Thursday, 29 December 2011

Spain King's Son-in-Law Subpoenaed in Graft Probe


A judge subpoenaed the son-in-law of Spain's King Juan Carlos on Thursday to testify as a suspect in a corruption case, deepening a public relations nightmare for the royal family at a time of acute economic crisis for everyday people. The case surrounding Inaki Urdangarin, husband of the king's daughter Cristina, has been front-page news for weeks. But it went a big step further Thursday when Judge Jose Castro on the Mediterranean island of Mallorca named Urdangarin as a formal suspect in a criminal probe. The Balearic Islands Superior Court of Justice said in a statement that Urdangarin has been called to testify Feb. 6 in Palma, the capital of the archipelago. The one-page document did not mention allegations. But Spanish media say Urdangarin, 43, is suspected of siphoning money from public contracts awarded from 2004 to 2006 to a nonprofit foundation he then headed. He has not been charged with a crime. An official at the Royal Palace declined comment Thursday other than to say it "respects the decisions of judges." Spain has nearly 22 percent unemployment, a stagnant economy, mountains of debt and many other woes, so alleged shady business dealings by a member of the royal family look terrible for the Spanish monarchy. On Dec. 12 the Royal Palace shocked the country by announcing Urdangarin would for the time being stop taking part in official ceremonies involving the royal family. And in an unprecedented show of transparency, the palace this week made public the details of the stipend the royal family receives from the national budget. It said, for instance, that King Juan Carlos earns euro292,552 ($382,597) a year in salary and expenses and his son, Crown Prince Felipe, roughly half that amount. In his yearly Christmas Eve speech, the king expressed concern over what he described as the declining confidence among Spaniards in public institutions, a remark seen as a reference to the scandal surrounding his son-in-law, a commoner who used to be a professional handball player. Judge Castro's order Thursday made public an until-now sealed case file that the newspaper El Pais said contains 2,700 pages. Spanish newspapers have quoted investigators as saying Urdangarin is suspected, among other things, of having taken some of about euro6 million ($8 million) his nonprofit foundation received from the regional governments in Valencia and the Balearic Islands for organizing events such as sports seminars and diverting it to for-profit companies Urdangarin ran. The case is part of a broader, long-running corruption probe involving the regional government in the Balearic Islands. Since 2009 Urdangarin, the princess and their four children have lived in Washington, D.C., where Urdangarin works for the Spanish telecommunications company Telefonica, S.A. King Juan Carlos and Queen Sofia have three children. Crown Prince Felipe is the youngest, Princess Cristina is the middle child and the eldest is Princess Elena.

Monday, 26 December 2011

Dutch airport police say they have detained a Finnish man who fought with crew members aboard a flight from the Spanish island of Tenerife to Finland.

A spokesman said the crew overpowered the 57-year-old passenger and diverted the flight to Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport, where he was taken into custody Sunday

Spokesman Martijn Peelan says the man argued with his wife, and the fight escalated when the crew intervened.

Police are questioning the suspect and several witnesses. News reports say 177 passengers were on the plane.

Peelan says police cannot release details about the detained passenger or the aircraft that was diverted.

Friday, 23 December 2011

Bank managers and intermediaries for those wanting to launder dirty money by buying winning tickets were looking for the winners on Thursday.

Crisis-hit Spaniards this week sought a way out of their economic problems by betting massively on the world's biggest lottery, the Fat One – El Gordo – which distributed almost €2bn (£1.66bn) to winners around the country on Thursday.

After a nationwide spend of €2.7bn on lottery tickets, the main winners were the inhabitants of the small northern country town of Grañén, where €700m of prize money was handed out.

The town and its neighbouring villages are home to just 2,000 people – who won up to €400,000 each after buying shares in the top-paying lottery number.

The money promises to transform this farming community in the northern province of Huesca, which sits on the edge of one of Spain's harshest and most dramatic landscapes, the desert-like region of Los Monegros. Many of the winners were, like 23% of Spaniards, unemployed.

"A lot of businesses have closed here recently, so jobs are hard to find," said María Pilar Azagra, Grañén's sole lottery vendor.

"Now I can stop worrying so much about getting the sack," a bricklayer called Oscar said after picking up €400,000.

This year the state-owned national lottery increased the size of El Gordo prizes as Spaniards spent an average of €57 each on tickets. That was a slight fall, of 0.5%, on last year's spend.

Those who placed money on the winning number received 20,000 times the sum they had bet. Smaller prizes, some worth just a few euros, went to 27 million punters.

El Gordo's 100,000 numbers are divided up into fractions, with people placing anything from a few cents to €200 on their chosen number. Among the biggest winners were the members of the Housewife's Association of Sodeto, a village near Grañén, who shared out millions of euros.

The largest winner, however, is the Spanish state, which keeps 30% of the money spent on El Gordo. The €1bn it receives accounts for 0.1% of GDP, equivalent to almost 1% of this year's budget deficit target.

Azagra admitted she had failed to sell all the tickets with the winning number, sending many back on Wednesday night and allowing the state to hold on to the prize money.

El Gordo draw has kicked off Spain's Christmas celebrations every year since it was first drawn in 1812.

Champagne corks popped in the town square and in neighbouring villages as farmers, pensioners and the unemployed celebrated their luck.

