge.

Either way Spain is moving away from the principio inquisitivo towards the principio acusatorio.

In the meantime, Felipe Gonzalez and Baltasar Garzon wait for the National Court to schedule a date for GAL 2. For Gonzalez the verdict on his administration may arrive before the trial as his coalition partners have lost confidence.

Furthermore, in a remarkable U-turn, the accused ministers and officials recently admitted to Garzon their involvement with GAL and directly implicated Felipe Gonzalez in the death squad scandal.

Isolated in Madrid's Moncloa Palace, the Prime Minister surely rues the day he declared: “There is no proof, nor will there ever be any.”

Michael Gillard is a freelance journalist.