THE A369 road south from Spain’s literary retreat of Ronda, the mountain town that so inspired Hemingway, Welles and amigos, meanders photogenically through Andalucia’s famous pueblos blancos, whitewashed villages punctuating one of Europe’s more spectacular mountainscapes.
With their architectural nod to Arabic neighbours, Andalucia’s charming white towns are daubed like splashed paint over verdant cork forests and russet olive groves. The region’s Rio Genal, which locals regard as the continent’s cleanest waterway, burbles through this stunning naturaleza to the Mediterranean’s gates near Gibraltar.
But for all its natural splendour, the A369 is also a corridor that tracks the epidemic of smalltown corruption that has crippled Spain — and Europe with it; a cancer infecting communities like these across this once-proud nation, Europe’s fourth-largest economy.
Negotiating the A369, it’s virtually impossible to find a municipality among the dozen or so through here that hasn’t been tainted by institutional graft; the petty thievery of ratepayers’ cash, the sleazy backhanders to get an illegal development approved, the tacky local follies sanctioned by dodgy mayors, and built by their relatives.
As scenic as it is, the A369 is a byway of bribery, a carretera of crookedness.
“There is so much corruption here,” says Jon Clarke, transplanted Englishman and editor of the Ronda-based newspaper The Olive Press, a local sheet that has done much to expose the region’s smalltown shenanigans.
“I would say [it’s] in 90 per cent of the town halls here. Sadly money talked and developers got their way by paying bribes, which were all too happily accepted in most towns.”
The A369’s corruption cancer starts in Ronda itself, where locals have been absorbed by the dramas that have engulfed former mayor Antonio Marin Lara, a charismatic local powerbroker known as Toti.
Toti is notorious in Ronda for his role helping the €200 million ($250 million) Los Merinos development, a massive luxury hotel and golf course of villas that had been approved inside a UNESCO-protected environmental zone near the historic town.
Developers had eyed the Los Merinos site hungrily for years but development finally took off during Toti’s four-year mayoralty from 2007, when credit was easy and Spain’s flashy property-led boom was at its most boisterous.
The Los Merinos project had been set up illegally, according to an exhaustive investigation by nearby Malaga University’s department of criminology. Still, this was the time where official papers and permits could easily be obtained if the right palms were greased.
Parading himself as the big man about town, Toti was a regional boss of the centre-left Partido Andalucista, which campaigns for nationalism in Spain’s most populous region. But when the PA ran out of usefulness for him and wasn’t able to deliver the mayoralty, he joined PSOE, Spain’s Socialist Party, which happily for Toti held power nationally.
Toti’s ayuntamiento, or town hall, was known by developers as an easy touch. But as Spain descended into economic mire, the party came to an end in late 2011 when the town hall was raided by federal police. Toti and six local officials were carted off as investigators levelled allegations of ‘‘economic crimes’’ — bribery, fraud, money-laundering being just a few of them.
Pointedly, the Toti raid was conducted by Spain’s crack drug and organised crime department of the national police force despatched from the capital. Madrid wasn’t taking any chances, essential in a febrile atmosphere when local cops are often part of the same problem.
Today, Toti cools his heels on bail, awaiting trial and protesting his innocence, one of 300-plus Spanish politicians facing corruption charges.
With such a staggering number of elected officials facing graft allegations in a country where more than one in four people are unemployed, it’s unsurprising then that a January 12 poll in Spain’s national El Pais newspaper showed 95 per cent of Spaniards believed official corruptors were protected and covered up within Spain’s two major political parties, PSOE and the ruling Popular Party.
If just 5 per cent of Spaniards remained of the view that their politicians were clean, they would have been in for a shock just three weeks later when it was revealed that leading officials of the PP, including Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, had received undeclared payments averaging about €25,000 a year since the 1990s.
These funds, painstakingly doled out by the PP’s now disgraced treasurer Luis Barsenas, had been trousered by MPs and officials since the mid-1990s, their share of donations made by boom-time construction companies and parked in Swiss bank accounts. Rajoy, who denies the allegations, has only just survived the crisis, protected in part by the PSOE opposition, which has its own myriad skeletons.
But protected for how long? In Italy, popular disgust at the institutionalised corruption at municipal level was one of the factors that spurred the rise of Beppe “Pox-on-All-Their-Houses” Grillo’s activist Five Star Movement. After elections last month, 5SM’s ‘Grillinis’ are now the biggest single party in Italy’s Chamber of Deputies, spooking the political establishment in Rome. Spain has similar movements in embryo, mostly coalescing around the finger-pointing indignado protests, the periodic mass demonstrations that have been inspired by the Arab Spring uprisings. But no movement with Grillo’s electoral impact is evident yet in Spain, and grassroots corruption continues apace here.
At Los Merinos, building has stopped but its scars on the landscape, like so many of Spain’s crisis-interrupted developments, remain.