"This makes up for a very bad year in which we have worked hard for very little reward," said Susana Pérez, who runs a small accountancy firm.

Farmers said they would be paying off bank loans used to buy irrigation systems.

One of the luckiest winners bought €80 worth of tickets bearing the lucky number hours before the lottery shop closed its doors on Wednesday. He walked away with €1.6m.

A Romanian immigrant, who asked to remain anonymous, also popped in to try his luck at what is a Spanish Christmas tradition.

"I had serious doubts about spending that much money on a ticket," he said after his €20 punt landed him €400,000.

Drinks were on the house at a Romanian-run bar in Huesca, the Carlitos, where bar staff had sold on shares in the winning number to their clients – who jointly collected €150m. "I am filthy rich!" shouted one customer, Antonio, at passing cars.

Bank managers and intermediaries for those wanting to launder dirty money by buying winning tickets were looking for the winners on Thursday.

Spaniards pay no tax on the winnings and winners can be offered extra by those wanting to use the tickets as a way of laundering money earned in the underground economy, which is thought to account for 17% of Spain's GDP.

Friday, 16 December 2011

DOG lovers in Estepona have been left horrified after a YouTube video showed a police van dragging a dog by its lead.

The Andalucia animal charity CACMA has now filed an official complaint against the officers involved and Estepona Mayor Jose Maria Urbano is said to be taking it ‘very seriously’.

It comes after the incident was filmed by a concerned resident on his camera phone and posted to YouTube where it has been widely viewed.

The disturbing video clearly shows the animal being pulled along the middle of the road while the van drives off.

“We were shocked and horrified to see how police dealt with this dog,” said Mary Page, Vice-President of local animal charity ADANA. “We hope that the incident will be thoroughly investigated.”

Monday, 12 December 2011

Spanish government has confiscated 561,000 fake cigarettes

The Spanish government has confiscated 561,000 fake cigarettes, which were imported from China and were paving their way into the Spanish market through the port of Valencia. The cigarettes were being transported in a container marked “synthetic fiber”.

China is the hub of fake cigarette dealers and they are mostly traded online. The trade of illegal cigarette products in large quantities on the internet has also increased dramatically, casting a huge shadow over the lawful cigarette trade in the country.

In November 2011, China Police busted around 122 criminal dens and arrested 78 suspects, following a raid in nine regions to crack a bogus cigarette manufacturing ring. Fake cigarettes were usually produced and stored in city outskirts and disguised as normal goods for delivery, with fake cargo and ownership details.

Puffing the fake cigarettes in large quantities or for a prolonged time will inevitably leave the smokers vulnerable to serious health damages. As per the lab findings of “The Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project” fake cigarettes from China are reported to contain 80% more nicotine and 130% more carbon monoxide, and impurities harmful for health.

These cigars are available at a cheaper price, and budget-constrained consumers end up smoking the fake ones.

In June, 2011 Philip Morris International Inc. (PM) had filed a case in U.S. District Court against local retailers in Miami for selling fake Marlboro cigarettes. The New York-based cigarette company tracked down 17 retailers who have been selling these cigarettes.

The extensive collection includes not only counterfeit smokes, but cigarettes with counterfeit tax stamps for almost all countries.

Other tobacco giants are also joining the fight against rampant black marketing of bootleg cigarettes on city streets. Way back in 2003, Lorillard Inc. (LO) had come forward to demolish the fake cigarette market and sued about 75 retailers in five states, 26 of whom were from Los Angeles alone.

In June 2011, British American Tobacco Plc. (BTI) Australia initiated legal action against six tobacco sellers, alleging them of selling Winfield Blue and Winfield Gold look-alike packets at two-third of the real price.

Spain’s war with fake cigarette owners had won a huge victory in November 2010, when the country’s biggest ever counterfeit cigarette network was dismantled in an operation. It had led to the seizure of 90 million fake cigarettes and the arrest of six men.

Urdangarin, 43, is reportedly suspected of siphoning away funds from public contracts awarded from 2004 to 2006 to a non-profit foundation he then headed.

King Juan Carlos's son-in-law will stop taking part in official ceremonies because of business dealings that are under investigation, Spain's Royal Palace said Monday as it sought to dissipate a whiff of scandal.

The decision regarding Inaki Urdangarin, husband of the monarch's daughter Princess Cristina, was a mutual one made by Urdangarin and the Royal Palace, its chief of staff Rafael Spottorno said in a rare meeting with Spanish media.

Urdangarin, 43, is reportedly suspected of siphoning away funds from public contracts awarded from 2004 to 2006 to a non-profit foundation he then headed.

The allegation looks terrible for the royal family at a time of acute hardship and economic crisis in Spain, where unemployment stands at 21.5 percent.

Urdangarin has not been charged with a crime. He issued a statement Saturday saying he regrets the "damage" the case is doing to the royal family but admitted no wrongdoing.

Spottorno insisted on presumption of innocence and urged investigators to conclude their probe soon as he announced Urdangarin will for now be removed from the royal family's agenda and no longer attend any official ceremonies involving it.

Spottorno said it was not yet known if the princess would also stay away from such activities.

The couple and their four children now live in Washington, D.C., where Urdangarin works for Spanish telecommunications company Telefonica, S.A.

