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Andalucia's shame and the crusading judge.
27 May 2020 @ 18:00

In 2009 Judge Mercedes Alaya, a Sevillia born judge, began investigating allegations of extortion and corruption in what became known as the “the Mercasevilla case.” The ailing trading company in Sevilla wanted to build a new catering school, and had seemingly paid bribes to obtain planning permission. The company normally traded in fish, meat and vegetables and it owned large, old warehouses, but had begun downsizing its staffing because of the recession. What she discovered, was that some of the people who had been given redundancy pay-outs had never worked for Mercasevilla.  

Payments for redundancy came from an EU grant, and a fund called ERE (Expedientes de Regulacion de Empleo) was set up by the Junta de Andalucia so that officials of the socialist government could allocate funds at shop-floor levels. Brussels was trying to make the lot of the ordinary worker easier with redundancy payments when older industries declined and closed. The fund was controlled by the elected socialist party the PSOE, but administered on a local level by labour chief Javier Guerrero. Guerrero had been in charge of ERE fund pay-outs a for ten year period from 1998 to 2008, and Alaya discovered that he had been awarding generous retirement packages to his family. Guerrero admitted that he was guilty, and was expelled from the socialist party. The PSOE hoped that this would be the end, but Alaya then turned on the current labour leader, Juan Márquez, and charged him, too, with embezzlement. He was forced to drop his plans to run for election as mayor of Lucena del Puerto in Huelva. But Alaya had not finished, and the judge informed the labour leader who was in office before Guerrero that he was being charged for similar offences committed during his time in service.

Javier Guerrero, Photo, El Mundo.

The judge’s investigations uncovered more than 50 cases of early retirement pay-outs to people who never worked for the companies they supposedly retired from. Even more curious was the fact that the companies involved had no idea that the pay-outs had been made. 

Most of the payments had been made during Guerrero’s term, but the €650,000 fund had been set up by Antonio Fernández, who served from 2004 to 2010. Two of the beneficiaries of fake retirement pay-outs had been the family of Juan Lanzas, the UGT public sector union leader and friend of Fernández, and Antonio Garrido Santoyo, socialist party leader in Jáen whose family received €78,000 from the fund. As the web of corruption was uncovered, Judge Alaya opened more and more separate cases.

  Juan Francisco Trujillo, chauffeur for Guerrero. Photo ABC Seville.

The most revealing testimony in a trial by dominated by confusion and cover-up was given by the chauffeur for Andalucia’s former employment minister Francisco Javier Guerrero. During nearly ten years that Juan Francisco Trujillo drove for Guerrero, he was paid €1.3million, which he spent on property in Sevilla and luxury goods for friends and family. His boss and “friend” typically spent around €25,000 a month on cocaine and brothels. He would drive Guerrero and other party officials to top restaurants in Seville and then on to various “Puti” clubs, or brothels around the city. All of the money they used was illegally taken from the ERE fund that the EU topped up each year. Trujillo, now known as “the cocaine chauffeur” was been charged with 22 crimes including forgery, embezzlement, bribery and ‘influence peddling’. His boss was accused of a similar number of crimes.

The links eventually led through members of the Andalucian parliament. In 2014, Alaya charged all the members of the Governing Council of the Agency for Innovation and Development in Andalucía (IDEA) who were in power between 2003 and 2009. Among those was the president of Unicaja, Braulio Medel, and with him the ex-chief of judicial services in the Junta de Andalucía, Francisco del Río. These arrests brought the number of people charged with corruption to 181.

The EU fund became known as “the reptile fund” by its users because large amounts of it were used as bribes to pay union officials who resisted the criminals, or rival politicians who might blow the whistle on what was going on. The outsiders to their conspiracy of crime were known as “reptiles.”  Prosecutors believe that something like €200 million was illegally taken from the fund since it was first set up.

One of the pivotal figures in the scam has turned out to be Juan Lanzas, the head of the UGT union. He is thought to have made €13 million through fixing payments, allowing him to buy 12 houses and live a lifestyle far removed from the workers he is paid to represent. He was charged with five counts of embezzling public funds, breach of trust, forgery, conspiracy and bribery, but Lanzas was released from jail after his family miraculously produced €200,000 in cash to pay for his bail.

The trials and investigations begun by Judge Alaya continued for six years, but the trail had dried up, and the cover-ups had erased much of the evidence needed to bring charges. Up to this point, prosecutors had only succeeded in putting two people in prison, and it looked unlikely that anybody else will be sent to jail. The case documents had already run to over 40,000 pages and arrests were still being made in Seville, Jerez, Jaén, Granada, Madrid and Barcelona.

By this time, Judge Alaya had a fan club on Facebook which had grown to 40,000 people. She was known to the press as, “The Iron Lady of Spanish Justice.”  But even the stunningly attractive judge had doubts about being able to put an end to this evil. She had reached the top with her investigations, and openly confessed to the press that she had been stopped. "Prosecutors do not move a finger if they do not receive orders from Madrid.”

Nevertheless the prosecutions continued. The case became so large and unwieldy that it was broken up into 146 separate probes. Prosecutors estimated that, over a decade, members of the Andalusian administration diverted 680 million euros ($752 million) into their own and their family’s bank accounts. The money was discreetly passed on to people and businesses, often with close ties to the Socialist party, some of whom were not affected by layoffs.

When the trial finally came to court on December 2017 in Seville, it charged 19 former top officials from the ruling Socialists in Andalusia for their role in one of the biggest corruption cases in the country's modern history. The charges were that they distributed, without due diligence, hundreds of millions of euros meant to help the unemployed and companies in difficulty in the region of Andalucia. The court said there was an "absolute lack of control" in the management of the funds.

 Manuel Chaves and José Antonio Griñán waiting to be charged.

After a year, the case finally came to a conclusion, and on 19 November 2019, two former heads of Andalusia's regional government, Manuel Chaves and José Antonio Griñán, were among those convicted. Both men had served as ministers under former Socialist prime-minister Felipe Gonzalez. The court found Griñán, who had served as the PSOE’s regional premier in Andalusia between 2009 and 2013, guilty of embezzlement and misappropriation of public funds, and sentenced him to jail for six years. He was also declared ineligible for public office for 15 years. Chaves was found guilty of maladministration and the court declared him ineligible for public office for nine years.

In addition, former government minister and ex-regional economic chief Magdalena Álvarez, as well as another former regional minister, Gaspar Zarrías, were also barred from public office for nine years. Another four ex-regional ministers were given prison terms: Antonio Fernández and José Antonio Viera (Employment), Francisco Vallejo (Innovation) and Carmen Martínez-Aguayo (Economy).

But for the iron determination of Judge Mercedes Alaya, all of these high ranking officials would have walked free after organising the biggest corruption scam that Spain had ever seen.


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