Two cops posing as activists have been unmasked in Spain, one after having sexual relationships with at least eight women – a frightening reminder of how far police go to spy on dissent.
Concern is mounting not just in terms of possible state spying on political activists and private citizens, but also the way in which this is alleged to have been carried out. (Luther. M. E. Bottrill / Unsplash)
In June 2020, as Spain’s public spaces slowly began to come back to life following one of the strictest lockdowns in Europe, two young men appeared for the first time in Barcelona. Little, if anything, would have seemed to connect them at the time. Marc, a prospective Social Education student at the University of Barcelona, settled in the city centre and began to involve himself in the student movement; Dani appeared at the gym of a squatted social centre in the suburban neighbourhood of Sant Andreu de Palomar, looking for a cheap place to train. The two did, however, share something in common: both were undercover officers belonging to the National Police Corps, operating under false identities.
Following the revelation firstly of ‘Marc’ in June 2022 and subsequently ‘Dani’ in January of this year by the investigative newspaper La Directa, questions have been raised as to the extent of such operations in both Catalonia and the rest of Spain. With the country’s Minister of the Interior Fernando Grande-Marlaska remaining tight-lipped despite requests from numerous political parties to appear before Congress and provide explanations, concern is mounting not just in terms of possible state spying on political activists and private citizens, but also the way in which this is alleged to have been carried out.
Students, Anti-Capitalists, and Cultural Activists
In interactions with his then-fellow activists, ‘Marc’ would appear to have been the more discrete of the two officers. Having matriculated in the University of Barcelona’s Faculty of Education under his false identity, he made acquaintances with other students based on his involvement in the Casal de Lina Òdena, a self-managed community and cultural centre in the city’s Eixample district. Soon after, he began to involve himself in the pro-independence Catalan Countries Students’ Union (SEPC), eventually becoming coordinator of the university’s Mundet Campus branch, a role which enabled him to take part in a series of forums organised by the union’s steering committee.
One such forum took place in February 2022 in Palma de Mallorca, the city which ‘Marc’ claimed as his hometown. It was here that doubts first began to arise. Having invited a number of attendees to stay at a flat allegedly owned by his uncle, another student—herself from Mallorca—joked that his accent seemed more Menorcan than anything else. Although taking the teasing well, this marked the beginning of a cat-and-mouse game. As activists became increasingly suspicious, so too the undercover officer became more elusive, appearing for the last time at the Casal de Lina Òdena in March. Thereafter, he largely limited contact with his wider circle to mobile phone messages and sporadic appearances at demonstrations, before finally disappearing in May of the same year, ostensibly to return home to deal with a ‘serious private matter’.
What ‘Marc’—or rather, the officer responding to the initials I.J.E.G.—had failed to do was ensure that no trace of his real identity remained online. Those concerned eventually discovered the Facebook account of a young police academy graduate connected to online groups such as ‘Police corner’ and ‘Long live Spain, the king, and law and order’. Facial recognition technology proved conclusive: ‘Marc’ and I.J.E.G. were one and the same person.
On the other side of the city, an officer otherwise known as D.H.P. had also been presenting himself as a recent arrival from Mallorca. Whereas his counterpart involved himself headlong in activism, ‘Dani’ spent his time training at the gym housed in La Cinètika, a former cinema squatted and reopened by anti-capitalist activists as a social and cultural space in 2016, and ingratiated himself to local residents as a familiar face at concerts and neighbourhood festivals. Although frequently present at anti-eviction protests—even being issued with a fine by officers at one such event—activists coincide in that he was more often seen drinking and taking recreational drugs on nights out. More concerning still, he is known to have engaged in sexual relations with at least eight women while operating under his false identity.
