Right before 60 civil guards leapt in to raid six Melilla government departments, three homes of high-ranking officials and the premises of two city contractors on February 26, a webpage had already announced the operation was underway.
And as soon as the raids were over, the same Facebook page published the court warrant that had triggered it, based on an investigation into “crimes of bribery, fraud, misappropriation of funds and money laundering.”
The information was provided by someone hiding under a phony profile of Lisbeth Salander, the name of the main character in Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy. An alcoholic, chain-smoking, bisexual, the Swedish novelist’s heroine also happens to be a top-notch hacker. “She and I have a lot in common,” says the person who hides behind this Facebook identity.
For two years, Melilla’s Lisbeth Salander has been reporting on corruption investigations involving the exclave’s government, which has been run by the Popular Party (PP) for over a decade and where half of the nine commissioners are being investigated for some kind of wrongdoing. These revelations often come with copies of court decisions or police reports into alleged cases of petty corruption in the exclave Spain holds in North Africa, surrounded by Moroccan territory.
There are dozens of pages’ worth of these reports, including one relating to the hiring of a law firm called Gómez-Acebo & Pombo to create jobs for the city of Melilla, which has 85,000 residents. “There are enough indications that the director general of the public service department could be in connivance with the law firm Gómez-Acebo & Pombo to ensure that the contracts […] will be awarded to this firm,” concludes the Civil Guard report.
I am sick and tired of the injustice and impunity of the political class in Melilla”
Salander also confirmed a few rumors that were doing the rounds in Melilla. She published the firefighters’ report that showed that Gregorio Castillo, director general of the citizen safety department, used the service one weekend to unlock a door of his home, and then failed to pay the bill. She also revealed a local police report showing that three immigrants, two of whom were undocumented, were apparently paid to remove old junk from the home of the government’s delegate in Melilla, Abdelmalik el Barkani. The items were dumped on the sidewalk.
Why does the online Salander do this? “I am sick and tired of the injustice and impunity of the political class in Melilla, sick of this fear of voicing an opinion or rebelling, sick of the connivance of the subsidized media, sick of a slow and sometimes suspect justice system, sick of seeing this city become a den of thieves who take advantage of the wall created by the Strait [of Gibraltar] to create a fictitious, parallel reality that aims to deceive citizens and conceal any information that might get out,” she writes in an email interview, in which she refers to herself in the feminine.
The often classified information made available on her page is the subject of hundreds of comments on Facebook and other social networks, as well as in the city’s bars and cafés. “People are talking about nothing else,” says one professional from Melilla who asked not to be named. Besides, whoever is hiding behind the Millennium cover “always gets it right,” he adds. “Many of us are really happy that all this muck is coming to light.”
That is why five of the chirigotas – groups who sing satirical songs poking fun at current events – at this year’s carnival praised Salander in their ditties. Televised debates on the private Cablemel network often cite her. And a local restaurant named El Chef offers a free dish on Wednesdays named Eggs à la Salander. All one needs to do to get a plate is cry out in public “¡Despierta Melilla!” (Wake up, Melilla!).
“Some customers scream it the instant they walk through the door,” explains the restaurant’s co-owner, Keka Castillo, who is affiliated with a small opposition party that split away from the ruling PP. “They tell me I am brave, but I am doing it for my children, so they can get to live in a city that is not so rotten. And I do it as a tribute to Salander, because thanks to her we are finding out about the things that the bought-off press is not telling us.”
But not everyone is so enthusiastic about this whistleblower. Miguel Marín, the city’s deputy premier, publicly asked on February 28 “how it is possible for a profile hiding behind a pseudonym on a social network to have advance knowledge of each and every one of the legal actions about to take place in the city, and to publish them?”
Marín also asked for the appropriate authorities to take measures. Lisbeth Salander says they already have. Her page was temporarily shut down by Facebook following complaints, but she has activated dormant profiles. She has been offered money in exchange for reliable information regarding her identity. Computer experts, employees at internet service providers and even police officers have been set on her trail, but to no avail.
Many of us are really happy to see all this muck come to light”
She says she is resisting thanks to “the Anonymous family,” a reference to a collective pseudonym used by hackers from several countries who specialize in coordinated attacks against the powers that be. “They’re always there, they always help, they never fail me,” Salander says. A year ago, Anonymous launched an attack against the website of Melilla’s social welfare department, using a Facebook channel created solely for this purpose, according to the computer security company Arbor Network.
“They are dedicating chirigotas to me, my name is showing up in the PP-controlled media, everyone is reading my work… I just realized I’m fucking awesome,” she jokes on Facebook.
Later, she says in earnest that she is “especially proud” of the time she uncovered the abuse at a city-run care center for mentally disabled patients, which led to the conviction of one employee in 2012.
Then, towards the end of the virtual talk, Salander gets modest. “Deep down I should not exist if democratic checks worked and the press fulfilled its duty to inform and investigate. While they fail to do that, I’ll be here. Millennium IV [the novel that the late Larsson never got to write] is taking place in Melilla.”