Marbella: sun, yachts, and the stench of corruption

A soap opera trial involving a stellar cast of defendants and claims of bribery worth £577m has gripped Spain

In the glitzy Spanish resort of Marbella, people are concerned with many things: the state of the golf greens or which spa performs the best liposuction. But for nearly two decades, nobody seemed to worry about what was going on inside the town hall.

Certainly the builders were not complaining as they clogged the former fishing village with multimillion-euro concrete villas. Northern European sun-seekers were not interested either as they put down deposits for thousands of illegally built holiday retreats. And resident celebrities and royals, such as the late Saudi King Fahd, were probably too busy docking their yachts at Puerto Banús.

That may help explain why Spain is now witnessing the largest corruption trial in its history. More than 90 people, including two former mayors, 15 town councillors and a legion of builders, have been accused of giving and taking a total of €670m (£577m) in bribes, kickbacks in exchange for construction permits that transformed the once-charming strip of coast into a clone of Miami Beach. The scope of the alleged graft was so great that the entire town council had to be dissolved in 2006, when the police swoop began. Testimony in the trial began in December and evidence by the alleged mastermind started at Christmas. Its most recent development: Marbella Town hall was forced to sell its €5m planning office to help pay its debts.

"Everyone knew what was going on in Marbella, but everyone was benefiting from it too," said Andrés Walliser, a sociologist specialising in urban studies at the Cirem research institute in Madrid. "There is corruption elsewhere along the coast, but in Marbella, there was really big money. It is a hot spot for foreign capital and organised crime with the specific urban fabric: a sprawl of second residences that blurs the local population."

The trial resembles a soap opera with a surreal cast of defendants, including a German aristocrat, a former football team captain and the popular Flamenco singer, Isabel Pantoja, the widow of the dashing bullfighter Paquirri. She is accused of money laundering.

A spin-off case, dubbed Operation Goldfinger, involved the former estate of the James Bond star Sean Connery, now cluttered with 72 luxury homes. Sir Sean was summoned to give evidence last year but told the court he was too ill to travel. He was named as a witness and there is no suggestion he committed any crime.

Looming in the background of the case: the late Mayor Jesús Gil y Gil, a thrice-jailed developer and former president of Madrid's Atlético football team, who governed the town for 15 years from his Jacuzzi, gold chains glittering above his flabby belly.

The alleged mastermind of the money-for-votes system, the former urban-planning advisor Juan Antonio Roca, offered his much-awaited version of the saga last week.

Cool and composed, the stout man with greying sideburns known at the town hall as "the Boss" or "JR", after the character on the television show Dallas, denied accusations that he amassed his €2.4bn fortune in kickbacks and shady property deals. He carried out his case projecting documents from his laptop to a courthouse screen.

On Thursday, he denied police and media depictions of his ostentatious wealth, which allegedly included vintage cars, 275 paintings, a bull ranch, 100 purebred Andalusian horses and a mansion decorated with stuffed lions, giraffes and other wild game. Mr Roca reportedly sold much of his estate to pay legal fees and debts. "They've portrayed me as an eccentric guy without scruples who kills animals, cuts their heads off and hangs them out to dry," Mr Roca said. He even addressed the butt of many jokes in Spain: a supposed painting by Miró that police found hanging above his steamy spa bath. It was only a copy, he told the court.

The trial is the most visible sign of the crackdown against corruption in the country's freewheeling coastal towns; common wisdom is that political corruption in the Costa del Sol is as inevitable as sunburn or a pesky insect that the justice system swats half-heartedly but mostly ignores.

One of the defendants is the former Marbella police chief and another is a judge found guilty in 2008 of taking bribes from Mr Roca. Since the Marbella arrests in 2006, police have launched smaller-scale corruption investigations in the resort towns of Mallorca and Valencia and in the Canary Islands.

Local environmentalists, among the lone voices against Marbella's unchecked building spree, hope the trial deters future graft, but they do not expect much to change. Nearly all of the 18,500 homes built with illegal permits have been "normalised" in exchange fees or donated land from their developers, said Javier de Luis, president of the Marbella branch of the national environmental group, Ecologists in Action. He does not expect to see most of the prominent defendants behind bars. "They've hired the best law firms in Spain – they'll eat the prosecution with potatoes," he said. "The damage that they caused with this development barbarity wouldn't be cured with a trial." The case continues.

News
Susan Sarandon described David Bowie as
peopleSusan Sarandon reveals more on her David Bowie romance
Sport
Arsenal supporters gather for a recent ‘fan party’ in New Jersey
football
Sport
sportDidier Drogba returns to Chelsea on one-year deal
News
i100
PROMOTED VIDEO
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Arts and Entertainment
The Secret Cinema performance of Back to the Future has been cancelled again
film
Life and Style
Balmain's autumn/winter 2014 campaign, shot by Mario Sorrenti and featuring Binx Walton, Cara Delevingne, Jourdan Dunn, Ysaunny Brito, Issa Lish and Kayla Scott
fashionHow Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film
filmFifty Shades of Grey trailer provokes moral outrage in US
News
people
News
BBC broadcaster and presenter Evan Davis, who will be taking over from Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight
peopleForget Paxman - what will Evan Davis be like on Newsnight?
Life and Style
fashionCustomer complained about the visibly protruding ribs
News
newsComedy club forced to apologise as maggots eating a dead pigeon fall out of air-conditioning
Arts and Entertainment
Jo Brand says she's mellowed a lot
tvJo Brand says shows encourage people to laugh at the vulnerable
Life and Style
People may feel that they're procrastinating by watching TV in the evening
life
News
Tovey says of homeless charity the Pillion Trust : 'If it weren't for them and the park attendant I wouldn't be here today.'
people
Sport
Rhys Williams
commonwealth games
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Employment Solicitor

Highly Competitive Salary: Austen Lloyd: MANCHESTER - Senior Employment Solici...

Senior Risk Manager - Banking - London - £650

£600 - £650 per day: Orgtel: Conduct Risk Liaison Manager - Banking - London -...

Commercial Litigation Associate

Highly Attractive Package: Austen Lloyd: CITY - COMMERCIAL LITIGATION - GLOBAL...

Systems Manager - Dynamics AX

£65000 - £75000 per annum + Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: The client is a...

Day In a Page

Evan Davis: The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing to take over at Newsnight

The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing

What will Evan Davis be like on Newsnight?
Finding the names for America’s shame: What happens to the immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert?

Finding the names for America’s shame

The immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert
Inside a church for Born Again Christians: Speaking to God in a Manchester multiplex

Inside a church for Born Again Christians

As Britain's Anglican church struggles to establish its modern identity, one branch of Christianity is booming
Rihanna, Kim Kardashian and me: How Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

Parisian couturier Pierre Balmain made his name dressing the mid-century jet set. Today, Olivier Rousteing – heir to the house Pierre built – is celebrating their 21st-century equivalents. The result? Nothing short of Balmania
Cancer, cardiac arrest, HIV and homelessness - and he's only 39

Incredible survival story of David Tovey

Tovey went from cooking for the Queen to rifling through bins for his supper. His is a startling story of endurance against the odds – and of a social safety net failing at every turn
Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
10 best reed diffusers

Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little