Strange case of the detectives trying to trace Madeleine

After a week when commercials deals were more apparent than clues, we investigate the investigators
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The Independent Online

Just when the Madeleine McCann saga couldn't get any more agonising, along came a raft of developments last week that began to achieve what you would hope would be impossible: turning a little missing girl into an industry – Madeleine Inc. Item: a London agency hawking around various small girls as Madeleine lookalikes. Item: US television bringing a team of psychics to bear on the disappearance as part of what they no doubt hoped would be a money-spinner of a show. Item: her parents, Gerry and Kate McCann, exploring the possibility of selling the book and film rights to the case.

Unlike others, the motive of the McCanns is not profit. But it is, nevertheless, financial: the keeping afloat of the Find Madeleine Campaign. Set up in the immediate wake of her disappearance last May, it quickly raised £1.2m in part from public donations. But that sum is fast shrinking. Estimated to have only £346,000 come March, it will, at the present rate of spending, be all gone by July. And the biggest drain on it is Metodo 3, the Spanish detective agency now two-thirds of the way through a £300,000, six-month contract.

Speculation grows that its contract will not be renewed. It is not hard to discern why. Metodo has never recovered from the extraordinary swaggering comments of its director, Francisco Marco, when he boasted in December that not only did they know who abducted Madeleine, but that she could, in that most ill-fated of phrases, "be home by Christmas". So have the McCanns wasted £300,000 on the Spanish equivalent of Inspector Clouseau? Or are Metodo 3 slowly making progress?

Based in Barcelona's plush Eixample district, Metodo 3 inhabits the first floor of a Modernist block. Ever since the December faux pas, inquiries at the office are met with a polite response that the elusive Señor Marco is "in meetings" or "travelling".

The firm was set up in 1985, has another office in Madrid, and claims to have "correspondents in every European Union country". It runs a hotline for the public to report sightings and suspicions, and says it has been following up reports, concentrating most of its efforts and agents in Morocco and Portugal. They go and see the people who ring their hotline if they think the tip is strong enough and liaise with the local police in those countries. The agency insists all of its 40 staff are involved in the Madeleine case. They report "significant" sightings to the McCanns but not every detail.

Like so many companies in Spain, Metodo 3 is a family-run business. It was set up by Marita Fernandez Lado with her husband, Francisco Marco Puyelo. Their son, Francisco Marco Fernandez, a lawyer in his 40s, is the acting managing director. Francisco Marco was initially the media-friendly face of the agency until his mouth appeared to run away with itself. His sensational claim invited not only scepticism in Britain, but a rapid, angry response from Madeleine's parents, who told him to stop making outlandish claims. Marco has not given any more interviews since. Marita Fernandez said her son was misquoted.

Last month, Ms Fernandez told Spanish magazine Tiempo de Hoy that she only signed the contract with the McCanns in September because she believed the couple had nothing to do with Madeleine's disappearance. She said she believed Madeleine was still alive, was "not expecting to find a body", and that her firm was only working on one theory: she was in the hands of a paedophile gang.

Nagging doubts have always persisted about the suitability of Metodo 3 to solve the case. The firm is the biggest private detective agency in Spain, but its reputation is based on a corporate caseload – in the main, investigating fraud.

Many in Spain have been surprised that the toddler's parents chose this agency, and not just because it closes its offices between 2pm and 4pm, leaving one wondering who, if anyone, is answering its hotline.

Manuel Marlaska, a journalist from Spain's best-known investigative magazine, Interviu, who is well-acquainted with delving into the shadier side of Spanish life, said: "They are the most prestigious detective agency in Spain. But the work they are doing now seems strange. They do not have any experience of working with such a high-profile case as Madeleine McCann's. Also I have no knowledge that they have been involved in finding people."

Yet although their main work is fraud, patent falsification, patent falsification and information protection, their biggest claim to fame was in helping to track down the infamous Spanish spy "who came back from the dead", Francisco Paesa. Paesa was an arms dealer who, while working for the Spanish secret services, sold Eta missiles fitted with radio transmitters so that they could be tracked, leading to some important arrests. After seven years on the run, he was traced by Metodo 3 using tip-offs and financial records.

But a four-year-old child has no bank accounts or credit cards. Madeleine Inc bring benefits to some, but not, so far, to the girl herself or her distraught parents.