Between Crime, Separatism, and Racial Tensions, Can Spain Pull Through?

The Mediterranean nation is straining under economic and social turmoil. Will it weather the storm?
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A demonstrator struggles with Spanish National Police riot officers outside the the Spanish parliament in Madrid in September 2012. (Sergio Perez/Reuters)

The slender North African man's eyes dart back and forth as he scours the area surrounding the cafe in Sevilla, southern Spain. He heads inside, slowly approaching the bar. He leans across to get the server's attention, a five-euro note in hand; she ignores him and walks toward another customer. Minutes pass. An elderly couple standing next to the North African mumble and shuffle away. The veins in his neck begin to bulge.

He doesn't make a sound. The waitress eventually heads his way and snatches his money from his hand. She returns with a glass of water, which she slams on the bar. He looks her in the eye and thanks her; she doesn't return his gaze.

As he returns to his table outside and recoups his bag, the young man notices a Guardia Civil officer walk by. Momentarily, he freezes. The policeman eyes him up and down. He moves on.

"Always," the young man mutters in fluent Spanish. "Always the same. It's always this way."

In fact, Spain wasn't always this way -- simmering with racial tensions. A country perhaps best known for its (largely mythical) siestas, sun, sea, and sand, Spain was also for centuries the model of multiculturalism that any modern society would wish to emulate. Following the Moorish invasion of the Iberian peninsula in 711, Spain survived for more than seven centuries as a home to Muslims, Christians, and Jews. All three religions were welcome, sometimes under the same roof (the Great Mosque of Cordoba was built on a Visigoth site believed to have previously been a Roman temple; in 1236 King Ferdinand III ordered the mosque transformed into a cathedral, keeping the Islamic elements intact). The state's common interest in these different groups lay in the fact that they all paid taxes to the Spanish government. In 1492, however, the tide turned. The Spanish army defeated the moors at Granada, restoring a Christian rule that would also expel Jews and gypsies who refused to convert, and eventually, even many of those who did.

Rifts have only widened since. As Spain has sought to move away from its dependence on a centralized government in Madrid, tensions over racism, religious diversity and separatism, as well as how to handle a rollercoaster of an economy, have all set the stage for a turbulent 21st century for the Iberian peninsula. In the wake of the economic crisis and corruption scandals involving the highest levels of officialdom, the question now is whether Spain can get back on track and survive as a prosperous multicultural haven.

Multiculturalism has always been a challenge to sustain in Spain. It wasn't until the death of Dictator Francisco Franco that Muslims could openly return. The country also took its time to open back up to Jews. Slowly, plans to build mosques were hatched - and met with a frosty reception by the Christian majority.

Then, in 1996, the era of Jose Maria Aznar began. His administration was credited with turning the economy around, but the conservative prime minister from the Partido Popular -- who had won with the backing of the Basque country and separatist Catalans -- rankled critics with his decision to back Coalition forces in Iraq (according to polls at the time, less than 10 percent of Spaniards supported the war). His administration's initial placing of the blame for the March 11, 2004 Madrid train bombing on the Basque terrorist group ETA -- when all evidence pointed to Al Qaeda -- prompted mass protests and a landslide victory for opposition candidate Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero. Aznar further alienated Spain's one million Muslims by later claiming that the Madrid bombing was not a result of "the support given by the Spanish government to the Iraq war," but caused by something far more entrenched. "The problem with Al-Qaeda came from before that - as long ago as 1,300 years." With mosques springing up throughout southern Spain, he was preying on the very real fears of a Muslim re-conquest of Al-Andalus, an aspiration that was being spouted by Al Qaeda members. "We have always reclaimed the spirit of Al-Andalus, but not the territory, because this is our home and therefore there is nothing to reclaim," responded Mansur Escudero, then-president of the Junta Islamica in Spain and the founder of the country's modern Muslim community. "When a terrorist group says that it wants to re-conquer Al-Andalus, it raises suspicions about us... people might think that we are a kind of fifth column." The words carried a lot of weight in a nation that had in the past feared Franco sympathizers - then known as the so-called fifth column, aiming to undermine those loyal to the state - during the Civil War.