No court papers have been made public, but Spanish newspapers quote investigators as saying Urdangarin is suspected of having taking part of about euro6 million ($8 million) the foundation received from the regional governments in Valencia and the Balearic Islands for organizing events such as sports seminars.

The money is said to have gone to for-profit companies Urdangarin ran.

The case is part of a broader, long-running corruption probe involving the regional government in the Balearic Islands, the capital of which is Palma on the island of Mallorca.

The Urdangarin slice of it has been front-page news for the past two weeks, and forced the Royal Palace to take the rare step of addressing publicly the activities of one of its members.

Spottorno also said that by the end of the month, the Royal Palace website will publish a breakdown of the money earmarked for the family in the government budget. In 2011, it was euro8.43 million.

King Juan Carlos and Queen Sofia have three children. Crown Prince Felipe is the youngest, Princess Cristina is the middle child and the eldest is Princess Elena.

Saturday, 10 December 2011

Ryanair's new fees: £1 for your ticket, £5 for your sandwich – £100 for your bag

Ryanair's new fees: £1 for your ticket, £5 for your sandwich – £100 for your bag

The no-frills airline will be increasing some of its charges by up to 150 per cent next summer

Friday, 9 December 2011

death of a 62 year old British man, who has been identified as having the initials IM

Guardia Civil in Almería are investigating the death of a 62 year old British man, who has been identified as having the initials IM, whose body was found in the water in the Puerto Deportivo de Almerimar at El Ejido.

The emergency services were called to the scene when passersby say a body floating near the harbour. They thought that the man had suffered a beating, may have lost consciousness and then subsequently drowned. Initial examinations show that the man may have died as the result of an accident while crossing a footbridge.

Investigators do feel that the cause of death is an accident, but they have not ruled out foul play.

Spain are understood to have begun investigating whether hoteliers in the country are paying the right level of VAT following the MedHotels case in the UK.

Tax authorities in Spain are understood to have begun investigating whether hoteliers in the country are paying the right level of VAT following the MedHotels case in the UK.

The UK tax office failed to convince a High Court judge this summer that bed bank MedHotels was liable to pay £7 million in VAT on its margin for the period 2004-07. However, the case exposed a tax gap in the sector.

Travel Weekly understands Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs (HMRC) officials in the UK have been "agitating" their Spanish counterparts to ensure that, if the tax cannot be collected here, it is at least paid locally.

A well-placed source said he was aware of a number of hotels which had been approached. "If this is not the bed banks' problem then it's got to be someone else's - whether that is fair or not is not for me to comment on," he said.

It had been assumed the Spanish tax authorities would not pursue hotels in the country for the tax, for fear of undermining so an important sector of the economy expecially in the current climate.

But the source said: "Spain has had not had a bad year for tourism and the country is broke, so this is one way for the government to raise some revenue."

The MedHotels case prompted HMRC to write to at least 10 other firms operating in a similar way, suggesting they too were liable for VAT under the Tour Operators Margin Scheme.

HMRC has not dropped these cases, although its pursuit of the VAT was dealt a severe blow on appeal at an Upper Tier tax tribunal which ruled MedHotels' paperwork and agreements with hoteliers meant it had been acting as an agent and was therefore not liable.

For the bed bank sector it is preferable tax on hotel beds is paid at the lower rate in Spain, where EVA - the Spanish equivalent of VAT - can be as low as 6% in some regions, compared with the 20% rate levied in the UK.

On Holiday Group chief executive Steve Endacott said: "This is another example of the British government not knowing how the market works. We are plagued by a bureaucratic and slow response from HMRC on all tax issues.

"I would expect most hotels are paying VAT because we are notifying them what is due."

HMRC has sought leave to appeal against the MedHotels ruling. The bed bank, formerly owned by, was sold to Thomas Cook in 2009

Majorca, police said a complaint for assault has been filed against Spargo and passed onto the court, but they would not elaborate.

Spargo was CEO, director and major shareholder of Napis Inc., based on West Superstition Boulevard, Apache Junction in Arizona until it was dissolved last year. He arrived in Majorca in mid-January, according to a person familiar with the situation. That was just after a court in Arizona issued a warrant for his arrest on a contempt charge. Both Spargo and his company had failed to obey a 2009 court order to repay investors who had alleged they had been defrauded by other companies and their money used to buy the dubious Napis bonds.

In Majorca, police said a complaint for assault has been filed against Spargo and passed onto the court, but they would not elaborate.

Spargo's white apartment block is a short walk from the beach in Puerto Pollensa, a district in the northeast corner of the island which is popular with British and German tourists. He can often be seen driving around in his Sahara edition green Wrangler Jeep. Locals say he spends much of his time on the golf course. According to the manager of La Batucada pub, who gave his name only as Rafa, Spargo comes in "almost every night." He described the American as his "best customer," saying Spargo is also a member of the pub's darts team.

In the United States, at least one of Spargo's controversial bond deals has made use of opaque entities and unlikely collateral -- $10 billion of diesel from the Russian republic of Bashkortostan.

In connection with that scheme, detailed by Reuters in "The Bonds that turned to dust," he is one of six people now under investigation by Italian police. Investigators are looking into $500 million in bonds issued by Spargo's Nevada-incorporated company Asseterra in 2008.

