Tuesday, October 31, 2006

The Chainsaw Blues

Following up on my posts about destructive development proposals in Ávila, there has been a bit of good news. It turns out that there is a crime in Spain known as a “delito ecológico” (environmental crime), something which was news to me, and that the developer who destroyed thousands of pine trees in spite of a court order halting his development is to be charged with this offence. At least this means that the proposed development is halted until this issue is resolved, although if they do not find him guilty then he can probably resume the destruction of what should always have been a protected area.

Meanwhile, the recently appointed prosecutor for offences connected with urban development has come up with a very radical proposal, the demolition of illegally built dwellings! This would be a very drastic change from the policy that seems to have existed up to now, where illegal buildings are constructed and sold without any apparent impediment, and then 10 years later someone from the relevant authority comes along and says “you really shouldn’t have done that” – end of story. If things carry on this way we could even reach a stage where construction could be stopped before the building is completed and sold, or they could even make it impossible for a property to be sold without having the required permissions. There are an estimated 100,000 illegal dwellings in the country, probably several thousand of these are in Marbella and other areas on the Mediterranean coast. That should keep the bulldozers busy for a while.

Monday, October 30, 2006

Breakfast With Laporta

Voting in the Catalan regional elections will take place on Wednesday this week, and as the campaign draws to a close it is clear that the candidates of the main parties have got their priorities sorted out. The weekend has given us an interesting insight into Catalan power structures, and at the centre of it all was Joan Laporta, president of Barcelona football club.

I didn't pay for this breakfast...

Laporta first had a “private” breakfast (i.e. on a terrace in the Ramblas of Barcelona) with Artur Mas, candidate of Convergència I Unió (CiU), the right-wing nationalist alliance. Given that he cannot be sure how the elections will turn out finally, he had to balance this the next day by meeting Jose Montilla, the candidate of the Catalan socialists (PSC). Both breakfasts were very intimate affairs, just the candidate, the football club president, and a couple of hundred journalists and photographers to record the occasion. We don’t know what they talked about in these meetings, perhaps Laporta is deeply concerned about the lack of access for young people to adequate housing, or maybe he is more worried about hospital waiting lists. Or alternatively, perhaps they just talked about football, we don’t know and it doesn’t matter anyway because the meetings were largely symbolic; Laporta revelling in his position as someone who the main politicians want to be seen with, and the candidates happy to be associated with the club.

...and I'm not paying for this one either

Meanwhile the latest opinion polls suggest that CiU are going to emerge as the largest party after the elections, and that they could even have the possibility of forming a majority government with just the support of Esquerra Republicana (ERC). This assumes that the two competitors for the nationalist vote can reach agreement on forming a coalition. CiU will be desperate to return to power in the regional government, so the often bitter rivalry with ERC is unlikely to impede negotiations, and ERC in turn will be looking forward to exercising the decisive role in the formation of a new government. It will be ironic if the main achievement of the outgoing three party coalition has been to reinforce the nationalist parties by making the reform of the autonomy statute almost the only visible result of their time in office.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

If You Don't Want Bertie, Then Vote For Bernie!

Finally the PSOE have chosen their candidate to be mayor of Madrid, although in reality is it is Prime Minister Zapatero that has made the choice. Anyway, the candidate chosen is Miguel Sebastían, an economic advisor to Zapatero and hardly the political heavyweight that we had been promised. I am not even sure if he has ever stood as a candidate for the party in an election, and he is certainly not well known. It doesn’t inspire much optimism that Madrid mayor Alberto Ruiz Gallardón is going to be defeated in the elections next May. The choice has been made after strong resistance was starting to grow against the suggestion that Vice-Premier María Teresa Fernández de la Vega might have been put forward, she is consistently rated as the most popular member of the government and a campaign based around SMS messaging was started to try and keep her in her current position.

