A member of the Spanish National Police Corps from 1972 to 1983; on leave for a decade thereafter, during which time he was a businessman, managing up to forty-six different companies with capital shares of more than sixteen million euros; and reinstated in 1993 as an operating agent and eventually commissioner.
This, in a nutshell, is the first part of the parable of José Manuel Villarejo Pérez.
Later on, however, things get more interesting.
Beginning in 2014, Villarejo has been embroiled in a series of criminal cases, accusing him of disclosing state secrets, membership in criminal organization, and money laundering. Villarejo had a store of taped conversations relating to Spain’s elite, and, in 2017, to try to get himself removed from the investigative process, he leaked a conversation about Spain’s former King, Juan Carlos, who oversaw the transition after General Franco in 1975 and reigned until his abdication in 2014. The conversation appeared to show a former mistress of Carlos’, Corinna zu Sayn-Wittgenstein, speaking candidly about their relationship and Carlos taking large kickbacks from Arab governments. Carlos denies all wrongdoing.
Villarejo was arrested nine months later, on 3 November 2017, as part of the investigation by the Anti-Corruption Prosecutor’s Office. Leaking the conversation, among other actions, led to Villarejo having a raft of charges levelled against him, including for illegally recording, manipulating, and disseminating official conversations.
To defend himself, Villarejo argued that he had befriended Sayn-Wittgenstein and infiltrated her inner-circle to recover the sensitive information about the King on instructions of Félix Sánz Roldán, a now-retired General in the Spanish Army who was at the time the Director of the National Intelligence Centre (CNI) between 2009 and 2019. Villarejo contends that the recordings, seized when he was arrested, which seem to incriminate him were CNI operations. “They had me monitored, although they gave me the recordings for my safety,” he declared at trial.
The evidence collected during the judicial investigation, however, does not point to the CNI in any case, and Villarejo has demonstrated a distinct looseness with the truth.
For example, in explaining his version of events to El País, Villarejo said: “The vast majority of the recordings are not mine, they are from the CNI. In 2001, I began to maintain relations with Arab countries when the CNI decided that it was better to keep me monitored 24 hours a day, which I accepted because I thought they would never be that crazy”.
Yet in the very same interview, Villarejo declared: “It was my personal archive. I thought that when I was 80-years-old, I would quietly write some memoirs, write what the history of Spain really was, and in any case I had already spoken to a series of people to start writing my memoirs after retirement as long as they were not published before 2040 at the earliest”.
European Eye on Radicalization listened with particular concern to Villarejo’s statements about the Barcelona and Cambrils jihadist attacks on 17 August 2017. During the trial, Villarejo claimed that the Spanish intelligence service knew that an attack was being prepared and let the plan continue, with the goal of destabilizing the Catalan government. “In the end, it was a serious mistake by Mr. Sánz Roldán, who miscalculated the consequences for giving Catalonia a little scare,” declared the commissioner.
Apart from the inherent implausibility of such a claim, Villarejo had retired in August 2016, so when those events occurred he was in no position to have access to the kind of direct information he would need to make such a dangerous claim.
The complete lack of evidence notwithstanding, Villarejo’s claims have had a serious impact on Spanish politics. The Catalan government demanded an urgent investigation of the events. Many prominent figures in Catalan politics, especially the secessionists, used Villarejo’s claims for political warfare against the Madrid government.
Catalan separatists had already urged Spain to investigate the alleged links between the intelligence services and Abdelbaki el-Satty, the imam considered to be the mastermind of the August 2017 attacks, who died in an accidental explosion in Alcanar when the terrorist cell he was part of mishandled some bomb-making equipment the day before the atrocity in Barcelona. After Villarejo’s comments, the current Catalan president, Pere Aragonès, demanded that Madrid look at the matter again.
The conspiracy theory that Villarejo was fanning claims that the Spanish police made El-Satty’s file disappear so that no one would know that El-Satty had been an informant for the intelligence services. This narrative also suggests that the CNI tapped the terrorists’ phones five days before the attacks; in reality, the CNI only began tracing the terrorists’ calls after the attack.
Contacted by European Eye on Radicalization, Oscar Lopez Fonseca, journalist of El Pais, explains:
“The almost five-year judicial investigation into the activities of the high commander of the Spanish police José Manuel Villarejo has made it possible to uncover not only a ‘parapolice mafia’ plot that allegedly enriched itself by selling confidential information of people, but also the supposedly irregular activities that this police officer carried out during twenty years for the different governments. Villarejo, who is currently being tried for part of his activities, hoarded hundreds of hours of audio that he surreptitiously recorded politicians, businessmen, journalists, politicians, prosecutors, lawyers, and other police officers”.
From a similar perspective, Dr. Carlos Igualada, Director of the Observatorio Internacional de Estudios sobre Terrorismo, warns:
“The issue about Villarejo is quite complex and convoluted. He was a Comisario of the Policía Nacional and has been implicated in several alleged criminal plots involving favorable treatment of Spanish politicians. For this reason, he has been in prison for the last few years. I imagine that European Eye on Radicalization’s interest comes from what he said recently about the Barcelona and Cambrils attacks: I would not pay much attention to him. Villarejo has said many different things—without providing any evidence—and I think what he says has little credibility. In any case, such statements aim at undermining the credibility of the Spanish institutions and I believe that he is disrespectful to the victims of the attack.”
In the last few years, some analysts and media commentators speculated that the August 2017 attacks were intended to interfere with Catalonia’s independence referendum, planned for 1 October 2017. This is not an outlandish suggestion, and the uncertainty remains because Spain has never held a full public investigation.
If Villarejo had limited himself to simply calling for the Spanish government to hold a full, independent, and public investigation into the August 2017 attacks, there would be no problem. The issue is that Villarejo has gone much further than that, using his status as a former police official to throw an outrageous accusation against the Spanish state, with zero evidence. In the era where every truth has become contested, a source’s integrity has to figure prominently in assessing the claims they make, and in the final analysis Villarejo is a disreputable source.