The bonds were sold to hedge fund DD Growth Premium, run by Italian academic Alberto Micalizzi. The fund, run out of London but registered in the Cayman Islands, collapsed soon after the oil bonds deal was completed. Investors, who had thought they were buying stock, later discovered hundreds of millions of dollars of losses. Britain's Serious Fraud Office launched a criminal investigation into Dynamic Decisions Capital Management, the hedge fund's manager, in November 2009 but dropped it eight months later after deciding there wasn't enough evidence to prosecute.

Last month, Italian police raided Micalizzi's home and offices in Milan. Britain's FSA, which has been investigating the oil-backed bonds, also said it had banned the fund's compliance officer from "any significant influence function in regulated financial services." The compliance officer could not be reached for comment. Micalizzi told Reuters the case against him is groundless and he considers reports about it unfounded and defamatory.


Since Reuters' original story, another case involving Spargo has emerged. It concerns an alleged $700 million bond issued by Napis in 2006. Iceland's National Police Commissioner alleges that a friend of Spargo's, Viggo Thorisson, an Icelandic national who attended Arizona State University in Phoenix when Spargo was living in the city in the 1990s, drew up false documents that committed his own company to act as guarantor for the bond issue.

Among allegations in the case is that Thorisson attempted to use the documents to defraud the Bank of Scotland through a debt management firm called Midscot (UK). Midscot folded in 2008 after one of its employees, James Johnstone, failed to pass on cash taken from debt-stricken families to pay their creditors, according to the Sunday Mail newspaper.

A Central Scotland Police spokeswoman said police had investigated Midscot and interviewed Johnstone on behalf of Icelandic police.

Thorisson, who has also been a director of Asseterra, denies all the charges and declined to speak to Reuters. An Icelandic court started a hearing in the case this week. Thorisson is not able to leave Iceland because he is charged with a criminal act.

Matt Hershey, Supervisory Deputy U.S. Marshal in the District of Arizona for the U.S. Marshals Service, said the investigation of Spargo is active, but investigators know he is out of the country. Because the warrant for his arrest results from a civil, not criminal case, U.S. Marshals cannot hand the case to their International Investigations Branch and Spargo cannot be extradited from Spain.

Spargo seems settled on Majorca. Besides La Batucada, he drinks at Irish pub O'Hara's and works out at nearby Calypso gym. "He always has young people around him," said the person familiar with his situation. "He spends a lot of money and pays for everything."

The source said Spargo is applying for a Spanish identification number and has been involved in a number of new projects including an aborted attempt to redevelop a local golf course by raising money through a bond issue. He has also talked about starting a microbrewery.

Neither plan has yet materialised.

Britons win case against Spanish developers


Peter and Benjamin Schmidt were found guilty by an Alicante court of fraud, sentenced to two years in prison and ordered to repay the £50,000 deposit taken from Keith and Marilyn Brown in 2004. A total of 60 people, mostly British, paid deposits in excess of £50,000 for property sold off-plan via the German father and son company Construciones Monte Puchol S.L. Within the space of a year the expectant homeowners began to realise that building licenses had not and would not be granted to the Schmidts, who had illegally earmarked 'rustic' land on which to build the 60 properties. It remains to be seen whether the decision will set a legal precedent and enable remaining victims, not just of the Schmidts, but of all fraudulent developers in Spain, to claw back their losses. Despite the allegations of fraud and the evidence against the Schmidts, the Browns were required to fund the six-year legal action themselves – something that has left a bad taste in the mouth of Mr Brown, particularly as there is no guarantee that the Schmidts will actually pay back what they owe. "In the UK, if a fraud is committed the police investigate the case and the Crown Prosecution Service pays the cost of the action," he said. "Here we have had to pay for everything ourselves. "Many of the other victims of this scam lost everything and were unable to pay legal fees so just had to walk away. From meeting and talking to other people who were involved there has been an immense amount of heartache and distress caused. I wonder why the Spanish authorities do not provide a legal system that is responsive to the need for a quick legal remedy." Mr Brown said that if it had happened in the UK, UK law would allow an action to sue the conveyancing lawyer directly for not checking the validity of the building licence. Under Spanish law they were unable to take that action. "It is about time the Spanish authorities and lawmakers woke up to the fact that the delay in getting a fair and just outcome is seriously detrimental to the Spanish economy," he said. Despite the positive result there is still the possibility of the Browns having to pay legal fees for an appeal hearing in Madrid and further fees for recovering their losses from the Schmidts and/or the lawyers from Javea. "Our resolve continues to be tested but we intend to continue in our search for justice," said Mr Brown. The Schmidts have been linked to a number of similarly bogus developments along the southern Spanish coastline during the early 2000 boom years of Spanish development and construction. When it became clear to investors that their homes would never materialise, the Schmidts attempted to maintain the fraud by offering to transfer investors' interest to their other property developments in Sagra and Benidoleig. At one stage the Browns were sent a cheque from the Schmidts to cover the airfare to visit one of their alternative developments, only for the cheque to bounce. After that, the Browns decided to instruct a new firm of lawyers to recover their deposit on the original development. Telegraph Expat's Spanish Planning Scandal campaign is supporting the thousands of expats who have been affected by the illegal homes crisis in Spain. You can find all the latest news on the situation here. Share:     inShare 1 Expat Property Overseas Property » Expat » Expat News » Spanish Planning Scandal »   Spanish planning scandal campaign   The Telegraph Weekly World Edition   Expat Directory   Expat picture galleries