But fear not, we do have another candidate from the Spanish blogosphere who has thrown his hat into the ring! Bernardo Muñoz, owner of the blog El Siglo de las Luces, has selflessly offered himself as a candidate to fill the vacuum left by so many others rejecting the possibility. Don Bernardo does not feel that being a resident of Barcelona, and a supporter of the local football team, need necessarily affect his chances in Madrid. Nor will his lack of local knowledge be a disadvantage, indeed it offers Madrid the chance of a fresh start with some “blue skies” thinking. If we have to move the Plaza de España somewhere else, then let’s move it! Bernardo did after all do his military service in the capital, defending Madrid against the enemies of the nation! I should make it clear, of course, that the fact that I have been (more or less) guaranteed a choice position in the new administration has nothing at all to do with my support for his candidacy. Nothing.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Chronicle Of A Peace Process....Slow Progress Is Not No Progress

I haven’t written much on this topic recently, as much of the movement that is taking place is subterranean and therefore not so easy to track. However, the process continues to inch forward as there are signs that some of the obstacles to progress are slowly being removed.

The main sticking point continues to be the means by which ETA’s political wing, Batasuna, regains its status as a legal political party. Not only is there unwillingness on the part of Batasuna to do things the way in which the government insists they should, there is also pressure for some kind of concession from the government in return for Batasuna taking this step. Publicly, the government is adamant that no concessions will be made until Batasuna shows that it is prepared to definitively reject violence and support for ETA. In turn, the leadership of Batasuna wants reassurance that the judicial pressure on them will be completely lifted if they take these steps, and also some guarantees on the “mesa de partidos”, the conference of political parties in the Basque Country that will determine any political reforms to be made as part of the process. The government has also hinted that some concessions on the issue of ETA prisoners could be made once Batasuna is legal again, possibly ending the policy of dispersion of these prisoners around the country. In the meantime, the government’s dialogue with ETA that was supposed to accompany progress on the political front has not yet officially begun.

The situation was made more complicated recently by a hunger strike involving one of ETA’s prisoners, Iñaki de Juana Chaos. He declared the hunger strike as a protest against a judicial decision which owed far more to politics than it did to any even handed application of the law. De Juana has been kept in prison as a result of fresh charges brought following a political and media campaign against his proposed release for the offences that led to his original imprisonment. He has been charged with making terrorist threats because of some articles he wrote in Gara, a newspaper close to Batasuna.

Whether the decision to bring the charges is legally valid or not is almost irrelevant, he was not charged when the articles originally appeared and it is clear that the decision to present new charges was a political response to the furore created over his case. His hunger strike, which has now been called off, was accompanied by an increase in acts of street violence by activists in the Basque region; all of which threatened for a while the possibility of further political progress. Perhaps not too surprisingly, his decision to call off the hunger strike has been followed by a decision on the part of the state prosecutors to reduce the seriousness of the charges against him.

Meanwhile, the opposition Partido Popular (PP) maintains its position of all-out opposition to the process, and the battle has now reached the European Parliament as the PP have managed to persuade their European partners to join them in opposing a resolution supporting the policy of negotiation. At the same time they have made it clear that they will not feel bound to honour any political agreements reached as part of the process in the event of them returning to government. As if this was not enough, they have pledged to raise the issue in Parliament at every opportunity. Surprisingly, they didn’t manage to prevent a declaration by the Pope in favour of the government’s policy; it seems the Basque bishops have their own line of communication with the Vatican. Jose Maria Aznar’s former best friend, Tony Blair, has also annoyed the Spanish right by endorsing the peace process. For the moment, the Spanish government holds its nerve in the face of this opposition onslaught, whilst it does them no political damage then they will continue to do so.

Update 25th October: Just as you post on something the situation changes. ETA have been accused of being responsible for the theft of hundreds of pistols from a factory in France. It is still not proven that they are responsible, but the French police say they used some handcuffs that ETA members had stolen from French gendarmes a few months ago. Meanwhile, the European Parliament has voted narrowly to give its support to the peace process, it is largely a symbolic vote but at least denies the PP a propaganda victory.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Speak Catalan And Win Points!