Zapatero, leader of the Spanish Socialist Workers' Party, or PSOE, would inherit a host of problems -- from Spain's involvement in Iraq to growing discontent over Muslim growth -- but would also benefit from one key element: a booming economy. Zapatero implemented key reforms, and Spain began creating jobs at an unprecedented rate.

In some ways, ETA may have helped Zapatero's Spain. After three years with little violence -- an ETA car bomb had killed two policemen in late May 2003 -- Zapatero traveled to the Basque country to initiate a ceasefire in 2006.

Some members of ETA, as it turns out, were already rethinking their strategy. Bombings and assassinations would no longer be the modus operandi, ETA representatives claimed. The Basque country had economic clout -- it generates about 66 billion euros a year, accounting for roughly 7 percent of the Spanish economy. Local economists have calculated that fears of terrorist activity have been responsible for as much as a 10 percent drop in GDP - and would use that as leverage for any demands for separatism. Madrid was rightly skeptical of the claims about forsaking violence coming from a group responsible for more than 800 deaths since its inception in 1959. According to polls taken at the time, the Spanish public was skeptical too - 54 percent of citizens doubted ETA's intentions.

On Dec. 30, 2006, their fears were confirmed: a car bomb exploded at Madrid's Barajas Airport, killing two Ecuadorians. The government broke off the peace process, which was only restored after an international conference in San Sebastian in October 2011. Days after the conference adjourned, ETA's remaining leadership issued a statement: "A new political time is emerging in the Basque country. ETA has decided the definitive cessation of its armed activity. Through this historical declaration, ETA shows its clear, solid, and definitive commitment."

Whether or not this new political time has really emerged remains to be seen. In San Sebastian today, there are few overt signs of ETA presence. The rebel graffiti that once lined the city's walls has largely been washed off. Locals don't appear to want to discuss the terrorist group, or its ideals; the economy -- built around industry rather than tourism and property development, which are considered much riskier -- is just about holding up, and that's everyone's primary concern. Bilbao and San Sebastian are living proof that money can co-opt even the most radical ideology.

But in the sleepy fishing village of Donibane, just a few miles away, ETA remains entrenched in the soul - for better or for worse.

A seven-year-old boy playing with a military vehicle on a bench by the waterfront quickly rejects the notion that it belongs to the Spanish army. "It's from here," he growls.

"It's Basque."

Is it an ETA vehicle? "No. Basque."

Many locals quickly cover their faces as soon as one attempts to take a photograph; an air of rebellion definitely hangs over Donibane. There's a distinct lack of trust in the Spanish authorities, ETA, and the local politicians. Jose Maria Soparzazu, 65, claims to have been a member of ETA in the 70s and 80s. He was swept off his feet by the romance of it all, he says; there were few other figures to follow. Now, he wants nothing to do with any of them. "The politicians and ETA just steal - for weapons and for themselves. You can't trust any of them." Soparzazu, who has learned to speak Spanish, argues that Basque citizens need to follow what he calls the Brazilian model - learn to move forward by themselves, economically, and not rely on either Madrid or separatists who seem more interested in instilling terror than serious societal progress.

There's good reason for skepticism about both ETA's claims and aims. While attacks overall have declined, every so often the group still strikes. On the island of Mallorca in 2009, just before the 50th anniversary of the founding of the group, a bomb attributed to ETA killed two Guardia Civil officers. A car bomb destroyed a police barracks in the northern Spanish city of Burgos around the same time, injuring 60. The authorities clearly don't believe ETA has called it quits: Earlier this year, French police nabbed three suspected ETA bomb-makers; just a couple of months later, they arrested a man they believed to be ETA's top military ops specialist, Oroitz Gurruchaga Gogorza. The Spanish and French authorities claim - not for the first time - that they have seriously compromised ETA's ability to wage war.

The authorities also fear that while ETA may be staying under the radar at home, it is expanding globally. Colombian officials claim ETA has long had links with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC; a 2010 indictment by a Spanish judge against Arturo Cubillas, a Basque exile believed to have run training sessions for FARC and Venezuelan guerrillas further fueled suspicions of sinister ETA expansion. (The indictment also suggested Cubillas had received support from Venezuelan Gen. Hugo Carvajal, who is on the U.S. Treasury Department's list of FARC supporters.) The same week the indictment was handed down, Portuguese authorities arrested Andoni Zengotitabengoa, an alleged ETA militant and suspected bomb-maker, as he tried to board a Caracas-bound flight.