Thursday, 8 December 2011

On the run, U.S. financier finds Spanish refuge


He's wanted for contempt of court in Arizona. He is under investigation by Italian police over his connection with an international bond scandal exposed by Reuters in August and totalling at least $500 million (320 million pounds). And he is named as a key player in one of the first criminal indictments following the collapse of Iceland's economy. But last week you could find David Spargo in a holiday resort on the Spanish island of Majorca. He's a regular at La Batucada cocktail bar, where he might be drinking anything from a cocktail to a beer or whisky. Locals say he also enjoys playing on the 95-euro-a-round (81 pound) Alcanada golf course, which overlooks the sparkling Mediterranean. Since he arrived in Majorca early this year he has even tried to issue more bonds, one source told Reuters. Spargo's case shows how tough it is for regulators and law enforcement agencies to track and punish alleged financial crimes across borders. Networks of 'shell companies' -- paper-only firms with few real operations -- make it hard enough to identify suspects. Even if regulators can identify them, they are often hard to bring to justice. Spargo may be of interest to officials in at least four jurisdictions around the world but police and civil guard officials on Majorca said they were unaware of the fraud investigation. The 44-year old American is sought by U.S. Marshals for failing to repay $5.5 million to investors in Texas and Virginia who had bought bonds issued by his company. But because the charges against him are civil ones, the United States is not able to extradite him and the U.S. embassy in Madrid says they are not aware of Spargo's presence in Spain. Iceland and Britain (whose top financial services regulator recently called $500 million of bonds Spargo issued in 2008 a "fraudulent instrument") have also not tried to extradite him. A prosecutor in Italy declined to say whether authorities had tried to extradite anyone in connection with the case. "There are likely to be hundreds of suspected white-collar criminals who have moved to other countries and are now living off the proceeds from their alleged crimes," says Andrew Gordon, forensic services partner at accountants PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC). Police in the City of London say more and more criminals are trying to hide their operations in different countries, using myriad bank accounts to siphon off the profits. Spargo himself denies any fraud. "A lot of your information is extremely incorrect," he told a Reuters reporter from the balcony of his second-floor apartment on November 28. "You'll find out in the next three days."

Spanish royal family hit by fraud scandal


The once squeaky-clean Spanish royal family has become immersed in a growing fraud scandal that reveals how members of King Juan Carlos's family may have cashed in on the monarchy's good name. At the centre of the scandal is the king's son-in-law Iñaki Urdangarin, a former Olympic-medal-winning handball player who became the Duke of Palma after marrying Juan Carlos's sporty daughter, the infanta Cristina. Urdangarin and his business partners are the subject of daily leaks from a fraud investigation involving millions of euros of public money as Spain's royal family struggles to hold on to its popularity. Police have raided the offices of his private companies and of a foundation he once presided over, taking away documents. El País newspaper reported this week that prosecutors believe Urdangarin, who has not been charged with any wrongdoing, will be named as a formal suspect in the case within two months. That could be a first step towards formal charges being placed. The royal palace, meanwhile, added fuel to the scandal this week by suggesting Juan Carlos planned to cut the official royal family down to a nuclear core – in effect casting off his son-in-law and daughter. On Thursday morning the palace press office appeared to have received a royal ticking off and publicly backtracked, saying "it deeply regretted having contributed to the fact that some media outlets reported this erroneously". Urdangarin himself, who now works for Spain's Telefonica phone company in Washington DC, has said he is innocent. "When I know the details of the investigations being carried out … I will be able to comment on their contents," he said last month. "My professional behaviour has always been correct." Queen Sofia, meanwhile, has showed public support for her beleaguered daughter and son-in-law, allowing the latest edition of Hola magazine to publish pictures of her visiting them at their home in the US. Speculation in Spanish newspapers has included predictions that Urdangarin will drop his aristocratic title so he can continue as a businessman or that Cristina will renounce her position as seventh in the line to the throne. Within a few years of abandoning his sports career in 2000, and after studying at a prestigious business school, Urdangarin became the owner of a €6m (£5m) house in Barcelona. He set up various companies and became president of a nonprofit foundation, the Nóos Institute. The institute boasted that its patrons included Urdangarin, his wife, an accountant described as an "assessor to the royal household" and professors from two of the world's top business schools, the Barcelona-based Iese and Esade schools. Nóos landed multimillion-euro contracts to organise events for regional governments in the Balearic Islands and Valencia. But public prosecutors in Palma, the capital of the Balearics, have said there is evidence the institute was a front, charging hugely inflated fees and siphoning money off to Urdangarin's private companies. A €1.2m contract with the Balearic Islands was, prosecutors told investigating magistrate José Castro, "totally disproportionate to the task … based exclusively on a fictitious budget which did not analyse a single cost". They said evidence pointed to the foundation being used exclusively to channel money to other companies – many in the names of Urdangarin or his business partners. "That was the sole aim," they said. At least €3.2m out of €5m was passed on from Nóos to Urdangarin's companies, according to Publico newspaper. The scandal comes as the royal family loses support among ordinary Spaniards. A regular poll by the state-run Centre for Sociological Investigation shows that, for the first time since polling started 17 years ago, trust in the royals has fallen below the halfway mark. Spaniards now place greater trust in the press.