Campaigning is well under way for the Catalan elections, due to take place at the beginning of November. The latest opinion polls are showing a slight advantage for the right wing nationalists of Convergència I Unió (CiU), who were probably the main beneficiaries of the prolonged debate over the new autonomy statute for the region. However, these polls indicate that there will be no outright winner of the elections, and a coalition government is again going to be likely. The power brokers in this situation could well be Esquerra Republicana (ERC), the leftist nationalist party. Esquerra got themselves into a contradictory mess in the referendum on the statute, and it looks like the dramatic increases in support that they have obtained in the last few years have now come to an end. Despite this, they are the third biggest party and could opt to support either a nationalist administration led by CiU, or a repeat of the previous three party coalition with the Catalan socialists and the more left wing Iniciativa per Catalunya.

CiU are so far the winners of the award for the silliest electoral proposal, their leader Artur Mas has said that he wants to introduce a points system for immigrants in Cataluña, where demonstrating knowledge of Catalan culture and learning the language would be rewarded with privileges when dealing with the administration over issues such as residence permits. He did state that essential services would not be included in the proposed system, but whether this is the case or not it is clear that the proposal leads to the creation of categories for immigrants. Those who don’t demonstrate enough interest in “integration” will be classified as bad immigrants and punished for this lack of interest. Which category Samuel Eto’o falls into is not clear, given his recent refusal to answer a journalist’s question in Catalan, on the other hand he scores enough goals for his team to escape further punishment. Now that the autonomy statute is out of the way, this kind of proposal forms part of the rivalry between the nationalist parties and the pressure this creates to constantly come up with new proposals that show a greater commitment to the national cause.

The issue of political intimidation has also surfaced in the campaign, although it has been greatly exaggerated. The Catalan leader of the Partido Popular (PP), Josep Piqué, and Angel Acebes (Interior Minister under Aznar), were jostled and generally given a rough reception on arrival at a campaign meeting. The PP always tries to make as much as possible of such incidents, to present an image of being the innocent victims of intolerant nationalists. The incident was not so serious, and the same media that gave it so much attention were strangely quiet when Josep-Lluís Carod-Rovira, leader of ERC and a favourite hate figure for the Spanish right, was barracked by a group of neo-nazis a few days later. The PP in Cataluña has very low support, around 7%, a fact which puts in danger its claim to be a nationwide party. Piqué avoids association with the more right wing national leadership wherever possible, and for that reason is detested by many of the more right wing supporters. He knows perfectly well that adopting the positions favoured by the leadership in Madrid would probably result in an even lower percentage of the vote in Cataluña

A victory for CiU will be a blow for the national government, it was an important victory when the Catalan socialists broke years of CiU domination in the regional government at the last elections. Coupled with the fiasco over the selection of a candidate to be mayor of Madrid, defeat in Cataluña could affect PSOE morale in the run up to next year’s municipal elections in the whole country. Unless the polls change significantly, it will be a tight race followed by some very complicated behind the scenes negotiations to form the next government.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Not A New Blog, Just A Beta One

Today was supposed to be the day when a new improved South of Watford emerged from the migration process to the beta version of Blogger. It’s almost there but in between recovering everything I lost from the old version, and struggling with GIMP to get my shiny new banner ready, there are still a few things to do. The official unveiling ceremony is therefore postponed to next week, unless I follow the tradition of Spanish politicians and inaugurate something months before it is ready. In which case I am now proud to declare this blog……half finished.

It's Raining In Madrid, Isn't It Great?

For most of this week it has rained in Madrid, the sort of steady rain that you wrongly think is not going to soak you. This might not seem like big news, but after two years of very poor rainfall the city and surrounding region badly needs all the rain it can get. This week has been perfect for the countryside, and for refreshing the near empty reservoirs that provide the city with its drinking water.

I am so glad to see some decent rainfall that I can even put up with the 80 per cent of Madrileños who seem to think their umbrella is a weapon, much of the time I walk with a hand near to my eyes ready to stop any umbrella attack before it causes serious damage. It probably doesn't help that it seems to have become the fashion to carry an umbrella capable of sheltering a family of 10. I could even put up with another week like this, it doesn't really need to rain for months on end in Madrid to guarantee the water supply - which is just as well because I haven't seen rain like this for a long time. I never thought when I came to this country that I would be so happy to get wet.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

March 11th....Luis del Pino Comes Clean

We have been having a bit of a lull on the conspiracy theories about the Madrid bombings, largely because it appears that El Mundo and their associates are waiting to see what happens with the famous boric acid report before deciding their next move. This delay in new "revelations” means that the promoters of the theories have more time to write about other things, and in the process are revealing a little more about their motives.

