Corruption has a long tradition in Spain. But lately, the country has experienced an explosion of scandals.
Hundreds of mayors and other officials across the country are being investigated for bribery and influence peddling, and police have seized assets worth billions of dollars. The government and the opposition agree that things have to change.
Boadilla del Monte, a small hill town about a half-hour west of Madrid, has achieved notoriety in Spain because of its former mayor, Arturo Gonzalez Panero. He was forced to resign earlier this year after being implicated in an influence-peddling network that extended to Madrid, Valencia and the Costa del Sol. A court in Madrid has frozen millions of dollars of his assets.
Nieves Castillejo used to work for a catering firm that handled parties in the mayor's home.
"There was more money there than a mayor should be earning," she says. "You could see it in the paintings, the statues and in the catering itself — like caviar and other things."
Castillejo says the corruption was an open secret in the town.
"We knew it smelled like fish, but we didn't realize the scope," she says.
Boadilla del Monte is just one of many Spanish municipalities tainted by scandal. According to the Interior Ministry, nearly a thousand people have been arrested in anti-corruption probes in the past five years. Police have seized assets worth more than $4 billion, including artworks, luxury cars and hundreds of prize fighting bulls.
Many of the scandals revolve around the concession of building permits. During the past decade, Spain was the focus of one of Europe's biggest housing booms. Rezoning a plot of land for construction could multiply its value many times over.
In Valencia, politicians also got money and gifts in exchange for contracts to organize public events, including Pope Benedict XVI's visit to the city in 2006.
The firm that was subcontracted to televise the Mass led by the pope allegedly diverted more than 2 million euros in illegal gains, according to the newspaper El Pais.
Images on television news shows of police arresting mayors or other local government officials have become almost a daily ritual of late.
Political science professor Manuel Villoria says the many years of the Franco dictatorship, which lasted from 1939 to 1975, left Spaniards distrusting the political system. Favoritism persists because many people rely on contacts, or enchufes as they are called in Spanish, to get things done.
"Even judges call me and ask, 'Hey, why didn't such-and-such student get admitted to your university? Can't you do something about it?' " says Villoria, a board member of the Spanish chapter of Transparency International, a nongovernmental organization that promotes honest government.
"Even judges! That's how pervasive it is in our culture," he adds.
But politicians at the national level worry about the bad rap their parties are getting as a result of the scandals. The ruling Socialists and opposition conservatives plan to propose a new local administration law this spring. Experts say that for anything to really change, the law would have to rein in the nearly dictatorial powers that many Spanish mayors still enjoy.