Concerns that Spain might become a global hub for terrorism and illicit trafficking have been warranted. In June 2007, Monzer Al Kassar, a Syrian arms dealer, was nabbed by agents from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) who convinced him they worked for the FARC; they struck a fake $8 million deal for him to supply surface-to-air missiles, RPGs, machine guns and explosives. Al Kassar had long been a resident of Spain, living in Marbella, and he was arrested at Madrid's Barajas airport. He was extradited to United States and handed a 30-year sentence.

Spain is indeed a hub, or at the very least, has the potential to become one. As DEA Chief of Operations, Michael Braun repeatedly pointed out to Congress the need to increase resources in Spain and Portugal, which he called "the principal gateway" for drugs entering Europe, both from Latin America and Africa. With about 500 tons of cocaine now heading to Europe each year, Braun warned that Europe "has naturally emerged as the perfect, latest playground for these ruthless cartels... I see Europe today teetering on the brink of a drug trafficking and abuse catastrophe similar to the one our nation faced about 30 years ago. If you need a visual on what I predict Europe is facing in the years to come, just picture Miami in the late 1970s, followed by the 'crack' cocaine epidemic that exploded all across our nation in the 1980s."

Braun's fears appear to be understandable: During a break from dealing drugs, 26-year-old Sahoudi (he wouldn't reveal his last name) explained how his illicit trafficking enterprise works in San Sebastian. Born in Murcia, Spain, he recruited his Tunisian relatives into the business five years ago. What started as a few suitcases on a passenger flight has turned into a one-ton-a-month operation involving a helicopter (from Tunisia to Murcia), a boat (off the coast of San Sebastian, to store the cannabis prior to distribution), and relatives in Holland and Belgium who act as distributors in those countries. And the authorities? Sahoudi laughs. His brother is in the local San Sebastian police corps; he makes sure his colleagues, the Guardia Civil and the Coast Guard, turn a blind eye. Sahoudi's story was impossible to corroborate, but it jibes with reports by counter-drug authorities. In August 2012, a cousin of Mexican drug lord Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman Loera was arrested in Madrid, further fueling fears that major organized crime syndicates like the Sinaloa cartel are setting up operations there. Authorities have noted an increase in Latin American gang presence in many parts of the Iberian peninsula, although they also have cautioned against unwarranted hyped fears of gang-related violence.

At the end of the day, Spain may just have had too many problems for the Zapatero-era bubble to hold itself together. When the construction bubble burst, Madrid had to resort to desperate measures to salvage the economy. According to economists, interest rates had fallen so low that Spanish banks lent recklessly while property developers and home-buyers collectively borrowed, spurring a property bubble. Madrid had to borrow and spend desperately in a bid to prevent the economy from collapsing, while many of the country's banks appear to have done everything they could to operate outside the realm of legitimacy -- payments were allegedly made to high-level executives who then bailed out, and in some instances, unqualified political appointees were chosen to run banking operations themselves. Corruption scandals -- including one involving the King's son-in-law -- have done little to restore public confidence. Earlier this summer, former Partido Popular treasurer Luis Barcenas was jailed for failing to explain the origin of up to 48 million euros in Swiss bank accounts.

It's this mixture of financial anxiety, melting pot tensions, immigration and emigration, distrust of authority, and worries over terrorism that makes Spain so difficult to grasp today. Beleaguered Prime Minister Rajoy is increasingly unpopular; his disapproval rating recently climbed by nearly 22 percent in a matter of months. He's now facing heavy fire and the threat of a no-confidence vote from opponents after text messages in which he appeared to sympathize with Barcenas emerged while the former treasurer was under investigation. To top it all off, Rajoy's administration has also been accused by critics of pressuring public broadcasting networks to fire journalists who ask tough questions of officials.

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Malcolm Beith is a former Newsweek general editor who spent three years covering the drug war from Mexico City. 

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