The financial dealings of Juan Carlos I recently investigated by the Swiss and Spanish criminal justice authorities have led to the emergence of a fundamental yet previously unknown feature of Spanish politics: the links that have been maintained over a number of years by the Crown, embodied by the figure of the King, with an important public institution, the Centro Nacional de Inteligencia (National Intelligence Centre, known by its Spanish initials CNI). This is a story about the principal organ of the Spanish secret services. During the last decade, and right up to a year ago, its director was Lieutenant-General Félix Sanz Roldán, now retired. His predecessors in the post maintained similar links with the head of the Spanish Crown.
With more than 3,500 members and a known estimated budget of 282 million euros per year, in addition to an unknown allocation measured in millions of euros for “reserve funds”, the main function attributed to the state intelligence organisation by the founding law of the CNI, dating back to 2002, is that of providing corroborated, analysed and evaluated intelligence, transformed into the information necessary for the Spanish national government to adopt accurate political measures.
Therefore, such an important organization within the state apparatus performs, almost always secretly, assignments linked to the acquisition and analysis of relevant intel that are promptly delivered by the intelligence service to political decision-makers. As with all similar organisations, it avails itself of espionage and counterespionage strategies and is used in specific covert operations ratified by a special judge. These are functions that the CNI carries out secretly with its well-rehearsed proactive and defensive style, particularly abroad but including sporadic domestic pursuits, governed by an annual intelligence directive drafted by the government.
We must remember, however, that political decisions primarily correspond to the government and not the head of state, a title held by the King of Spain, according to the Spanish Constitutional Charter. Article 56 of the current Spanish Constitution from 1978 renders the head of state inviolable and unaccountable before the law for as long as they remain in this role, a status which also extends to the head of the armed forces. In a broader sense, they are assigned the functions of the highest representative of the Spanish state, as is the custom in other countries.
In a truly sui generis reading of these precepts of diplomacy, Juan Carlos I assigned himself the duty of acting as a liaison and mediator between large Spanish corporations, although citizens of 30 nationalities would figure among their stakeholders, with global aspirations. He put these corporations in direct contact with heads of states and governments, as well as individual, very influential businesspeople thanks to the voluminous book of high-quality contacts under the King of Spain’s possession. The intermediation, directed towards winning contracts and various business dealings, crystallised in ambitious public projects and private financial transactions of a diverse nature, capitalised on by big business and purportedly Spanish consortiums. This nonetheless resulted in lavish state gifts and others gifts specifically for the King, accounted for in millions of euros. Royal inviolability, established by the constitution, covered these occurrences underneath a deep cloak of silence, a cover-up about which the CNI must have at the very least been aware.
Notwithstanding, these practices continued when Juan Carlos I lost his inviolability after abdicating the throne to his son Felipe VI in 2014, the consequence of a scandal that broke two years prior when the finer details about an extravagant elephant hunt in Botswana emerged (45,700 euros gifted by an Arab Sheik friend), which right in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis critically affected the reputation of the then King. During the hunt, Juan Carlos I broke one of his hips and had to be evacuated from the African jungle to Madrid following the intervention of Corinna Larsen Sayn zu Wittgenstein, an intimate friend and frequent companion on certain trips for official business at that time. Events after the abdication reveal the existence of alleged commissions charged by the now former King, totalling around 100 million euros and most likely illegal, which are being investigated by the Swiss and Spanish criminal justice authorities.
For its part, the leadership of the CNI, as well as the organism preceding it until 2002, the CESID, adopted an equally unique, irregular attitude: a mélange of supervision-monitoring-protection-concealment of events taking place in the royal milieu that would likely undermine and damage the institution, and therefore, both in theory and by deduction, Spain's image or security.
In light of this consideration, the CESID intelligence agency, precursor to the CNI, had closely followed the movements of Juan Carlos I and his associates, among others, with a character from the Mallorcan jet-set scene, the Georgian Prince Tchoktúa, considered to be one of the "dangerously cosmopolitan friendships" that the King courted. Likewise, from the '90s onwards, the intelligence service had followed the trail of a certain escort whose boudoir the then King would visit. The state organism was said to have spied on, and supposedly pressured, the female in question to avoid the presumed damage exposing the relations would cause to the reputation and security of the head of state, and by extension, Spain. A few compromising recordings circulated without ever resulting in anything; we do not know if money was involved, and who could have provided it, to make these images disappear.