For example, Luis del Pino, leading light of the Peones Negros (Black Pawns) sect, dedicated his blog post on Tuesday to a discourse on the Partido Popular (PP) and why he thinks that the supporters of the sect should be backing this party. Del Pino acknowledges that the PP has not done as much as he would like to push the conspiracy theories, and he also takes a swipe at those prominent PP members, such as Madrid mayor Alberto Ruiz Gallardón, who do not believe the issue brings the party any benefits. His most interesting point is linked to his rejection of those who presume to hold more centrist views in the PP:

El PP no necesita que ningún electorado de centro le de la victoria: al PP le basta con conservar su electorado movilizado y conseguir, con una oposición feroz, que ese electorado que dio la victoria a Zapatero gracias a las 10 bombas del 11-M vuelva a refugiarse en la abstención. Y la manera de conseguir eso es presentar claramente el desastre en que Zapatero está sumiendo a un país que hace menos de tres años estaba en el pelotón de cabeza de las naciones.

My translation.

The PP does not need any votes from the centre to give it victory; it is sufficient for the PP to maintain its electorate mobilized and to achieve, with ferocious opposition, that the electorate which gave Zapatero victory thanks to the 10 bombs of the 11th March, takes refuge again in abstention. The way to achieve this is to clearly present the disaster into which Zapatero is plunging a country that less than three years ago was in the leading group of nations.

There we have the thesis of the hard right in the PP – do enough to convince voters on the left to stay at home and a radicalised PP can return to power without making any political concessions. There is nothing here about “wanting to know the truth” about the bombings, the political objectives of del Pino’s campaign are clear and the claim that the Peones Negros have no political stance looks even thinner than it ever did. The conspiracy theories about the Madrid bombings form a central part of that aggressive campaign to try and demoralize the pro-government electorate.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Crazy Golf

Since writing last week about the proposed urbanization and golf course development in Las Navas del Marqués in Avila, a few more details have come to light:

  • The regional government of Castilla and Leon, together with the local council, set up a public company which had as its declared aim the protection of the area where the development is supposed to take place. No sooner was the company set up than they promptly changed the use of the land to allow construction.

  • The developer behind the project had already presented his project before the land was put on sale. There was only one bidder.

  • In between the original proposal and the actual sale of the land, the developer was given double the area originally proposed for very little additional cost. It has been estimated that only 6000 euros per house sold is needed to pay the cost of the land.

  • The developer was promised huge compensation if the land use of the area was not changed to permit construction within a fixed period.

  • In addition to being a nesting area for black storks, several other rare species of bird (including eagles) also nest in this area.

The deal with the construction company included a commitment to reforestation of another area of similar size to that which was to be stripped of its trees. This led the court dealing with the case to question, not unreasonably, why they couldn’t just build on this second area and leave an area of ecologically valuable woodland in peace. The whole affair stinks to put it mildly, but that does not guarantee anything will be done in the end to prevent the development; it was only the initiative of a private citizen that led to the courts dealing with the case at all.

Meanwhile details of another similar project In Ávila province have been published today in the press. In this new case it is proposed to construct 7500 houses and 3 golf courses in the village of Villanueva de Gómez, which currently has just 143 inhabitants. It appears that 10000 pine trees have already been cleared in a zone that had only recently been nested by an imperial eagle. It almost seems to be a prerequisite for development in these areas that the environmental destruction involved has to be significant.

All of this development in Ávila is a further consequence of the trend for people to move out of Madrid and buy a house in what used to be called the countryside. With much of the area between Madrid and the Sierra de Guadarrama already constructed, companies are now looking at the possibilities on the other side of these mountains and seem to be able to count on the enthusiastic backing of the local and regional governments.

