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MADRID — For the past half-decade, José Manuel Villarejo has been the most mysterious and vilified person in Spain. Now he is due to have his day in court.
The 70-year-old former policeman is widely believed to have been at the center of a deep-state apparatus stretching back decades whose tentacles reached into the media, judiciary, big business and politics. His activities are believed to have tarnished the reputations of an array of ministers, business leaders, senior figures in the judiciary, and even the monarchy.
Prosecutors have probed 30 separate lines of investigation related to his activities and he is accused of a barrage of crimes ranging from bribery and extortion to forgery and influence peddling. The court will try him over the next few months for a handful of the cases in which he has been implicated, along with 32 other defendants. If found guilty, he could face a prison term of over 50 years.
Villarejo has barely spoken to the media in recent years, fuelling his enigmatic persona. And while many expect the upcoming trial to reveal not the truth about his career, he has warned it will also expose how the Spanish state has been complicit in his activities.
“I am convinced that those who see me as a lamb who will quietly go to the slaughter are mistaken,” Villarejo told POLITICO in one written answer to questions given to him via his lawyer.
“I have never been belligerent, but nor have I ever run from a fight when I had to.”
In his rare public appearances, Villarejo has cut an easily recognizable figure, wearing a flat cap and at times an eye patch because of a medical condition. However, despite his feeble physical state, he has amassed a huge amount of influence, much of it through audio recordings he has made of public figures and others, which he estimates at several terabytes of data, “the equivalent to thousands of conversations.”
These audio recordings allowed Villarejo to delve into the lives of public figures and others at the behest of clients who wanted to blackmail them. In one of the cases for which the former police officer is going on trial, he is accused of spying on a lawyer and former business partner of Juan and Fernando Muñoz, two brothers charged with extortion. Juan Muñoz is married to one of Spain’s best-known TV presenters, Ana Rosa Quintana, giving the case a celebrity wash.
According to Francisco Marco, a private detective who has co-written an account of Villarejo’s career called “La España Inventada,” the former policeman was also a specialist in sabotaging official inquiries in order to help those who hired him get out of legal trouble. Such work earned him nicknames such as The Technician and The Surgeon.
“He would try to compromise judicial or police investigations in order to benefit the client and he would charge them for it,” said Marco, who himself claims to have been a victim of Villarejo’s blackmail efforts since naming the media-shy policeman in a probe he was carrying out in the 1990s.
“We’re talking about a pure desire for power and money,” Marco said.
One such alleged case came about after Elsa Pinto, a dermatologist, complained of being sexually harassed by the businessman Javier López Madrid. Investigators accuse him of hiring Villarejo to threaten Pinto into dropping charges. She even identified the former policeman as the man who stabbed her outside a department store when she was with her son, inflicting a minor wound. Pinto claims that after filing her initial lawsuit, a fabricated version of events was leaked to the media, making her appear the aggressor.
Villarejo denies any involvement. But the case has already been awkward for the monarchy given that López Madrid was a friend of King Felipe and especially Queen Letizia, with whom he used to practice yoga.
Another affair linked to Villarejo has had a more direct impact on the monarchy. In 2020, former King Juan Carlos, who abdicated six years earlier, fled to the United Arab Emirates due to scandals about his finances. An audio recording by Villarejo of a conversation in a London hotel with Juan Carlos’s former lover, Corinna zu Sayn-Wittgenstein-Sayn, in which she implied he had received bribes, triggered the scandal.
‘Compared to this scandal, Watergate looks like child’s play’
There is also a politically explosive slant to Villarejo’s alleged activities. One investigation has focused on the so-called Kitchen case, in which prosecutors believe Villarejo was hired to wrest potentially incriminating documents from the former treasurer of the Popular Party (PP), Luis Bárcenas, in order to stymie a corruption probe. Among those facing trial at a later date is Jorge Fernández Díaz, who at the time was interior minister in the PP government of Mariano Rajoy.
“Compared to this scandal, Watergate looks like child’s play,” noted Ignacio Escolar, editor of the elDiario.es news site, of the Kitchen case.
