#MeToo: Dozens come forward with stories of sexual assault by Spanish tour guide

When Gabrielle Vega took the brave step to go public about being drugged and raped by a Spanish tour guide while she was on a gap year in Salamanca, the last thing she expected was to discover that dozens of other women had also suffered the same thing.

#MeToo: Dozens come forward with stories of sexual assault by Spanish tour guide
Gabrielle Vega has been contacted by dozens of girls with similar stories about her attacker. Photo: Gabrielle Vega

But within days of going public with the allegations, more than 50 women have come forward to share similar experiences with the same tour guide.

Now, police in Seville are investigating Manuel Blanco Vega of Discovery Excursions for sexual assault crimes.

In November 2013, when she was 18-years-old and on a studying abroad scheme in Salamanca, Vega and two friends booked a trip to Tangiers, Morocco with the Seville-based Discovery Excursions, a company that organised trips designed for study-abroad students.

READ MORE: #Cuéntalo: Spanish women launch their own #Metoo movement

Vega claims that on the last night of the trip something happened that changed her life forever. 

After a few days taking in the sights of Tangiers, she and her two friends ended up in their hotel with the charismatic tour guide, who, insisting that it wasn’t safe for girls to be out on their own after dark in the city, suggested they all go up their room and he would order champagne from room service.

“We’d been with him a few days, he seemed fun, charming and we trusted him,” she explained to The Local over the telephone from her home in Florida.

Gabrielle, posing with a camel, during the trip to Morocco in November, 2013. Photo: Gabrielle Vega

“When the champagne arrived, he kept his back to us and poured it into glasses. I’m sure he drugged that glass because within a short while, I felt very unwell, woozy and could barely stand up,” she said insisting that the feeling was not consistent with having only drunk two small beers and a glass of champagne.

She believes that when she visited the bathroom a short while later, the tour guide followed her in and raped her. When she awoke the next morning she was knew she had been violated and was haunted by flashbacks of the attack.

Her two friends later confirmed that she had been in the bathroom with him for around 30 minutes.

Vega didn’t report the assault to police, either in Morocco or when she returned to Spain. She felt so ashamed about what happened that she told nobody.

She finally shared what happened to her with her family after two painful years during which she dropped out of college and sought therapy where she was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.

“I never felt motivated to share my story with anyone outside my family,” she told The Local.  “But then a good friend of mine was working on an arts project and she wanted people to talk about an experience that shaped their life.

“I recorded voice audio that talked about how I was on a study abroad programme and went to Morocco where I was raped by a tour guide. I didn’t name the company or the man, just what happened to me and how it changed my life.

By extraordinary coincidence, the artist revealed that she had a friend who had suffered a similar experience on a tour in Spain.

“I hadn’t said the name of the tour company or identified the man that raped me, but she sent me a picture of Manuel Blanco and said: Was this him?”

Manuel Blanco Vela, photographed during a trip to Morocco, has been accused of rape and sexual assault. 

For Vega it was a wake-up call. “I suddenly felt a huge sense of guilt that I had kept quiet and that this had been happening to others. So I decided I had to put it out there and just tell as many people as possible.”

She published a post on Facebook warning year-abroad students in Spain of the dangers of booking with Discovery Excursions and its tour director.

“Within a couple of days, eight other women came forward with similar stories about Manuel,” she said.

Vega decided to make a formal complaint and made a police statement at the Spanish consulate in Miami.

She then went on Megyn Kelly’s Today show on NBC on April 11th to share her story.

“That appearance reached out to so many women and we now have more than 50 women who have contacted us with versions of the same story. Stories about what happened to them at the hands of Manuel on a Discovery Excursion,” lawyer Mark Eiglarsh, who has taken on Vega’s case, told The Local.

“Some were serious sexual assault, others talked about being drugged, some were attempted rape,” he said, adding that he was collecting witness statements to pass on to Spanish police.

The Local has seen a dozen of these witness statements from women who claim to be victims of Blanco, a man in his late 30s. All follow a similar pattern. Some date back to 2011. Others are as recent as this year.

Two women, Hayley McAleese and Carly Van Ostenbridge, both Florida State University students on a study abroad scheme in Valencia, claim they were assaulted by Blanco on a trip to Lagos, Portugal last May.