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Snowshoeing in Spain’s Sierra Nevada Mountains

Do you have a map? Yes.

Do you have a compass? Yes.

Do you have a GPS? Yes.

Do you have an ice axe? No we are staying in the forest.

Do you have crampons? No, we have snowshoes!

Paco was clearly going through a list drawn-up by someone else but found our reasoning acceptable and let us pass.

Although Spain’s Sierra Nevada contains the highest mountain in mainland Spain (Mulhacen 3472m), there is only one downhill ski resort in the range. Essentially, this is an undeveloped wilderness in winter where you can get away from it all and experience some genuine backcountry snowshoeing. Each day you can access a different part of the range from the relatively warm southern side with its pretty villages built hundreds of years ago when the Arabs ruled Spain. Dirt track roads lead to high starting points. It’s also possible to stay high in relative comfort at the Poqueira Mountain Refuge at 2500m or fend for yourself at one of a number of unmanned bivouac refuges to make a multi day trip.

The appeal for us running snowshoeing holidays there is the undeveloped nature unlike so many European alpine resorts whose association with skiing, après-ski, and chairlifts spoil the wilderness experience.

Above Capileira

Leaving Paco to continue his questioning, we set off into the trees. The forest above Capileira is our favourite starting point when introducing people to snowshoeing or to this area. Capileira at 1300m is usually just below the snowline and breakfast of coffee and “tostada con tomato” can be had in one of a number of bars before heading up into the snow.

The usual summer road head of Hoya del Portillo is unobtainable, but it provides a good highpoint for a first day out on snowshoes. Up through forested valleys we tramped, passing numerous rocky outcrops, which gave us views of the valley below. The route that day would take us to the summer road head, which in winter was blocked by many feet of snow. We return partly through forest clearings and recently thinned trees, which offer ideal snowshoe terrain. One of the highlights in spring as the water starts to flow again is crossing an “acequia” one of the many water channels built by the Arabs who settled here in medieval times. Although, the Arabs are long gone, their legacy in these water channels and village architecture still remains. The style of building in the high mountain villages here are similar in style to the Berber villages of Morocco’s High Atlas Mountains.

A Trip to the Poqueira Refuge

An alternative is to continue above Hoya del Portillo, which offers a good circuit up to the Poqueira Refuge at 2500m. Not easily possible as a day trip, the refuge does provide a “hotel” service 365 days a year. This modern refuge sleeps up to 84 and can be busy at weekends. Booking is advisable though at anytime of the year.

From Hoya del Portillo it’s possible either to ascend through the stunted pines or easier up the fire break with its stunning views above the Poqueira gorge up to Valetta the second highest mountain in the range. Forty minutes above Hoya we come to the viewpoint of Puerto Molino. It’s from here that we get our first decent views of Mulhacen, mainland Spain’s highest mountain. An undulating ridge leads from here to Mirador Trevelez 2700m where we begin our descent down towards the hut. We skirt the hill of Alto del Chorrillo where we can see a huge cairn about 1km in the distance. This marks the way to the Refuge, which can be seen from the cairn.

A night in the Poqueira Refuge is a great experience. Although the food is basic mountain fare, there are usually four courses and plenty of it. The log burner in the dining room provides plenty of warmth though a down jacket and sleeping bag are useful for upstairs.

By spending two nights at the Poqueira refuge it’s possible to ascend Mulhacen. This is a more challenging proposition, and really only the South Ridge from Alto del Chorrillo is suitable for snowshoes – the West Ridge being steeper and requires ice axe and crampons.

If choosing the West Ridge route, the ascent from the refuge to the Caldera bivouac refuge is up through the valley of the Rio Mulhacen. There is some avalanche risk here and starting early is a must as is having avalanche transceivers, shovels and knowing how to use them. Despite the difficulties, the summit on a clear sunny day offers some great views, of the entire range, and well beyond.

Returning to the valley from the Poqueira Refuge can itself be interesting. It’s possible to complete a circuit by either returning along the path running under the west side of the ridge we ascended back to near Puerto Molino or by descending down to Cortio los Thomas and by following the acequia, which brings us out onto a trail (driveable in summer) beneath Hoya.

Caballo, Europe’s Most Westerly 3000m Peak

Caballo is our favourite mountain and has been the source of many adventures. It’s a nice – though hard day – out from Lanjaron. Driveable dirt tracks take us up to near the road head at 2100m just short of the old ruined Ventura Refuge. Where the snowline starts varies, but it’s usually possible to reach the road head and have snowshoes on within 20 minutes of starting the ascent.

It usually takes around four hours to reach the summit this way. Last march we were able to drive most of the way in a friend’s four-wheel drive and a group of us, including six-month old in a backpack, enjoyed a day of warm sunshine exploring the southern flanks of the mountain. From the old refuge we headed northwards ascending gradually until we hit a forest of stunted pines. An ascent to the top of the forest before leads to a diagonal traverse up to the ridge, which is then followed to the summit. The safest way back avoiding the avalanche risk of the Rio Lanjaron is to retrace your steps, which on a clear day gives views across to the mountains in North Africa some 150Km away. Allow three hours for the descent.

