Caught on tape

The question now is not whether anyone will replace the enigmatic spylord Villarejo now he's no longer active, it's who will replace him

MARK NAYLER

The trial of former police chief-turned-spymaster Jose Villarejo started this week, but it's not just the flat-capped reputation wrecker who's in the dock. Villarejo insists that Spain's ruling class isn't going to like what it hears throughout the course of this trial and those to follow, saying that his testimony will "unmask everyone" who's ever given him a job.

Villarejo's days as an undercover agent are over, but the sheer range of allegations against him indicates that, within Spain's offices of power and influence, within multi-million-euro businesses and ruling political parties, there is great demand for the services he provided. Those services centred on intelligence and pseudo-intelligence, on acquiring or fabricating evidence to destroy reputations and trust. Enormously complex as the Villarejo story has become, it ultimately stems from the use of a piece of technology that no longer exists in most households: the tape recorder.

The political aspect of the case against Villarejo concentrates on his alleged work for the Popular Party (PP) when Mariano Rajoy was in power. He is said to have been behind smear campaigns against leftist Podemos and Catalan separatist parties, and to have attempted to remove incriminating financial documents from the home of former PP treasurer Luis Barcenas, who's serving a 29-year prison term for his role in the Gürtel scandal.

Villarejo even appears in the Juan Carlos story, having recorded a conversation in which the former king's one-time lover, Corinna Larsen, allegedly talks about the ex-monarch's money laundering activities. Well-known as he was among Spain's political and financial elite, it's a wonder anyone ever talked to the guy at all. "Alright, Jose," you'd want to ask, pretending to read the menu, "where's the wire?" One also wonders about the mental state of someone who never went anywhere without a recording device, and who apparently even taped his own family. Was literally everyone a potential client or victim (or both) for Villarejo?

The question now is not whether anyone will replace the enigmatic spylord now he's no longer active, it's who will replace him, and who will be facing the same array of espionage-related charges twenty years from now. It asks too much of credulity to believe that such a well-oiled "deep state" will suddenly cease to function because one man is in the dock, albeit a man guarding a hoard of explosive secrets.

That man is rotund, bearded and bespectacled, often wears an eye patch and always sports a flat cap. Far from being the utterly unremarkable "Grey Man" of special operations, the figure indistinguishable in a crowd, Villarejo is someone you'd remember meeting - and someone whom a lot of politicians and business leaders presumably now wish they'd never met at all.