Subsequently, the CNI deployed a specially created technical unit to review the communications of a company set up in Palma de Mallorca by the King's son-in-law, Iñaki Urdangarín. His business, in reality an office for trafficking influence, consisted of negotiating and obtaining financial contributions from various public and private entities that were secured due to the respect for, or equally the all-consuming fear of, the family ties between the head of the office and the head of state. Thus, Urdangarín, Olympic handball champion and the husband of Princess Cristina, earned money easily and in copious amounts for his projects. Despite the manifest illegalities in which it was participating, the CNI reviewed communications from the office in Mallorca each month and encrypted them to prevent leaks.
Consequently, instead of reporting the illegality that was being cooked up behind closed doors in that office between 2003 and 2006, the years in which Urdangarín was in charge of the racket, the CNI kept its silence. However, Urdangarín's illegal activities would eventually lead to him being convicted and sentenced to five years and 10 months in prison, to be served in a prison in Ávila. Furthermore, at the express wish of Felipe VI, now King, he would be removed from the Spanish Royal Family together with his wife Cristina, the sister of the new King and the youngest daughter of Juan Carlos I and Sofía of Greece.
Things became even more complicated, as well as the links between the CNI and the then King, after revelations of financial and property activities and the movement of capital, including justified suspicions of money-laundering in tax havens that were attributed to Juan Carlos I after his abdication in 2014. During this period, Larsen, a German businesswoman who figured among Juan Carlos I’s entourage on numerous visits to Arab nations where the King maintained relevant friendships, continued her romantic attachment to the head of the Spanish state. The relationship was born out of close economic and financial ties of a dubious nature and of which the CNI was aware. Furthermore, the bond between the lovers was so intimate that she even came into possession of a guardhouse in el Monte de El Pardo, just minutes away from the royal residency, in the same forest as the enormous national heritage estate that surrounds the Palace of Zarzuela.
Juan Carlos I, Félix Sanz Roldán, ex-director of the CNI, and Corinna Larsen
When the King broke one of his hips on the aforementioned hunt in Africa, Larsen did all she could to care for him, organising his transfer in a private jet to Madrid, a gesture which deepened the mutual affection. Once installed in the clinic in Madrid, pressure from the security apparatus on the head of state, presumably influenced by the CNI, would remove Larsen from his side, something that considerably aggrieved the German businesswoman. After that episode, and with the revelation of what had transpired, the relationship between Juan Carlos I and Larsen began to deteriorate.
Shortly after, she reported threats, including those concerning her personal security and those toward her son Alejandro, that originated from the director of the CNI and that were supposedly issued in a tête-a-tête with Sanz Roldán in London. Through the mediation of an individual named Juan Villalonga, considered the right-hand man of former Prime Minister José María Aznar (who appointed him as the CEO of Telefónica), Larsen would establish communications with the ex-police commissioner, José Manuel Villarejo. This former police officer was the middleman in a quasi-institutional police-information apparatus, of an erstwhile police union origin, that was dedicated to procuring reports about the activities and traits of numerous individuals and entities linked to the political, economic, banking and social elite. Villarejo's organisation had, for a long time, received assignments from various and multiple official authorities that he most dutifully satisfied by storing up recorded evidence from each encounter, with a view to what might happen afterwards. Many others, also hailing from the upper echelons of society, turned to Villarejo seeking reports on their political, financial or banking rivals.
Surreptitiously, and for varying reasons, sectors of the police and the intelligence service have been engaged in a silent battle for supremacy over questions of information for a number of years, which some have witnessed project itself onto the confrontation between Villarejo and the ex-head of the CNI, Sanz Roldán. The former has been in prison since 2017 awaiting judgement. From there, he nevertheless continues to leak, through questionable sources, intelligence obtained at the time from the assignments carried out by front companies that he himself directed. Since retiring a year ago, Sanz Roldán has been hired by Iberdrola as an international advisor. A precautionary measure for what might be to come, perhaps?
Subsequent information and statements brought new evidence and alleged data to light regarding a spider's web of enterprises registered in tax havens and Swiss bank accounts through which Juan Carlos I and Larsen managed the high-value assets originating from them or otherwise invested said assets in luxury residences in the Alps, million-euro flats in London or in palatial 19th century multi-acre cottage estates in the English countryside.
