Barcenas slush fund trial puts spotlight on Spain’s rightwing Popular Party

The trial of a key figure in an illegal funding scandal involving Spain's rightwing Popular Party opened Monday with the defendant pledging a full confession directly implicating the former premier.

Barcenas slush fund trial puts spotlight on Spain's rightwing Popular Party
Spain's former Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy (left) and Former PP treasurer Luis Barcenas. File photos from 2013: AFP

The case centres on a system of parallel bookkeeping used by the PP to manage undeclared funds that was run by Luis Barcenas, the main suspect, who served as the party treasurer between 1990 and 2009.

Two former PP prime ministers will testify at the high-profile trial which opened on Monday morning at the National Court in Madrid and will run until May.

One is Mariano Rajoy, who served as premier between 2011-2018 and has always denied any knowledge of the system, although Barcenas has testified he was “perfectly aware” of it.

José María Aznar, who was Spain's prime minister between 1996-2004, will also testify alongside various other former top party officials.    

Just days before the trial opened, Barcenas sent a letter to the prosecutors professing his “willingness to collaborate with the justice system” in a dramatic U-turn that has added further drama to a case that has gripped the nation.

In the letter, he said “Mariano Rajoy was perfectly aware of all these activities to the point that in 2009 we had a meeting in his office in which I showed him the slush fund accounting papers”.   

Barcenas in the dock as trail opens on Monday February 8th. Photo: AFP

Rajoy, who at the time was leader of the opposition, then destroyed them “in a paper shredder without knowing I'd kept a copy”, Barcenas wrote.    

The alleged slush fund, which was fed by corporate cash donations, operated between 1990 to 2008 and was used to pay bonuses to party leaders, including Rajoy, as well as for the renovation of the party's Madrid headquarters,
Barcenas has said.

Deal breaker   

Details of the accounts emerged in the so-called “Barcenas papers” which were first published by El Pais newspaper in 2013.   

In his letter, which was published on Thursday, Barcenas said he was now willing to talk after the PP failed to honour a deal in which he would keep silent as long as they ensured his wife did not go to jail.

Barcenas himself is serving a 29-year sentence over the so-called Gürtel case which centred on a vast system of bribes given to former PP officials in exchange for juicy public contracts between 1999 and 2005.

His wife was also convicted for her role in the case and began serving a 12-year sentence in December.

The trial comes at a difficult time for the main opposition Popular Party which is currently campaigning ahead of Sunday's regional election in Catalonia as polls suggest the faction is facing a dismal result.   

Earlier on Monday, PP leader Pablo Casado – who took over in 2018 after Rajoy was forced out as premier and party head – said he could not take responsibility for events that happened before his tenure.

That PP “no longer exists” he told Onda Cero radio.

By AFP's Diego Urdaneta


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EXPLAINED: What is Spain’s anti-trafficking law?

The Spanish government has passed a draft bill that seeks to beef up the fight against human trafficking and exploitation, addressing everything from prostitution to arranged marriages and organ trafficking.

EXPLAINED: What is Spain’s anti-trafficking law?

On November 29th, Spain’s Council of Ministers approved a draft law aimed at tackling human trafficking.

The law, known as la ley de trata (or anti-trafficking law) will bolster measures against sexual exploitation, forced and arranged marriages, slavery, forced labour, organ and tissue removal, and situations where vulnerable people are forced to engage in criminal activity.

Spain’s Justice Minister, Pilar Llop, said that the law will protect “people who suffer a lot in our country and also in other countries around the world,” strengthening the fight against trafficking mafias and organised crime groups to “break the business chain that is generated using human beings as commodities.”

The law will, among other things, create a national plan for the prevention of trafficking, protection and privacy protocols, a compensation fund for victims, social, health and financial support, and increase awareness of the problem at the educational level.

A particular focus of the legislation will be on minors, migrants, asylum seekers and refugees – groups thought to be most vulnerable to exploitation and trafficking.

Prostitution in Spain

Many cases of human trafficking in Spain result in sexual exploitation, but there exists no single law that deals directly with prostitution in Spain. Prostitution was decriminalised in 1995, though its related activities, such as pimping, trafficking, and sexual exploitation are still illegal.

READ ALSO: What’s the law on prostitution in Spain?

Although the clandestine nature of the sex work makes accurate data hard to find, according to a 2011 UN report, Spain is the third biggest centre for prostitution in the world, behind only Thailand and Puerto Rico.

In 2016, UNAIDS estimated that over 70,000 prostitutes were working in Spain, but some estimates put that number as high 350,000.

It is believed that 80 percent of them are foreigners, with many reportedly coming from Colombia, the Dominican Republic, Morocco and eastern Europe.

If the draft law is finally approved, its sexual exploitation clauses would include prison sentences of up to eight years for procurers such as pimps or madams.

Customers of prostitutes that have been forced to be sexual workers could also face fines and prison sentences of between six months and four years.

The Spanish government wants prostitution banned in its current form in Spain.

Forced labour

Clearly, the ley de trata will hope to combat some of the sexual exploitation of women in Spain, but the anti-trafficking legislation is more far-reaching than that and is also intended to tackle forced labour and slavery – two big but underreported problems in Spain.

According to the U.S State Department’s 2022 report on human trafficking in Spain, “labour trafficking is under-identified in Spain. Authorities report the pandemic increased worker vulnerabilities and contributed to the rise in labour trafficking in 2020 and 2021, especially in agriculture, domestic work, and cannabis cultivation in Catalonia.”

“In 2022, Ukrainian refugees, predominantly women and children fleeing Russia’s war against Ukraine, are vulnerable to trafficking. Labour traffickers continue to exploit men and women from Eastern Europe and South and East Asia, particularly Pakistan, in the textile, construction, industrial, beauty, elder care facilities, and retail sectors.”

It should be said, however, that the report also notes that “the government of Spain fully meets the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking” and kept it in its Tier 1 of nations.

What does Spain’s anti-trafficking law include?

  • National Trafficking Plan

The law will create a protocol to coordinate the immediate referral of trafficked persons to specialised services, which will be overseen by a National Rapporteur on Trafficking and Exploitation of Human Beings run through Spain’s Interior Ministry, according to the Spanish government website.

The rapporteur will oversee anti-trafficking policy and represent Spain in the international arena, a role considered crucial as human trafficking is often a cross border, international problem.

  • Education

According to Article 7 of the law, efforts will also be made to improve educational awareness of the problems of trafficking and exploitation with a focus on human rights, sexual education, and democratic values.

  • Social, labour, and health support

A ‘Social and Labour Insertion Plan’ will be created for victims of trafficking and exploitation that provides social, health and employment support for victims.

This could include housing access, physical, psychological and sexual health support, employment opportunities, and financial assistance for victims and their family members.

  • Tightening labour market regulation

As trafficked and exploited people are so often brought in from abroad (and often dependent on the traffickers themselves for housing, food, money and so on) the regulation of migrant worker recruitment will be tightened through beefed up surveillance and labour standards.

  • Compensation fund

A compensation fund – the Fund for the Compensation of Victims of Trafficking and Exploitation (FIVTE) – will also be created, and will be taken from state budgets, as well as money or goods confiscated from convicted traffickers.

  • Protection and privacy

The anti-trafficking law will also provide protection services and maintain the victim’s right to privacy, protect their identity, access to free legal advice and even offer a living income.

According to Article 36 of the bill, victims trafficked from abroad will have the right to voluntary and assisted return to their country of origin. If they were brought illegally into Spain and don’t have official documentation, the Spanish government will issue them with the appropriate papers needed for travel as well as provide them with the option of residency.