The curse of South of Watford on all these developments. May all their golf courses dry up and turn to dust.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006


This week’s film has been Salvador, based on a true story about Salvador Puig Antich, an anti-Franco militant executed at the age of 25 after being accused of murdering a police officer during an operation to arrest him. Puig Antich joined a small anarchist organisation, the MIL (The Iberian Liberation Movement), and participated in several bank robberies, the proceeds of which were intended to help those involved in the struggle against the regime. Not surprisingly they attracted the attention of Franco’s ample security apparatus and the crackdown gradually took most members of the group out of circulation, Puig Antich being arrested as a result of a trap set by the police after forcing another arrested member of the MIL to collaborate.

In the end the film concentrates much more on the time he spent in prison awaiting execution, than on his life up the point of his arrest. The tension of the process of fruitless appeals against the death sentence is well portrayed, as is the claustrophobic atmosphere of the prison. The killing by ETA of Prime Minister Carrero Blanco makes any hope of a lighter sentence virtually disappear as the regime seeks revenge. In this film there is no mystery or anything to give away about the ending, the execution is carried out by the garrotte, a glorious example of medieval engineering which was still being put to use in 1974.

The main character in the this film, directed by Manuel Huerga, is played by Daniel Brühl – well known for his role in the film Goodbye Lenin. Brühl has a family connection to Spain, and he certainly speaks the language well – although much of the dialogue in the film is in Catalan, and I won’t try to judge anyone’s accent in that language. The film also features several actors who are well known to those familiar with Spanish cinema – Leonor Watling, Ingrid Rubio, Tristán Ulloa and Leonardo Sbaraglia. Ulloa particularly impresses in the role of the lawyer committed to a concept of justice that is never likely to be realised in the context of the dictatorship.

The film has been accused of misrepresenting the reality both of Salvador Puig Antich, and of the struggle against the dictatorship which led to his death. I can see some justification of the criticism, in that the film tells us very little about the political context in which the events took place. Perhaps because of this lack of background, Puig Antich as portrayed in the film comes across more as a bank robber than as a political activist. Despite these reservations, it is still a moving and intense film, well worth the price of admission. Salvador was one of the films unsuccessfully competing with Almodóvar’s Volver to be the Spanish nomination for the foreign language Oscar this year.

Monday, October 16, 2006

The Peñalara Loop

Well I finally made it on Saturday to the top of Peñalara, at 2430 metres it is the highest peak in the Guadarrama mountains near Madrid. The sunny weather made it seem like a good idea, in a few weeks time it will probably snow in this area and become a little bit too dangerous for those who don’t like to play on icy rocks. Accidents on Peñalara in winter are common, and parts of it were difficult enough in fine weather. Many other people obviously had the same idea, we almost had to queue to make it to the summit point, but the views from the top are spectacular. The return route passes by the lagoons lying below the peak and is in itself a worthwhile route to do.

Despite the altitude the peak is very accessible, the easiest place to begin the ascent is from the Puerto de Cotos which is already above 1800 metres. Cotos can be reached by road, or by taking the spectacular train line that comes up from Cercedilla. Most of the routes in the area are fairly well marked, but for anyone who wants it I can supply a GPS track and Google Earth file.

Friday, October 13, 2006

Bono Bows Out

Well that was close. For a couple of days this week it looked as if my worst fears about the Spanish Socialist Party (PSOE) candidate for mayor of Madrid were about to be realised. The Napoleon of La Mancha, Jose Bono, toyed so much with the idea of standing that his party leadership more or less assumed he was going to accept. Then, when he announced his decision not to stand, the party was left once again without a candidate, and looking a bit silly for having assumed that it was more or less a done deal. Bono’s public reasons for rejecting the position are that he has only recently left the government and that he has no desire (yet) to return to political life.

