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The wave of scandals that would engulf Spain began with a police raid on a forest property outside Madrid. It was November 3, 2017, and the target was José Manuel Villarejo Pérez, a former government spy. Villarejo’s name has been circulating in the Spanish press for years. He was rumored to have had powerful friends and to have kept dirt on them all. The impressive variety of accusations against him – forgery, bribery, extortion, influence peddling – earned him the nickname “king of the sewers”.
For many decades, the face of Villarejo was known by almost no one. He was, after all, a spy – and not just any spy, but one who began his career in the secret police of the Spanish dictator Francisco Franco. In those years, he dressed in overalls from Telefónica, the national telephone company, as he carried out surveillance operations in the mountains, and on several occasions he even wore a priest’s collar to infiltrate the Basque separatist group ETA. More recently, Villarejo began simply posing as a lawyer who ran a private investigation firm, offering to those he met to dig up compromising material on their enemies. His formal connection to the government was increasingly ambiguous. Of all the identities he assumed over the years, this one was perhaps the most powerful. It made him rich with the large fees he paid, and it opened a door into the worlds of business tycoons, government ministers, aristocrats, judges, newspaper editors and arms dealers – all whose trust he gained, all of whose private words he taped. .
Villarejo was handcuffed and taken to Madrid. But while he sat in prison awaiting trial, the question left over Spain was this: What happens to a country’s secrets when they are all recorded by one man? And what happens when that man finds himself suddenly backed into a corner?
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Additional production for The Sunday Read was contributed by Emma Kehlbeck, Parin Behrooz, Anna Diamond, Sarah Diamond, Jack D’Isidoro, Elena Hecht, Desiree Ibekwe, Tanya Pérez, Marion Lozano, Naomi Noury, Krish Seenivasan, Corey Schreppel, Kate Winslett and Tiana Young. Special thanks to Mike Benoist, Sam Dolnick, Laura Kim, Julia Simon, Lisa Tobin, Blake Wilson and Ryan Wegner.