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King of Costa del Sol in corruption probe

Marbella has plunged into debt while its mayor has grown fabulously rich, writes Elizabeth Nash
THE LONG ARM of the law has reached out and tapped Jesus Gil y Gil, one of Spain's most controversial and flamboyant figures, on the shoulder.

Mounting allegations of corruption and financial mismanagement are threatening to bring down the mayor of Marbella and owner of Atletico Madrid football club, whose swashbuckling methods of raising and spending municipal funds, allied to his eccentric political gestures, are arousing increasing opposition in the resort he has ruled for seven years.

Last month a police anti-corruption squad raided a company attached to Marbella town hall, Eventos 2000, on suspicions it was funnelling pounds 1.8m from municipal coffers to Mr Gil's Madrileno football team, whose scarlet- and-white striped shirts bear the name Marbella. Most of the city's funds originate from the sale of land and construction projects and there are no prizes for guessing who is the city's most prominent property entrepreneur.

Police searched the offices of another Marbella municipal company, Jardines 2000, last Wednesday, for receipts justifying the payment of more than pounds 600,000 for a 60ft Russian statue installed in the smart yacht marina of Puerto Banus. The funds were destined for the sculptor Zurab Tsereteli, who apparently received pounds 130,000 in cash and the rest in the form of three luxury Puerto Banus apartments, according to opposition socialists in Marbella council.

Another of Mr Tsereteli's patrons is the mayor of Moscow, Yuri Luzhkov, who figures among Mr Gil's Russian acquaintances. Russia's "new capitalists" have flocked to Marbella, where they have put their money into a spate of speculative development, aided by the mayor, who swiftly earmarked green areas ravaged by forest fires for multi-storey blocks.

Some celebrities are upset at walls of concrete blocking their view of the Mediterranean. Sean Connery has sold up and Richard Burton's widow, Sally, has complained about the rampant urbanisation of a once-charming fishing village.

Mr Gil faces 80 legal challenges to his business dealings, but has lost none of his provocative bravura. Just last month he dragged from the town hall cellar and dusted off a larger-than-life bronze bust of the former dictator General Francisco Franco, a gift from Finland in 1967, and plonked it in the foyer.

He also boasted of buying a decommissioned aircraft carrier from the Falklands War - reports differ over whether the pounds 600,000 vessel in question was British or Argentine - to become a floating casino in Marbella bay. The bay would have to be dredged. He wanted to build an artificial island off the coast, but Andalucia's socialist provincial authorities drew the line at that.

Despite a reputation for ridiculous excess, Mr Gil is a powerful figure on the Costa del Sol. He rules as leader of his own party, the right-wing Independent Liberal Group (GIL), while his son, Jesus Gil Marin, is mayor of nearby Estepona. Gil senior has designs upon Malaga and the territory bordering Gibraltar, plus Spain's north African enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla.

Jesus Gil y Gil, 65, was born in El Burgo de Osma, north of Madrid. At 17 he shared a boarding house with a priest and 19 prostitutes, keeping the accounts in lieu of paying rent. He mended gearboxes, then bought and sold trucks and eventually property.

In 1969 Mr Gil built an apartment block in Segovia that collapsed, killing 58 people. It had no plans, no architect and no surveyor, and the cement was barely set. He was jailed for five years for criminal negligence, but after 18 months Franco pardoned him. He borrowed money and started again, his streetfighting skills and bullying style honed to even sharper effect.

Marbella, then a glamorous, if faded, hangout for European celebrities, caught Mr Gil's fancy in 1979 ,when he stayed in a local weight-loss clinic. He pounced on property deals with such voracious disregard for planning laws that the socialist council declared him persona non grata. His way around that was to form a party and stand for mayor. He won by a landslide in 1991.

Mayor Gil won support by cracking down on street crime and promising to corral prostitutes in a purpose-built stadium. In the meantime, his business deals prospered so dramatically that two years ago he claimed to have lost all respect for money because he had "too much".

Today, however, Marbella is millions of pounds in debt and the prosecution service is trying to find out why. Last month Mr Gil's right-hand man, the deputy mayor Pedro Roman, quit with a number of local security chiefs, amid allegations that they had illegally enriched themselves.

Mr Gil shrugs off criticism as mere electoral jockeying ahead of next June's municipal polls. But with the police delving into his affairs, and the city's fortunes and his allies melting away, many suspect his glory days are over.