Jose Bono

The possibility of him being the candidate did create the prospect of an interesting contest between him and the current mayor Alberto Ruiz Gallardón (of the Partido Popular). Most interesting would have been seeing the number of voters in both major parties switching to the candidate on the other side, as ideologically there is very little separating the two men. Gallardón is now hated by the hard right faction calling the shots at the moment in the PP, and Bono is the most visible face of the right-wing in the PSOE, on certain issues it’s even possible that Gallardón is to the left of Bono. So many PSOE supporters were dreading the prospect of a Bono candidacy, as well as being resentful of the way in which a candidate was being imposed on the Madrid party by the national leadership. Meanwhile, some PP supporters would perhaps have been tempted to vote for Bono as a means of showing their dislike for their own candidate.

Napoleon Bonaparte

So once again the PSOE is hunting for a candidate capable of giving Gallardón a tough contest, although whoever accepts the task now is going to be perfectly aware that they were not the first choice. I do not expect a big queue of volunteers to be forming, and unless there is a genuine surprise candidate waiting in the wings, the prospect of the PSOE capturing the big prize in next years election is looking less likely. In the meantime, Bono is nobody’s favourite in the party headquarters – although many outsiders, including myself, are very happy not to have him as the main alternative to the incumbent.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Flying Outside The Law

At the risk of turning this blog into a legal journal, here is another interesting case currently developing in the Spanish judicial system. I have written before about the use made by the CIA of the airport at Palma de Mallorca, for their “extraordinary rendition” flights transporting prisoners around the world. Whilst the Spanish government has denied all knowledge of the flights, and seems very keen not to get involved in the issue, some private citizens took the initiative and a case has been opened involving the possible use of torture and illegal detention related to the use of Spanish airports for these flights.

First to declare the other day was Khaled El Masri, a German citizen of Lebanese origin. El Masri was kidnapped in Macedonia in 2004, and then transported to Kabul in a plane that is said to have stopped over in Mallorca. He endured five months of illegal detention before being released somewhere near the frontiers of Serbia, Macedonia and Albania. El Masri declared the other day that he was not physically tortured, but that he was tied up at times and intimidated with firearms. It goes without saying that no formal accusation was ever made against him, and the nature of his release suggests an attempt by his captors to cover their trail. I will be posting on any significant developments in the case.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Public Service Broadcasting

The departure of the presenter of the late night news on Telemadrid, the public television channel for the region of Madrid, is in itself a news story today. It is being strongly suggested that Germán Yanke is leaving the channel because of his refusal to bend in the face of political pressure to promote the conspiracy theories on the Madrid bombings. Yanke himself is hardly a left-winger and the political manipulation of news coverage on this channel is completely evident, with so-called analysts being used to present a view of the news that is always favourable to the Partido Popular, the party in power in the regional government. Regional president Esperanza Aguirre seems to act at times as if she is the leader of the opposition at national level, and Yanke’s removal comes shortly after what is said to have been a tense interview he conducted with Aguirre last week. With elections coming up next year it is only to be expected that the propagandistic use of this channel will increase, and Aguirre is aligned with the hard-line sector of the PP that uses the conspiracy theories in an attempt to provoke a political crisis. We can expect Telemaguirre to be even more unwatchable as a result.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Ain't No Mountain High Enough

After a week when the regional director of urban development for Madrid has been forced to resign for, how shall I put it, confusing his private interest with his public responsibilities – last Friday’s El País brought confirmation that the Spanish construction frenzy is now putting a protected species in danger. The supreme court of Castilla and León has stepped in to paralyze a project in the locality of Las Navas, in the province of Avila. The proposed project involves the construction of 1600 homes and no fewer than four associated golf courses. The court has blocked the project because this is the nesting area of the endangered black stork, of which it is estimated that there only remain 322 pairs in the whole of Spain. The local mayor, astounded by the decision to halt the project, has declared that “golf is good for the countryside”. It appears today that work on cutting down the pine forest in the area is proceeding despite the court decision, with the full approval of the regional government; the ridiculous excuse being that the company has not yet been officially notified of the judicial decision.

The fashion for constructing urbanizations with golf courses attached is completely crazy in a country which is in the second year of a fairly serious drought, that many of these developments are being carried out in the regions with least water only emphasises the craziness of it all. In this part of Avila water may not be such a desperate problem because of the proximity of the proposed development to the mountains of the Sierra de Guadarrama, but this very proximity demonstrates that even the most unspoiled natural landscapes are currently under intense pressure from the construction industry. I have been intending for some time to write a post on the massive corruption scandal emerging in Marbella, but it is quite possible that there are hundreds of smaller Marbella’s happening around the country, driven by the huge amount of money generated from this construction boom.

