The Spanish Army: untouchable de facto power

Catalan MonitorArticles, History, Vilaweb

Photo: Spanish soliders in an exercise (Credit: Vilaweb)

By Seda Hakobyan i Alexandre Solano

From 24th August 2018

The Spanish army were in the news again last month when a manifesto appeared, signed by hundreds of officers in defense of the dictator Francisco Franco, coinciding with the debate over his exhumation.

Although it has been bumped down the hierarchy since Franco, in state policy, the army has maintained a position aligned to the extreme right, with minimum transparency and with little evolution despite the passage of decades.

From backbone of the government, to shadow rulers
The armed forces were one of the main actors of the dictatorship of General Franco. The transition took away military positions of power within politics, but the high military commanders continued to play a leading role in the new framework, as shadow lawmakers in opposition to democratic change.

Several fathers of the Spanish constitution have explained that the main decisions were consulted upon with military staff, and that essential articles were imposed by the military, such as the second article (that of the indissoluble unity of Spain) or 8.1, which states that the armed forces will be responsible for guaranteeing territorial integrity and constitutional order.

Therefore, the military has an anti-democratic origin. Constant ‘saber rattling’ has always had a political effect. One of the most recurrent arguments to keep the monarchy was that the army would be faithful to the king but that this could not be guaranteed in other circumstances.

Even the Communist Party of Spain said that it had to accept the monarchy, following military pressure. The former party leader, Santiago Carrillo, declared: “Suarez acknowledged that a contingent of the army ‘had kept politicians in their sights, and under threat’ during the process of forming the constitution, and in particular when it came to the Basque and Catalan questions”. One leading player in the process went so far as to say “the transition was negotiated with a gun on the table”.

Reforms to control the army
The Spanish transition also brought with it changes to the structure of the army, mainly to modernize the institution and subordinate military power to civil power. What had been the backbone of the dictatorial regime was forced to take a step back, and lost its ability to control the state leadership.

As it wasn’t possible to achieve ideological and democratizing change within the political institutions, they focused on obedience to civil power. In 1977, the Ministry of Defense was created, to increase the coordination and control of the armed forces, and later the position of the Secretary of State for Defense, adjoint to the Minister and appointed at the behest of the president of the Spanish government.

To control the most reactionary officers, the intelligence services were strengthened to prevent coups. At the same time, joining NATO forced the armed services to open up to the external world somewhat, with the integration into a super-statal structure, one which was more modern, more subordinate to civil power, and conducting training and missions in a coordinated manner, abroad.

Conspiracies in the military
The changes were aimed at removing military power from political life and creating an effective hierarchical control of the ministry. However, in no way did this mean a renewal of the ideology of the institution. Military officials maintained a great deal of autonomy.

The impossibility of ideological renewal forced the transfer out of the most radical elements opposed to democracy, to remove their power, and hinder possibilities of conspiracy, similar to what the governments of the Second Spanish Republic undertook with the principal actors in the military coup. General Jaime Milans del Bosch was transferred from the armored division Brunete, to Madrid, to the III military region, in Valencia. Later, General Luis Torres Rojas was removed from the same division and sent to Coruña as military governor, while General Alfonso Armada, secretary of the royal house, was assigned to Lleida.

The first serious conspiracy was in Xàtiva, from September 13th to 16th, 1977, when high commanders got together to meet to discuss the situation at the time, and aimed to create a constitution which included military autonomy. They had the intention of placing a general lieutenant at the head of a ‘strong government’. The second most serious event was the so-called Operation Galàxia, which was set to execute a coup on November 17th, 1978, one month before the eventual referendum on the Spanish constitution. It sought to take the over the Moncloa palace whilst an imposed council of ministers would put in place a government of ‘national salvation’, taking advantage of the fact that Juan Carlos I was to be in Mexico.

Condemnation was minimal, especially to the most visible heads of the military. Lieutenant Colonel of the Guardia Civil Antonio Tejero and the captain of the armed police Ricardo Sáenz de Ynestrillas did not lose their military rank, but were only sentenced to seven and six months, respectively. Ynestrillas was even promoted when by regulation it it was his turn to be evaluated for ascension in the ranks. After this minimal clear-up exercise, the intelligence agencies estimated that there had been two hundred high-ranking leaders and officers invited to take part in the coup, or who had knowledge of the conspiracy.