The exact route taken by the information and the potential trials that are brewing on the horizon are still unknown. Nevertheless, the political, moral and institutional damage to Spain is truly incalculable. King Felipe VI, supported by the government, has adopted measures to erect a proverbial firewall around the Crown, suggesting to his father that he disappear from the picture. However, the aftereffects of all that has transpired on the institution are devastating, and no one knows if they will become worse still. Worst of all is the feeling that both democracy and Spain, due to the treatment that certain powers within the state reserve for the public, are still “an overstretched, worn-out bull hide”, as the communist poet Jesús López Pacheco would profess, who died exiled in Canada.
Juan Carlos I: The mask is for safety
So that she doesn't talk
We have the right to ask questions
As democrats, we have the right to pose far-reaching questions arising from the facts unearthed. Thus, numerous questions emerge: is the raison d'être of an intelligence service to carry out assignments, such as the ones described, regarding the conduct of the King of Spain or the so-called emeritus King? Is it befitting of the CNI to intrude in the private life of an individual occupying the function of head of state? Is this behaviour intended to "in this way protect Spain" or rather to conceal improper conduct on the part of the head of state or former head of state? Does informing or spying on the head of state imply an attempt to condition their conduct? To what type of pressure is the head of state subjected by their secret services? Might there have been a link between a woman courted by the King and a foreign intelligence service? Or more precisely, to what type of pressure is a secret service subjected by the head of state? What instructions vis-à-vis the financial and personal dealings of the King were given to the intelligence service by the successive prime ministers: Adolfo Suárez, Felipe González, José María Aznar, Manuel Zapatero, Mariano Rajoy and Pedro Sánchez?
Putting oneself in the shoes of the head of the principal intelligence service or those of a subordinate within who may receive instructions from them of this nature, could either one refuse to conceal certain conduct, at the very least improper, of the head of state and of the armed forces? Was there at that time, and is there in the present, any instance due to which the improper conduct of the King or former King could have seen or would see them put to trial, given that they are unaccountable before the law? What is the judicial destiny that awaits those who protagonized, silenced or concealed such instances?
It is one thing to have access to information about the head of state; another, quite different, is to take on assignments that correspond to the police, the Civil Guard or the finance ministry in the event that conduct is adjudged to potentially implicate the perpetration of crimes. How far does the remit of each competency reach? An alleged protectionism, or rather, a presumed comradeship between the intelligence service or the police with the King, two very obvious political pathologies, have their origins in article 56 of the Spanish Constitution, which renders the head of the monarchy as unaccountable before the law.
Confusing the person with the institution, the article ultimately becomes an aberration; all conduct, of the King or any other human being, must necessarily derive ethical referents from the social environment they inhabit. According to social anthropology, each individual is socialised when they give form to these referents with their own notions of what right and what is wrong. There is the potential for a case in which the ethicality of the environment was previously contaminated. Despite this, the constitutional inviolability of the King opened the door for him to install himself in an amoral and paralegal limbo that appears to have dislocated the interlinking of legality and legitimacy upon which a democratic state should be constructed. Furthermore, for the potential personal liabilities derived from what has happened, which might exist, ending the constitutional aberration that gave rise to them would be decisive.
This question leads to another of even greater weight: what is the quantum of political secrets permitted by a democracy, and more concretely, a constitutional monarchy such as in Spain? How have we participated, a few of us knowingly and the social majority in blissful ignorance, in the series of transgressions of laws and customs by a King and then ex-King, who embodies the unity of the nation, family values, traditions and the history of Spain, in addition to the leadership of the armed forces? Legislators cannot hesitate a moment longer in resolving the incredibly serious constitutional anomaly of inviolability, reminiscent of the medieval and also fascistic concept of the authoritarian monarchy that Franco wished to impose upon the Spanish people, an idea that embedded itself in a decisive article in the Law of Laws of 1978, even though the remainder of what is stipulated in the constitution makes it, formally at least, one of the most advanced in the world in terms of liberties and social rights.
1. The King is the head of state, symbol of its unity and permanence, arbitrates and moderates the regular functioning of institutions, assumes the role of the highest representative of the Spanish state in international relations, especially with those nations belonging to its historic community, and exercises the functions that are attributed to them by the Constitution and the laws.
2. Their title is that of King of Spain, and they are able to use the other titles that correspond to the Crown.
3. The personhood of the King is inviolable and is not subject to responsibility. Their acts will always be underwritten in the form established in article 64, lacking validity without this, except as provided for in article 65, paragraph 2.
Constitution of the Kingdom of Spain
December 29, 1978