The pair said that they were cornered by him in a hotel room and they had to fight off his sexual advances before escaping and running for help from male friends down the corridor.

Both made police reports about the assault when they returned to Spain but were told prosecution would be difficult because “we were American students accusing a Spaniard and the incident happened in Portugal,” according to statements they made to their lawyer.

“The first part of sharing Gabrielle’s story is that we want everyone to know what happened and give a platform and voice to those who have suffered the same from him,” said Eiglarsh.

“But secondly we want to identify him and pursue him and make sure that he is stopped from doing this sort of thing again.”

Since the allegations have emerged Discovery Excursions have shut down their social media accounts and their website has been deleted.

The company are not answering telephone calls and have not made a statement on the allegations.

Policia Nacional in Seville confirm that they investigating allegations against an “M. B. V.” of Discovery Excursions.


Placido Domingo says apology gave ‘false impression’ but drops Spain show

Scandal-hit opera star Placido Domingo on Thursday said his apology over sexual harassment allegations had given a "false impression" but cancelled his appearance in an upcoming performance in Madrid.

Placido Domingo says apology gave 'false impression' but drops Spain show
Placido Domingo seen on stage in California in 2017. Photo: AFP

“I feel I have to issue another statement to correct the false impression generated by my apology,” he said.   

The statement also said he was withdrawing from “La Traviata” at Madrid's Teatro Real and would do the same with any theatre or opera house “that might have difficulties” with his presence.

The statement came two days after the 79-year-old, who faces multiple allegations of sexual harassment, apologised for “the hurt” caused to his accusers, saying he accepted “full responsibility” for his actions.

At least 20 women have accused Domingo of forcibly kissing, grabbing or fondling them in incidents dating back to the 1980s, and on Tuesday, the AGMA union said an internal probe found the storied tenor-turned-baritone had engaged in a pattern of “inappropriate activity”.   

But the Spanish megastar, whose initial apology did not specifically confirm any of the allegations, on Thursday insisted his words had been misunderstood.

“I know what I haven't done and I will deny it again. I never behaved aggressively with anyone and I have never done anything to obstruct or impede anyone's career,” he said.

On the contrary, over his five decades in opera he had worked “to promote the career of a myriad of singers”.

“My apology was sincere and from the bottom of my heart to any colleagues whom I could have hurt in any way by something I said or did. As I have demonstrated on many occasions, it was never my attention to hurt or offend anyone.”


Backlash in Spain

Until now, Domingo's career has been less affected by the scandal in Europe.

But following Tuesday's apology, things have moved rapidly in his native Spain, with the culture ministry cancelling his appearance in two May performances at Madrid's Zarzuela Theatre “in solidarity with the affected women”.

“Until now, the situation was different, there was a presumption of innocence,” Culture Minister Jose Manuel Rodríguez Uribes told reporters on Wednesday. 

“But at the point when he said it actually happened — and we're talking about serious incidents involving many women — we decided we couldn't go ahead with him present and we told him.”

Madrid's Teatro Real confirmed Thursday that Domingo would not be participating in any of its upcoming performances of Verdi's “La Traviata”.    

“Placido Domingo will not be participating in the next production of La Traviata in May,” a theatre statement said, its website showing he was to have performed five times between May 9th-23rd.

“The Teatro Real reaffirms its policy of zero tolerance towards harassment and abuse of any nature, and its continuing solidarity with the victims.”    

Also Thursday, the prestigious Ubeda festival of international music and dance in southern Spain cancelled Domingo's appearance on May 3rd in light of Tuesday's “informative events”.

US career over

The accusations first began to surface in August. Two months later, Domingo stepped down from the Los Angeles Opera and from all future performances at New York's Metropolitan Opera, effectively ending his US career.

Several women said Domingo tried to pressure them into sexual relationships by dangling jobs, and then sometimes punished them professionally when they refused his advances.

Domingo's statement came a day after former Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein was convicted of rape and sexual assault in a case that sparked a global reckoning over men who abuse positions of power.

One of the most recognised tenors of the 20th century, Domingo has been a director and conductor at some of the world's most prestigious opera houses.    

Although the allegations largely drew a line under his US career, the opera giant has performed in Austria, Hungary and Russia, and still has a string of upcoming concerts in place, including a Hamburg performance on March 22nd.

READ ALSO OPINION: Why it's more important than ever to stand up for women’s rights in Spain