UPDATE October 10: In between the original court ruling and an instruction yesterday to stop work it seems that the construction company involved managed to bring in a machine capable of uprooting 1000 trees a day. They got to 3000 by the time they were stopped, and have been supported in their efforts to create facts on the ground by the local council and the regional government. Now what was that about the rule of law?

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

March 11th....Even Terrorists Have Cockroaches

The last couple of weeks have demonstrated why it can be useful sometimes to let events develop a bit before writing about them. This is certainly the case with the recent story that emerged from the newspaper El Mundo continuing with its quest to link ETA to the Madrid train bombings.

The exclusive this time was that a police report linking ETA to those accused of perpetrating the attacks had been falsified on government orders to remove the references to ETA. The original report, a description which has to be used with some care in this case, was said to have been written in March 2005. It concerned the discovery of boric acid during the search of a property in Lanzarote where one of those accused for the bombings, Hasan Haski, was living.

The report was produced by three members of the scientific police. Unsure of what to make of the presence of this substance in the property that had been searched, they checked for previous cases where it had been found, and sure enough found that it had also been discovered in an ETA safe house in Madrid in 2001. They also mentioned a case where it was found in the residence of an individual who has subsequently been identified as "anti-system". Our experts speculated in their report on the possibility that there may be some relation between the discovery in ETA's safe house and the events of the 11th March, although no evidence of any kind was produced to establish such a relationship.

The key point of El Mundo's story was that this speculative connection based on the common possession of boric acid was removed from the final report presented to the investigating judge. So El Mundo used this difference to accuse the government and senior police officers of having manipulated an official report, and a legal accusation of falsifying documentation was duly presented. All of this happened on the 21st September.

Naturally it was a cause of great excitement for campaigners on behalf of the conspiracy theories, proof that the government was determined to conceal the role of ETA in the Madrid bombings. The government responded to the accusation by saying that the first report prepared was not the official version, but merely a draft which was revised by a senior officer who decided that the speculative references to a relationship with ETA should be removed.

For anyone who has not followed the link above to the Wikipedia article on boric acid, and who is unsure what it might be, let me help. The main uses of boric acid appear to be as an antiseptic, an insecticide or a flame retardant. In other words, it is a completely legal product and can be bought over the counter at any chemist in Spain. Many commenters on blogs over the last couple of weeks have assured that it is very useful for treating foot odour. More seriously, there are no known cases of it being used in terrorist activities, it appears to have some uses in the fireworks industry but is not recognised for its explosive potential.

The fact that it is so widespread means that there could potentially be hundreds of thousands of homes around Spain where boric acid could be found, quite legally. All of this makes the suggestion in the supposedly suppressed report seem all the more speculative, if you cannot show that the substance is related to terrorist activity then what sense does it make to relate different cases on the basis of it's presence. It's not hard to understand why such speculation was removed from what is supposed to be a scientific report.

The argument raged over the two versions of the report, and then at the end of last week events took an unexpected and quite dramatic turn. The case had fallen onto the desk of judge Baltasar Garzon, who rapidly called in the three police scientists to declare on the accusations made by El Mundo. Then came the bombshell, Garzon issued a judicial summary alleging that it was the three specialists who were potentially guilty of a crime of falsifying official documentation. It turned out that their initial version of the report was indeed rewritten by their senior officer, after they had refused to do it themselves. Then, strangely enough, in July this year (16 months after issuing the initial report), the three specialists decided to reissue it as if it was an official version, even passing a copy to another senior officer who was invited to give it his seal of approval. The amended, but official version, of this report had of course already been in possession of the investigating judge for some time.

