Rocked by Corruption, Spain Takes a Moment To Pat Itself on the Back

SPANISH officials are glowing this week about the capture of Spain's most wanted fugitive. But the glow may be dimmed if the accused embezzler of an estimated $40 million makes new allegations against the beleaguered Socialist government.

Luis Roldan, former head of the Civil Guard -- the country's national police force -- and Socialist Party member, fled the country last April after being accused of taking kickbacks and stealing from a Civil Guard fund for terrorism victims.

His capture in Laos ended a nearly year-long search spanning 12 countries. With a civil servant salary of just over $55,000 a year, Mr. Roldan, who claims to have inherited money from his cabdriver father, is said to have amassed a fortune in property, and still have enough to lavish expensive gifts on his wife and mistresses.

Roldan's capture could give Spain's Socialist government a brief respite from the wave of corruption scandals that have threatened the political survival of Prime Minister Felipe Gonzalez, and prompted comparisons of institutional corruption on the scale of Italy.

Some political analysts point out that such corruption is relatively new in Spain, a country that was under the dictatorship of Gen. Francisco Franco for nearly 45 years until his death in 1975.

''If you lump together political corruption in Spain and Italy, you have to prove that Spain has totally broken down or is on the eve of doing it,'' says Ramon Cotarelo Garcia, political science professor at Madrid's Complutense University. ''I would say that the political situation remains pretty stable.''

Judge on the move

But like Italy, Spain has had its own crusading judge -- Baltasar Garzon -- who has jailed a number of security force members over allegations that they ran a clandestine paramilitary force that attacked suspected members of the Basque separatist group Basque Homeland and Liberty. More than 700 people have been killed in the group's 26-year militant campaign for an independent Basque country.

The allegations stem from two former members of national security forces, Jose Amedo and Michel Dominguez, convicted in 1991 of conspiracy to commit murder in connection with the activities of the Anti-Terrorist Liberation Group, known as GAL. Based on their evidence, a half-dozen former national security officials have been jailed without bond.

The GAL case languished for years until Mr. Amedo and Mr. Dominguez blew the whistle on their superiors. Those revelations coincided with the downfall of Mario Conde, head of the Spanish bank Banesto, who was jailed for his role in its downfall.

The flamboyant Mr. Conde allegedly pocketed millions of dollars in shareholder funds. Conde, who had repeatedly hinted about his political ambitions, has said the government takeover of the near-bankrupt Banesto in December 1993 was designed to halt his political career.

Unemployment high, too

All the scandals might not be so bad for Spain if the country's economic front wasn't so dismal. But given that Spain is still struggling to overcome its worst recession in 30 years, and has an estimated unemployment rate of 24 percent, Spaniards don't need much of an excuse to distrust the government.

The turmoil may put the conservative opposition party, the People's Party, in position to grab the reins from the Socialists. But the municipal elections in May are not easy to predict, because while voters appear disgusted with the Socialists, they may be reluctant to go with the conservatives, given Spain's not-so-distant dictatorship past.

The scandals have damaged the Gonzalez government, but the justice department's free hand in tackling the case is evidence that the justice system can work. Roldan's capture was generally hailed as a sign this trend will contine.

''I would say this is good for everybody,'' says Complutense's Cotarelo Garcia. ''People have to get used to the idea that political ideas don't guarantee ethical standards. Moral and ethical standards have to be safeguarded by legal means. This has been a rough lesson.''

As for the future of the prime minister, despite whatever allegations Roldan comes up with, Gonzalez has already proved he's a survivor. At a time Socialist leaders throughout Europe were being thrown out of power, he managed to get reelected in 1993 even after the biggest scandal of his career. Senior party members were found to have set up a group of companies to do nonexistent consultancy work in order to funnel the funds -- an estimated $10 million -- back into the party.

Gonzalez's strategy appears to be to try and survive an anticipated poor showing in upcoming municipal elections and hang on until he takes over as rotating president of the European Union in July.

At that time, the EU presidency will thrust the prime minister into the center of the world stage for the first time since the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona. And if the Gonzalez presidency coincides with strong economic growth in Spain, it could help Spaniards forget this legacy of corruption.

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