The long-running Los Merinos debacle was the catalyst for Britain’s former Daily Mail reporter Jon Clarke to set up The Olive Press in Ronda after he arrived in Andalucia a decade ago. “It was an outrage,” he says, “and it was not being exposed locally as all the local press were in train to the developers.
“We investigated it, published it and the story got followed up in the UK national press, then in the Spanish national press in return. To say we became persona non grata would be an understatement.”
Clarke says he and his staff received a succession of anonymous threats; a Spanish government minister described them as “mafia tactics”.
FROM RONDA, it’s a short drive south along the A369 through several more white villages. One village off the road, Juzcar, is no longer white but blue after painting itself for a Smurf movie publicity stunt and discovering that tourists liked it.
For Juzcar, a future steeped in sickly Smurf blue might have been a better option than another one it was facing; Libya’s late dictator Muammar Gaddafi owned thousands of hectares of land in these valleys, a repository for some of his corrupt oil-derived billions. And in December, Spain seized €28 million worth of luxury property owned by Egypt’s deposed ruler Hosni Mubarak, including seven villas on Andalucia’s Costa Del Sol, just south of here. Political successors are now pressing for these holdings to be turned over to the new governments in Tripoli and Cairo.
Most of the whitewashed towns along here have populations of little more than 500 people. But the administering of small communities is no impediment to mayors awarding themselves handsome salaries.
What would be ordinarily voluntary posts in most Western democracies are too often in Spain politicised honeypots to which you attach yourself to, and then your relatives, while there is an opportunity to do so. Spain’s small towns are a wellspring of political patronage that reach into national party ranks, on all sides of the Spanish spectrum.
Some of the mayors along here take home more than €50,000 a year, tasked with little more than attending council meetings and scrawling the occasional signature on a permit, legal or otherwise.
A recent study published in Spain’s El Economista business daily found that eight Spanish mayors earned bigger official salaries than the country’s Prime Minister, who earns €78,000 annually. Admittedly, some were the mayors of some of Spain’s bigger cities: Madrid, Barcelona, Valencia and Bilbao.
But some were not. After persistent national calls to limit the powers and perks of local officials, Rajoy’s government finally moved in December, upsetting all sides of Spain’s parliament. Many sitting MPs sprang from these mayoralties but meanwhile were keeping the home fires burning until they could possibly return, should affairs of state in Madrid take a nasty electoral turn.
Rajoy’s decision to limit mayoral salaries to €68,000 a year meant that instead of eight Spanish mayors earning more than the country’s Prime Minister, it was now 20, some commanding cities with fewer than 100,000 people, some commanding rather unimportant suburbs of big cities.
A LITTLE FURTHER DOWN THE A369 is the town of Gaucin, with its floating population of about 2,000. It’s famous for its resident artistic community, and for the sturdy bridge gifted by Hitler’s Germany during the Spanish Civil War, (built by Berlin, it’s said, just in case it needed to move tanks and troops to lay siege to British-held Gibraltar).
Gaucin is infamous for the shenanigans in its ayuntamiento. The town has endured four mayors in six years as disgusted locals have turfed out one after another amid allegations of recidivist councillors’-hands-in-the-till and misuse of public funds that have virtually bankrupted the town.
There have been revelations of cash of unknown provenance deposited in Swiss accounts, of missing people and a mysterious death, of developments sprouting in areas regarded as rural zones, and apartment buildings on unstable land.
One notorious complex is known as “Landslide Villas”, built and precariously poised above the town’s primary school. Completed just as Spain’s economic crisis was worsening throughout 2008-09, it has remained mostly uninhabited since.
Gaucin is also famous for its glorious views, to Gibraltar and the Pillars of Hercules at the Mediterranean’s gate and, if the weather is clear, deep into Morocco. Africa and Europe are at their closest points near here, just 14 kilometres apart.
In the middle distance to the east, one can see the environs of Casares, another pueblo blanco of about 4,000 people. To get to Casares, one has to leave the A369 and take the A377. But it’s a road no less laced with corruption.
Last May, Casares’s colourful mayor, Juan Sánchez, was arrested by police and anti-corruption investigators in a sting now known as “Operation Majestic”, so named for the town’s Majestic development of 500 properties that was approved by Sánchez.
By small town standards, Majestic is one complex scandal. The now ex-mayor Sánchez is suspected of accepting payments and laundering money on behalf of the mafia in Russia and Eastern Europe.
Investigators have been probing the “unusual wealth” of Señor Sánchez. His wife has claimed she found five successful lottery tickets in his clothes while tidying up.
He started his political life as a member of Spain’s Communist Party, which had been virtually outlawed during the Franco era that ended upon the caudillo’s death in 1975. Sánchez first became Casares mayor in 1979 aged 25 and has been in and out of the town hall ever since, until his arrest.
Now he stands accused of playing financial footsies with the Russian mob, as investigators spread their probe across several countries, in what seems just another day in the life of a smalltown Andalucian mayor.