If the snow conditions allow access to it’s possible to drive high, onto the West Ridge of Caballo, which provides the easiest and safest ascent. We’ve found it to be a nice route in April and early May – a four- or five-hour round trip.

Puerto De La Ragua

This is a cross country ski “resort” situated at 2000m. The road to this point is usually kept clear and it provides a good starting point for both easy snowshoe itineraries and for some more serious mountain itineraries. Parking with a café bar, restaurant makes this more of a traditional style alpine resort and good base for circular routes.

Following on from our Poqueira trip, we decided to head off to Ragua. We resisted the temptation to have a coffee, as the forecast for the afternoon was not so good. Instead we skirted the prepared cross country ski tracks and took a big loop to scale the easy rounded summits of Morron de la Cabanuela 2223m and Morron del Hornillo 2375m. From here we dropped down through the trees to follow the track for a short way back to base.

Care should be taken when returning through the forest, especially near the Baranco del Hornillo as there is some avalanche risk here. The more adventurous may wish to extend this itinerary to include the Morron del Mediodia 2753m though a cautious eye should be kept on the weather and time. On this occasion we just managed to enjoy the open tops before the wind got up by which time the café beckoned and we returned to the warmth.

Conditions and Technical

Spain’s Sierra Nevada lies a long way south relatively close to North Africa. Its height attracts the snow and there is usually reliable snow cover most years from 1900m in January, February and March. That said, we have found acceptable snow well into May, and the ski resort has remained open into May for the past three years.

The area can attract very high winds and because of the high altitude the climatic conditions can be very adverse. If contemplating the higher routes you will need experience in survival situations and be able to navigate well in snow. There are plenty of lower more sheltered routes in the forests for those windy days. The Guardian and staff at the Poqueira refuge are always happy to advise on conditions in the higher mountains.

The maps are for the most part accurate in what they show. If it’s on the map it’s usually there on the ground. However, none of the maps show craggy features; so much caution needs to be exercised if following a compass or GPS device in poor visibility as you may be walking off a cliff.

To make the most of a trip to this region you should consider hiring a car. We hire small vans for the extra ground clearance negotiating the dirt track roads. Hiring four-wheel drive vehicles is better though expensive. Capileira is the best base if you do not have a car though you will have to walk an hour to the snowline. The Spa town of Lanjaron is a good base for access to a variety of routes, but you will need your own transport.

Mountain House Holidays will be running seven-day snowshoeing holidays based from the spa town of Lanjaron in February and March 2012, though we also take clients for daily-guided trips at other times.

There is some information on our website for those wanting to plan their own trip, but we are always happy to share our experience with anyone who gets in touch.

There are other guides available locally, but please be aware that only acceptable qualifications for snowshoe guides in Spain (and most of Europe) are International Mountain Leaders or IFMGA Guides.


There are few places left in Europe’s mountains that are undeveloped for skiing and winter sports. Spain’s Sierra Nevada remains one of these giving a truly wild backcountry feel. A higher level of commitment is needed though because of this lack of development. Rescue can be problematic with no dedicated rescue service; maps not including obvious features such as cliffs; and the combining of altitude and possible high winds giving sometimes arctic conditions. We have got to know the area over many years, sometimes turning back when conditions have dictated it. We expect to spend many more years further exploring the range.

These days Mountain House guides are well known and Paco doesn’t bother going through his checklist with us, rather we engage in pleasant conversation about the mountains, weather and environment. As he says, “you know it all.”

Spanish suburbs transformed into land of shattered dreams


When Magali Quezada began working at a remittance office in suburban Madrid four years ago there were long lines of customers -- now she waits patiently for someone to walk in. "It used to be swarming with people, there were long lines of people who wanted to send money back home," the 34-year-old Peruvian said as she looked around the empty office at Torrejon de Ardoz. Like other Spanish suburbs, Torrejon saw a huge influx of immigrants during the years of a profitable real estate boom as millions of foreigners arrived seeking jobs in construction and the service sector. Immigrants account for about one-fourth of Torrejon's population. They come mainly from Latin America, Africa and Eastern Europe and have helped keep the town's bars, cafes and beauty salons busy during the good times. But with immigrants especially hard-hit by the collapse of Spain's real estate bubble in 2008, stores are now deserted. "For sale" signs dot the windows of flats, and the suburb is plagued by unemployment and shattered dreams. "We got used to the good life, we had leisure time, we could buy a plot of land in our countries, we brought over our families. Now all of that is over," said Quezada who arrived in Torrejon a decade ago. Spain's unemployment rate soared to a 15-year high of 21.52 percent in the third quarter, the highest among major industrialised nations. But among immigrants the joblessness is even higher, standing at 32.7 percent. Many now struggle to meet repayments on car and and home loans given out with ease by banks when times were better. When Luis Mendes arrived in Spain in 1997 from Guinea-Bissau, a former Portuguese colony on the West African coast that is one of the world's poorest nations, he thought he found his land of opportunity. The 40-year-old worked long hours on a farm and then as a construction worker and got a bank loan for 100,000 euros to buy a 70-square-metre flat in Torrejon. "I earned a good living, I earned 1,800 euros a month because I would often worked overtime. It was enough to help my family who stayed behind," he said. "Today I don't work anymore. I received jobless benefits during a year but now I am not entitled to them anymore," said Mendes, who shares his apartment with his two brothers who are also out of work. He is facing eviction from his flat because he has not been keeping up with his mortgage payments. The street where Mendes lives has been nicknamed "eviction street" because several other people risk losing their homes over missing mortgage payments. Last month a group of about 60 activists who fight against home foreclosures tried in vain to prevent two bailiffs from evicting Consuelo Lozano from her first-floor flat in Torrejon. The 40-year-old unemployed cleaning lady had already sent her two sons and daughter back to her native Ecuador with her husband but she cannot walk away from her 200,000-euro mountain of debt. "It is a fight against giants and I am nothing beside them," she said, her eyes welling with tears, after she turned over her keys to the bailiffs. Lozano would like to go back to Ecuador but if she leaves Spain the debt on her flat would pass on to her sister, who is a guarantor of the bank loan. "I could go back to Ecuador but where would I leave my conscience which torments me?," she asked. Other immigrants, like Mendes, have no desire to return to their homeland. "It is very hard, I live very badly now. But it is even worse in my country," he said.

