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Lanzarote sinks under weight of sleaze

Island was an ecologically minded paradise until building began in earnest

Considering the latest events in Lanzarote, one might conclude that politics here are like a veritable powder keg waiting to explode. But things are a little more complex than that. Ideology in this corner of the Canary Islands is variable: in the space of one week earlier this month, a new party was formed (Opción Por Lanzarote) by disgruntled Socialists, who promptly aligned themselves with the Nationalist Party of Lanzarote (PNL). At the same time, the local PNL committee in the town of Yaiza decided to go over to the Canaries Coalition (CC). The circle was closed when a CC councilor from Haría changed allegiances and joined the PNL.

These skirmishes are nothing new on an island where 30 public officials (21 percent of a total of 138) have left their posts during the present term. Of course, most of them did not step down voluntarily. The two latest corruption cases have resulted in over 100 people being charged with crimes. All political parties have been implicated, and there are 11 mayors or ex-mayors among the suspects. That's quite remarkable for an island with just seven municipalities.

The courts have so far ruled that half of the island's existing hotel beds are illegal

Anyone who follows Lanzarote politics must be inured by now to scandal. It is common here to have several back-to-back mayors in the same town during a single term. Censure motions, defections and vote-buying are an everyday occurrence. It is also not surprising to see entire families caught up in criminal cases. In one case, Yaiza Mayor José Francisco Reyes stands accused of several crimes, while his wife and three of his four children are charged with money laundering. The fourth son is not liable - because he is not yet 10 years old.

Real estate corruption is the underlying cause of this rotten politics. That is certainly nothing new in Spain, but it has reached unfathomable levels on an island that once stood out for its defense of nature. Grassroots movements, some with support from the late artist César Manrique, had managed to make the island a pioneer in land preservation. In the 1980s, Lanzarote was known for sustainable tourism, to such an extent that Unesco declared it a biosphere reserve.

But these environmental victories gave way to building pressure. The 50,000 hotel beds available in 2001 became 72,000 in 2006. The economy focused almost exclusively on tourism and construction, and between 1996 and 2006, the population growth rate was 10 times greater than the Spanish average. In just 20 years, Lanzarote doubled its number of residents.

Corruption did the rest. This "isla bonita" is teeming with lawsuits, and courts have so far ruled that half of the island's existing hotel beds are illegal, and what's more, built with European Union funds that must now be returned. To top things off, a Unesco representative told the Financial Times that Lanzarote runs the risk of losing its biosphere reserve status.

During the 1990s and early 21st century, a few scandals rocked the island in a foretaste of things to come. But the big shock came in June 2008. Carlos Espino, a Socialist councilor, opposed awarding a license to build over 1,000 homes in a development called Costa Roja. The developer, Luis Lleó, tried to unblock the situation by sending a third party to meet with Espino and ask him to state his price. The third party was Fernando Becerra, a card-carrying member of the Popular Party (PP) whose brother Ubaldo belongs to another party called PIL and whose other brother, Juan Carlos, is president of PNL - a family snapshot of the political sagas that dominate Lanzarote.

Becerra asked Espino to meet, hinting at his intentions. He did not expect Espino to do what he did: report the approach to the Civil Guard, who sent the case to a local court where an enthusiastic young judge had recently been appointed on a temporary basis. Espino was told to attend the meeting and record the conversation with the court's consent. Operation Unión was underway.

Becerra walked right into the trap, explaining in full detail what needed be done to unblock the Costa Roja development. "Look, we can secure Coalición [CC] and the PP support if you want. Coalición is real easy," he said. During a long conversation, Becerra recommended that Espino accept an unspecified sum of money in order to assure himself a fine future after politics. In the meantime, he should continue to lead a modest lifestyle.

"Look, you get whacked from all sides when you're in politics; once you're out, who's going to say a thing? [...] Now you're in politics, so you need to be a modest guy [...] even if you've got a thousand cool ones. [...] That's my advice, you keep on doing the same thing... and when they say something, just reply: but I have the same old car and the same cheap 10-euro shirt."

Later in the conversation, Becerra explains how to launder the cash by opening a small business. "You've got 400 'kilos' to launder, so we launder it there, and you start making profits, and that's legal. [...] It is very easy to launder money in the hospitality sector, because how much does an espresso cost?"

The conversation, in which many leading names were cited, triggered an extensive investigation that led to the first arrests in May 2009. The most notable was that of Dimas Martín, Lanzarote's main man, founder of PIL, a former senator and former president of the island's ruling council. Besides real estate, corruption emerged in other fields such as garbage-collection contracts. In another case, the mayor of Arrecife, Isabel Déniz, was found to have accepted expensive gifts in exchange for favors.

Meanwhile the investigating judge was appointed to a new destination, but he asked for a three-month extension so he could stay on the case. A request to bring in another judge to help was denied. When the three months were out he obtained a new three-month extension, but it looks like he will not get another one, according to investigators. That may be all that is needed to provide new breathing room for Lanzarote politics to carry on as before.