The Citizen Guerilla that Brings ‘Banksters’ to Court in Spain

Since 2012, 15MpaRato, an organized citizen collective based in Barcelona, has been uncovering some of the largest corruption cases that are shaking Spanish politics since the 2008 financial crisis, and is a good example of fighting the impunity of financial corruption.

Politicians and bankers are often seen as getting away with special concessions and avoiding harsh penalties when it comes to financial corruption. However, this impunity is not unbreakable, as demonstrated by the work of 15MpaRato, a group of organized citizens that emerged on May 16th 2012 during the demonstrations on the 15M – Indignados movement’s first anniversary. It was initiated to pursue the political and financial actors responsible for the Spanish economic crisis. The collective is driven by Xnet; a non-profit activist platform whose activities revolve around free culture, net neutrality, technopolitics, network democracy and the defense of citizen journalism as well as the legal fight against corruption.

As its name indicates, 15MpaRato’s first target was Rodrigo Rato and his accomplices, some of the main figures responsible for the crisis. Rato, who was the former vice-president of the conservative People’s Party, Minister of Economy from 1996 to 2004, Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund until 2007, and Bankia’s president from 2010 to 2012, is now charged with money laundering and tax fraud. And he is not the only one. ‘After four years of litigation, we have already taken 100 banksters and politicians from all political parties to court,’ explains Simona Levi, co-founder and spokesperson of Xnet.

Simona Levi – at the center, purple shirt – and the Collective 15MpaRato / picture: Jorge Delgado

The story of a citizen lawsuit

15MpaRato is made up of 10 people. Ten ‘ordinary’ citizens, tired of witnessing their country sinking because of corrupt leaders. ‘In countries with a high level of corruption, institutions responsible for fighting such malfunction are themselves corrupt, ‘ says Levi. ‘Citizens have to start to audit governments and multinationals themselves, there are many things that can be done, but it has to come from very small groups and bottom-up movements. Corrupt bankers or politicians can be found everywhere.’

The collective first based its work on a simple observation: when Bankia – which was established in order to consolidate the operations of seven regional Spanish savings banks – entered the stock market in July 2011, its shareholders thought they were doing a wise business investment. However, the bank was on the verge of bankruptcy, following the bursting of housing bubble in 2008. On May 2012, the bank reported a profit of 328 millions euros, a figure that was adjusted two weeks later to a loss of 4.3 billions euros and to 19 billions euros one year later; the largest corporate loss in Spanish history. Bankia was nationalized in May 2012 due to the near collapse of the institution, while thousand of Spanish citizen lost their savings. ‘It is impossible that Rato, the board of directors and the ministers did not know what was happening,’ says Levi. ‘It is a structural dysfunction, where civil society is used as source of enrichment.’

New technologies and direct democracy

In spring 2012, 15MpaRato launched a citizen lawsuit against Rodrigo Rato. To cover the legal costs, the collective created ‘the first European political crowdfunding campaign’, according to Levi, and showed how alternative funding models, supported by new technologies, can enable a direct democracy type movement. ‘Our aim was to raise 15,000 euros in two weeks, but after five hours, we already had more than that. It indicates how much support we have from the population.’ The collective conducted a second campaign later on and collected almost 40,000 euros in total. ‘We spend about 10,000 euros per year to cover attorneys’ fees, travel expenses and other legal costs. We might have to do a third campaign since the end of the case is expected for 2018,’ adds Levi.

In order to build the case, the team collected evidence of fraudulent information that was given to people with accounts at Bankia. They then encouraged small investors to sue the bank and help them to persuade public prosecutors to take action. ‘Bankia agreed to give back about 2 billions euros to approximately 200,000 scammed small savers’, tells Levi. As reported by the BBC, Rato’s role in this alleged fraud is still being investigated with no date set for that trial yet.

The documents that could be used as evidence were collected through an anonymous denunciation system, XnetLeaks, using a PGP encryption tool in order to allow citizens with evidence of corruption to securely contact journalists and legal experts. It is through XnetLeaks and the Anti-Corruption Commission that the collective first learned (soon followed by the media and citizens) about the contents of around 8000 emails from Caja Madrid (which later became Bankia) in December 2013.  As it can be read on its website, 15MpaRato writes: ‘We uncovered corruption in the highest echelons of power and how we were responsible for bailing out Bankia because Caja Madrid spent its money on favors and bribes.’ Blesa’s emails reveal that almost all of Caja Madrid’s managers (and those of Bankia), during at least the presidencies of Miguel Blesa and Rodrigo Rato, had access to ‘Black’ Visa credit cards; they used them to make personal charges worth hundreds of thousands of euros (against the savings accounts of Bankia and, thereby, evaded 15.5 million euros in taxes.)

The first day of Rato’s trial for allegedly misusing corporate credit cards was on September 26th 2016. He was accused, with 64 other executives and board members at the banks, of having paid for hotels, parties and luxury shopping with the ‘Black’ Visa credit cards. He faces a possible jail sentence of up to 10 years if found guilty of running and expanding the secret credit card system.

The Deconstruction of a Symbol

The aim of 15MpaRato’s project is twofold: ‘we wanted to destroy the myth of Rato as the guru of the economic Spanish miracle and the bright guy of the conservative party. He is now a pariah, who has been excluded from his party and all the boards of directors. However, he did not act alone and his accomplices are falling with him’, says Levi. ‘Secondly, on a very concrete basis, we also wanted to get back the money taken from the population.’

The major strength of the collective is its visibility. They created, for example, a play about this story. According to Levi, the fact that such a complicated case is proceeding so quickly is good. ‘For the first two years, they tried to go as slow as possible, but they realized that it is better for them to be quick.’ At about a year from the final judgment, the objective for 15MpaRato is to keep, as much as possible, the media’s light on the trial. ‘I have never doubted that we would win. Since the beginning, I know they will be put in jail,’ concludes Levi.