Going so far as to holiday with one of these women in the summer of 2022, ‘Dani’ left Barcelona the following October, claiming to be heading to Granada to work in the olive harvest. He was last heard from in January of this year, purportedly readying himself to take up a job offer in Denmark. In the meantime, a similar discovery of photographic evidence of his true role as a police officer, and his use of the surname Hernàndez Pons—the same surname given to ‘Marc’—led journalists to confirm that ‘Dani’ was in fact D.H.P., another graduate from the 2018-2019 intake at the National Police Corps academy in Ávila.
Ambiguities and Illegal Activity
The notable differences in approach taken by the two officers were matched by the diversity of spaces into which they manoeuvred themselves. Where doubt exists as to the legality of the officers’ actions—according to Spanish law, the scope for infiltration proper is limited to cases of terrorism, organised crime, and drug trafficking, and subject to judicial approval—no such aspersions can be cast on the activities of their erstwhile peers. None of the organisations in question, nor any of the individuals directly affected, are known to be the subject of any official investigation, criminal or otherwise.
Nevertheless, in a joint report published on 10 August 2022 in response to legal action initiated by the cultural organisation Òmnium, the Ministry of the Interior and the National Police Corps alluded to ‘the present situation in Catalonia and alarming occurrences in the recent past’ as the primary justification for ‘ongoing and steadfast efforts to obtain information for intelligence purposes’. According to the report, this was a matter of national security, and provided for by the country’s National Strategic Anti-Terrorism Plan. The authorities further stressed that such practices were preventative in nature, and that the deployment of undercover officers to gather information concerned ‘members of radical secessionist groups’, particularly those ‘committed to illegal activity who, ultimately, could be responsible for the commission of criminal offences or otherwise able to direct investigations towards those who were’.
Yet what the report posits as a carefully delimited operation has, in practice, manifested as an intrusion with no discernible purpose into the social and political milieu of a swathe of unrelated citizens. Activists have sounded the alarm not only regarding the conflation of perfectly legal campaigning with threats to national security—and the presumption of criminal activity before the fact—but also the absence of any known criteria via which the police could be held accountable. This is particularly pertinent in the case of ‘Dani’, with five of the women with whom he maintained sexual relations presenting a criminal complaint for the offences of sexual abuse, degrading treatment, disclosure of private information, and infringement of the exercise of their civil rights as set out by the Spanish Constitution. Their legal team has demanded that police clarify whether, as part of any intelligence gathering, ‘the maintenance of sexual and intimate relations with activists involved in the circles with which [the officer] established ties was foreseen, and if the General Commissariat of Information was aware of this’.
Legal action of this nature is unprecedented in Spain, and questions linger as to whether the case will come to trial. There is hope, however, that international legal precedent—particularly the compensation awarded to the British activist Kate Wilson for the violation of her human rights after she was deceived into a sexual relationship by undercover officer Mark Kennedy—could influence judicial considerations.
The extent of any official interest in the matter from beyond the country’s borders also remains to be seen. Were it to materialise, it would follow a recent trend of attention being paid to repressive practices in Spain. In 2021, the Council of Europe reminded the country’s authorities of their duty to safeguard freedom of speech, citing the example of Catalan politicians prosecuted for statements ‘made in the exercise of their political mandates’. The Council called on authorities to undertake a reform of the provisions covering the offences of rebellion and sedition, something which the current Socialist-led administration finally committed to in November 2022. More recently, in January of this year, a UN Special Rapporteurs group issued a request to Spain to ‘conduct a full, fair and effective investigation’ into allegations of spying on Catalan political and civil leaders whose mobile phones were targeted using the Pegasus spyware created by the NSO Group, of whom Spain’s National Intelligence Centre (CNI) is reported to be a customer. An official government response to this request has yet to be made.
Closer to home, the mayor of Barcelona, Ada Colau, has given her backing to calls for an official explanation, while Ángela Rodríguez, Secretary of State for Equality, has branded the officers’ conduct as ‘violence against women’. For the time being, and with demonstrators taking to the streets to demand an end to unwarranted police surveillance of legitimate political expression, those who once considered themselves fellow activists and friends of the two officers continue their own search for answers.Original post