Yard detectives investigating Maddie disappearance travel to Spain and Portugal


SCOTLAND Yard detectives investigating the disappearance of Madeleine McCann have flown to Spain and Portugal, it emerged yesterday. Three officers met colleagues in Barcelona last month. It is believed the visit was linked to reports Maddie may have been smuggled into the country after being snatched just before her fourth birthday on a holiday in Portugal in 2007. Advertisement >> Investigators hired by parents Gerry and Kate earlier uncovered a child porn ring in the city. A Met Police spokesman said there had been “good co-operation” between the forces. Scotland Yard was called in to review the case earlier this year following a request by PM David Cameron. The McCanns praised cops and added in a statement: “We are pleased that the review is making progress.”

Friday, 2 December 2011

Royal Navy comes to the aid of Spanish trawler under pirate attack


The British Royal Navy has arrested seven suspected pirates after helping a Spanish fishing vessel which was being attacked in the Indian Ocean. The British Ministry for Defence said the Royal Auxiliary Fleet Ship Fort Victoria, carrying Royal Marines, carried out the rescue on the 28th of November between Somalia and the Seychelles. The RFA Fort Victoria is a stores ship with is designed to carry ammunition, food and explosives to replenish naval vessels at sea. The vessel’s navy helicopter fired shots at two suspected pirate vessels which were then searched by the marines. They pirates were taken to the Seychelles where the suspects will stand trial.

Málaga port's new attraction closed after seven hours


The new Muelle Uno has been closed as building works are continuingThe Muelle Uno development - EFE After much fanfare about the opening of Málaga port to the city, and the opening of the Muelle Uno on Tuesday, the Málaga City Hall decided to order the closure of the new street just seven hours after it opened to the public. A public statement was sent out which said that, for reasons of safety, and because the building work was still continuing, they were ordering the street to be closed and called on the tender owner to close the shops. Just five hours earlier the Mayor of Málaga, Francisco de la Torre, and several councillors went to the reception prior to the inauguration of the new attraction in the Marina de la Farola. The owner of the concession was reported to be considering what to do on Tuesday night, and whether to remain trading anyway, but that decision has been overruled by the guards placed on Wednesday at the entrance to the zone, stopping the public from gaining access. The City Hall has made a new statement saying the area will not open until all the building works are fully completed.

Three tons of cannabis seized from Alicante drugs yacht


The haul has a street value of more than 5 million €A previous haul of cannabis resin .. Three tons of cannabis have been seized and four suspects have been arrested in a joint operation by the Customs Authority and National Police which took place off the coast off Alicante on Tuesday morning. The operation was on the high seas some 70 miles off shore, where a Customs patrol boat intercepted a yacht which was visibly sailing low in the water and was later found to be carrying 100 bales of cannabis. Diario Información puts its street value at more than 5 million €. The three crew were arrested and a fourth man was taken into custody on shore. It’s understood that three are Spanish and the fourth is a foreign national who has lived in Spain for some years. The operation remains open and further arrests have not been ruled out.

British man dies, strangled in a ponche


A 32 year old Briton died on Mallorca around 1730 on Wednesday afternoon in a domestic accident in a property in Cami de Son Choix de Lloret, Lloret de Vistalegre. He was strangled when a poncho he was wearing got caught in a generator which he had just started up. 061 emergency services arrived at the scene and found the man seriously injured, but there was nothing they could do to save his life.

British paedophile arrested in Almería


National Police have today arrested a 66 year old British man who is wanted on four charges of rape and on twelve counts of sexually abusing his step-daughter when she was nine to 13 years old, and then later the granddaughter when aged six. The arrest took place in Los Gallardos, Almería, and the man has been named as L. Morris. The search for him started in July 2010 when the granddaughter finally told her both that she had suffered abuse on two occasions, and an arrest order was then issued with the suspect fleeing to Spain. Meanwhile a man wanted in Sweden has been arrested in his home in Málaga province. J.F. Ask, aged 56, is wanted on tax evasion charges and is accused of not paying tax between 2001 and 2005.


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