In January 1980, General Torres Rojas was transferred. He had planned to take Madrid with the armored Brunete division. Finally, on February 23rd, 1981 there was the infamous coup attempt, in the midst of the investiture session of Leopoldo Calvo Sotelo. Milans del Bosch brought out the tanks in Valencia.

A year later the conspiracy of October 27th, 1982, was dismantled, which sought to perpetrate actions against leftist and pro-autonomy activists. At the same time, a massive attack on a block of military flats in Madrid was planned, which they sought to blame on ETA, to justify a coup d’état by the military, that would put in place a leadership junta inspired by Pinochet in Chile.

The last two known conspiracies were in May 1983 and June 1985. In 1983, the Coup de Lerma (in Burgos), was planned by a general. He was not relieved of his command either. On the contrary, he was promoted, to keep him tranquil. And the last known attempt is that which took place on June 2nd, 1985: some officers tried to eliminate political and military authorities, including the king, with an attack on the tribune of authorities during the Armed Forces parade in A Coruña. The goal was to create a power void that would facilitate the intervention of the army into Spanish politics.

A state within a state
Broadly speaking, the Spanish government’s solution was to not make any intervention in the army, provided the military were kept out of politics. They could do whatever they wanted inside their bases, as long as they remained there without disturbing the political system. A state within a state.

The amnesty law of 1977, which applied to a large number of political prisoners, prevented the crimes committed during the 1936-39 civil war from being tried, and protected the Franco regime, did not apply to the members of the Democratic Military Union (UMD), created by those in the military who were in favor of democracy in 1974. As such, this resulted in a rough repression of democratic actors within the military and their expulsion from the corps. Later, those who had been expelled were largely not allowed to be re-readmitted, due to soft military pressure. A pro-democracy wing of the military was essentially vetoed by a majority of the sitting military staff.

The army continued to act with impunity, such as in the case in 1977 of the military tribunal against the Barcelona theathre group Els Joglars, tried and sentenced by the military court to 2 years in prison, for “insult and injury to the military. All this just a month after the approval of the amnesty law, which was to stop politically-motivated convictions.

The fact is that military power and de facto jurisdiction has remained in place until today. It is a special jurisdiction, with great deficits of independence and impartiality. The members of the tribunals are military officers, integrated into the structure of the armed forces. Therefore, they depend on the ministry for promotion, transfer or dismissal.

In the territorial military courts there are still military spokespeople, with no legal training, with an obvious bias. We still find, for example, that a lower ranking member cannot appear in a complaint against a superior officer, but instead such cases remain exclusively in the hands of a prosecutor and a military judge. The majority of complaints are also made before the hierarchical superiors, who decide the route (criminal or disciplinary) and may even simply throw them out. Therefore, the army has a great room to maneuver, to cover allegations against it, from within it.

Letizia Armadas, the commanding officer of the armed forces, on leave of absence, says that the regulation makes it almost impossible to denounce corruption. She adds that neither party, neither the PP nor the PSOE, has really had the will to change this.

If we talk about the historical memory in the army, we will also see that this is far from normal democratic levels. Access to information and classified documents, especially those to do with military activity is a particularly good example. There are documents which have been classified for five centuries now and it is estimated that there are about ten thousand Ministry of Defense documents dating between 1936 and 1968 that are still not publically accessible.

The economic impunity of the army
One of the best known cases in the army in recent times has been that of Lieutenant Luis Gonzalo Segura de Oro-Pulido, who denounced widespread corruption in the armed forces.

In the novel “A step forward” (Un Paso al Frente) he highlighted the corruption and abuses of power by high level commanders. He pointed out that in the bases there is an alternative accounting process which is not recorded anywhere, in addition to the “revolving door” between the Defense Cupola and the weapons and armament companies. He exemplified this with the example of the ex-chief of the General Staff of the land army, General Carlos Villar Tarrau, who signed on to work for the company Santa Bárbara, having signed contracts with this company in his military role only shortly before.

All in all, it is added that there is a debt of about 40,000 million euros in unusable equipment and weaponry, such as A400M aircraft, the S-80 submarine, which never floated, Leopard tanks that did not fit in Transport aircraft therefore could only be used on the Iberian Peninsula – all this being material that Lieutenant Segura points out served merely to fatten a few wallets.