The PP and Villarejo have also been linked to efforts to discredit the far-left Podemos party, just as it was starting to upset more than three decades of two-party political stability. In 2016, some media outlets published the findings of a supposed police report showing that the party and its leader, Pablo Iglesias, had been funded by Iranian money. The information proved to be false.
The fact that active police officers appear to have been deeply involved in such scandals would confirm the theory that Villarejo, rather than operating alone, was at the center of a network that has become known as the “state sewers.”
“This is a multi-faceted power system, involving the country’s media, economic, political, judicial and police powers,” said Patricia López, a journalist who has closely followed many of the cases to which Villarejo has been linked. She describes a complex interplay of corrupted state institutions.
“This power, this system within a system, this mafia — what differentiates them from a criminal organization is that they are inside the institutions, they have got inside and are controlling the system,” she said.
López has also crossed paths with Villarejo and says that he has led a campaign of harassment by the police, courts and media against her since she started publishing information about him. She says this campaign — which Villarejo denies waging — has caused her deep psychological trauma.
Villarejo, meanwhile, claims that Spain’s national intelligence agency (CNI) knew about his subterfuge and commissioned much of the work for which he is now being investigated. He says his fall from grace, which saw him arrested in 2017 and kept in preventive custody until earlier this year, was triggered by a feud with the CNI’s then-director, Félix Sanz Roldán, whom he blames for leaking much of his audio archive.
Sanz Roldán, he said, “used his immense power to exploit the state institutions, driven by arrogance and a short-sighted desire for revenge and to show who really is in charge in Spain because of the sick hatred he has of me.”
Sanz Roldán has contested such claims in the past. Earlier this year Villarejo was cleared of slandering him.
So far, the Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE) of Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez has been relatively unaffected by Villarejo. One exception is his attorney general, Dolores Delgado, who was previously justice minister. Audio recordings made in 2009 and which came to light in 2018 featured her having a meal with the former police officer while making bawdy jokes and indiscreet comments.
The audio caused many to wonder if Delgado’s apparently cozy relationship with Villarejo had influenced her professional decisions.
In October 2020, Delgado raised eyebrows when she voted in favor of removing from office Ignacio Stampa, an anti-corruption prosecutor who had made substantial progress in probing Villarejo’s activities. The attorney general justified the move by requesting an investigation into Stampa for allegedly leaking documents, a probe that has now been shelved.
Sánchez and his allies in the PSOE have insisted that the deep-state apparatus associated with Villarejo no longer exists.
“These sewers are a thing of the past,” said the interior minister, Fernando Grande-Marlaska, in April 2019.
But Podemos, the junior partner in the coalition government, which has been repeatedly embroiled in these cases, is much less convinced.
“Pablo Iglesias can be thankful that in Spain the state doesn’t poison him with polonium and that all that’s happened is that he’s been spied on by the sewers of the interior ministry in order to fabricate garbage and sway the elections,” the party’s spokesman, Pablo Echenique, said in a sarcastic tweet earlier this year. “In Spain there’s full democratic normalcy. Oh yes.”
Francisco Marco believes that although Villarejo is no longer wreaking havoc, his modus operandi is not necessarily a thing of the past.
“Villarejo and his circle are finished,” he said. “But it would be very naïve to think that nobody will come along and replace him.”
Meanwhile, Marco added, a career of subterfuge has taken its toll on the man in the eye of the storm.
“Nobody in their right mind records everything from sun up to sundown,” he said. “He recorded his family, his children, he recorded everything. In the end you become a prisoner of yourself. He was imprisoned by his own persona because he spent his life recording everything.”
The upcoming trial, which is expected to last until February and is the first of several that Villarejo is expected to face, will almost certainly shed light on his shady past and the so-called state sewers.
The defendant is defiant, telling POLITICO that he will declare himself not guilty of the charges.
He claims that during his preventive custody he was mistreated and nearly died on one occasion in 2018, in what he says was an attempt by his enemies in the Spanish state “to help me commit suicide.”
“To the surprise of many, including myself, I’m still alive and I keep going,” he said, before presenting his situation in the most dramatic terms. “But I fear that when they see what I’m going to say during the trial they will try [to kill me] again and this time they won’t mess it up.”