What motivated this odd move to reissue a rejected version of the report is still awaiting clarification, although the publication by El Mundo of this version came very shortly after claims by a former senior police officer , and now member of the European Parliament for the Partido Popular, that he knew of a report that linked ETA to the bombings. Whether this report is the one he was referring to is still not clear, if that was the case it would certainly be a report that would never have reached his desk when he was still in the service. Yet again, questions are being raised about the extent to which El Mundo is starting to interfere in the judicial process, rather than simply report on it.

The drama is not finished yet, and in the process the highly politicised nature of the Spanish judicial system is being revealed. Today a court has declared that Garzon is not the competent judge to deal with the case, and that it should go to the local courts of Madrid; which is what the conspiracy theorists were hoping for in the belief (possibly justified) that the judge who takes the case will be sympathetic to them. Judge Garzon has already been included as part of the great conspiracy for his refusal to swallow the manoeuvre, and the supervisory judicial institutions have refused to defend him from attack, split as they are between conservative and non-conservative wings.

The idea that the result of the case simply depends on the judge who takes it is a little worrying, perhaps even more worrying are the accounts of the testimony that our three police specialists presented to Garzon. It is reported that the specialists, one of whom apparently specialises in car paint, admitted having obtained much of the information they offered in the hearing from Internet. Scientific rigour at its best, and this story is far from over. El Mundo, as always so concerned about the highest ethical standards of journalism, referred to the report this morning as the document which relates Hasan Haski to ETA. As always with the conspiracy theorists, once the lie is in circulation it continues to do the rounds.


A strange thing happened when I went to the cinema on Sunday; for the first time in at least 10 years I found myself enjoying a film directed by Pedro Almodóvar. I always had mixed feeling about his films, but I think it was the day I saw Carne Tremula that things really took a turn for the worse. Normally I like to give every film a chance, and you can't do that without enduring at least 45 to 60 minutes; in the case of Carne Tremula I think I broke that rule, it's a truly awful film.

Since then, I haven't seen anything by Almodóvar that is so bad, but at the same time I was irritated by the acclaim for Todo Sobre Mi Madre and Hable Con Ella. Not that either film was badly made, far from it. It was mostly the use of tragic themes which, to me at least, require a certain seriousness of treatment (such as the rape of a hospital patient in a coma), but which ended up just being the backdrop for a collection of exotic characters without ever really attempting to tell much of a story. Also, his sulky behaviour when not receiving the tributes and prizes in his home country that he is used to receiving abroad, helped to accentuate my negative image of his work. I didn't even bother with La Mala Educación, the previous film to Volver, and it has taken me several months - and some persuasion - for me to finally get round to his latest work.

This time around, I can say the film was worth it. Volver is partly set in La Mancha, the region that Almodóvar originally comes from. It tells the story of the relationship between two sisters and how they cope with the discovery that the mother they thought had died in a fire is not really dead at all. The film, typically with this director, has enough events taking place to fill a whole series of your average soap opera. It also mixes the modernity of the scenes set in Madrid, with a nostalgic vision of life in the villages of La Mancha, where the wind provokes fires and a higher than average level of madness in the inhabitants. However, the only windmills we see in this territory are the giant electric turbines which are slowly covering an ever great extent of Spanish countryside. I think part of the attraction of Almodóvar internationally is that he presents a vision of Spain which scarcely exists anymore, but which connects to ideas that foreigners have about the country.

The presentation of village life is not the only nostalgic part of the film, several times I was reminded of Spanish films I have seen from the 1960’s – the moment when Penélope Cruz “sings” is like something taken straight from a film made 40 or 50 years ago. Cruz plays Raimunda, the stronger of the two sisters, and she is now seen as old enough to portray the mother of a teenage daughter. The role of her mother is played by Carmen Maura in her first film for a long time with Almodóvar. The male characters in the film are bit parts, and not very attractive bit parts either, the film is really about the women and their struggle for survival. One of the highlights for me was a devastating parody of a reality TV show, one of these that depends on exploiting the suffering of those invited to participate.

The film is Spain’s nomination for the Oscars this year, hardly an unusual situation for this director. Whilst I enjoyed it, I hope it doesn’t win the Oscar for best foreign language film, it’s not such a strong contender that there can’t be a film out there somewhere in the world that does more to deserve the international recognition that comes from winning these prizes