The decisions are taken by the Defense Cupola in an opaque way. The law regarding public sector contracts dictates that contracts awards are made ordinarily with either the open or restricted procedure, but in the case of the Ministry of Defense, its been found that most were awarded through direct negotiation and without any advertising. Specifically, 71% of the 2,389 contracts awarded by Defense in 2014 were undertaken without a contest.

We should also talk about the opacity of the Spanish army budget. The Delàs Center indicates camouflaged games in other areas to do with the military, such as the social security of the military, the R&D for the acquisition of arms or missions abroad, which increase the cost by 250% and brings it to nearly 18,776 million euros (404 euros per citizen) in the 2017 budget. This data is more in line with that which comes from NATO, who put Spain’s expenditure on defense at around 14,000 million.

According to former Lieutenant Segura, in addition, 40% of the army’s computing material does not correspond to the inventory. Where this equipment comes from, and where the money came from to buy it is unknown.

The most notable case in contractual corruption was that of the Yak-42 aircraft. Under the responsibility of Minister Frederico Trillo (Partido Popular), there was an accident that caused 75 deaths, in 2003 in Turkey. The accident was followed by threats and humiliations to families and erroneous identification of corpses, to the point that on the 28th of May of this year, Turkey informed the Spanish government that had found the leg of one of the deceased. In spite of this, the minister did not resign, but was in fact rewarded with an ambassordship to the UK, in London.

Political and criminal impunity
Lieutenant Segura has also denounced the fact that officers are protected in all other types of cases, beyond corruption, in a climate of total impunity. There is, for example, a captain convicted of 28 sexual assaults, who continues to be in office, or a lieutenant colonel who sexually assaulted a commander. In total there are more than one hundred officers convicted of a crime who continue to hold office because they have the privilege of staying there when they are sentenced to less than three years.

On the other hand, in the case of Lieutenant Segura and those who have publically opposed the official line, they are dealt with forcefully. For example, the retired general, Juan Enrique Aparicio, who recently signed the pro-Franco manifesto, also signed off the arrest warrant for Segura (who was later expelled). We find more cases, such as Jonathan’s, a transsexual soldier, fired for ‘psychophysical reasons’, assumed to be cover for the conservative exclusionary character of the army.

Nor has there been any change in ideology over the years. The armed forces continue to use hundreds of pro-Franco symbols and have become the most visible stronghold for Francoism, with exaltations to the coup d’état in the parade grounds being heard. Lieutenant Gonzalo Segura states that 80% to 90% of the Spanish military leadership is still far-right leaning.

The leader of the army Marco Antonio Santos is currently being investigated as a military man in active employment for having signed an anti-Francoist manifesto. For him, ‘Francoism in the armed forces is widespread’. He asserts that for two decades ago he has been hearing cries of ‘Arriba España’ and that Francoist ideology is still widespread among senior officers.

Around seven hundred former military commanders of the army, which include sixty-two generals in reserve, signed the document ‘Declaration of respect and regard for General Francisco Franco Bahamonde, soldier of Spain’, which appeared in July, when the desire to exhume Franco’s remains and have them removed from the Valle de los Caídos was announced. Among the high ranking signatories are Luis Alejandre Sintes, former chief of the military staff until 2004; Eduardo González-Gallarza, ex-chief of the air force; and Antonio González-Aller, former chief of the military quarter of the Spanish king. There is also the ex-captain of the United Nations mission in Lebanon, the ex-chief of the military command of the Canaries and the ex-chief of the army personnel command.

Of these, there are currently five reservists that maintain professional ties with the Ministry of Defense, who are being investigated, because expressions that are contrary to the state are a serious or very serious offense, as well as violating political neutrality. However, the leader who signed the anti-Francoist manifesto is also investigated. In both cases, most are retired people, already without military responsibilities, but which are receiving military pension payments.

If in Germany there was a process of de-nazification and in Italy a partial process, here in Spain there was no action for renewal, beyond that of facilitating early retirement.

An unchanging ideology
Over the years, the Spanish army has kept a conservative and ultra-nationalist image, which is imbued in contemporary military comments on the Catalan process, and deferential and commemorative of the spirit of the 23-F coup attempt (23rd February 1981). There is a certain nostalgia for the Franco regime, and continued impunity.

Not surprisingly, at the military casino of Madrid (The Armed Forces Cultural Centre in Madrid), a military institution led and managed by top commanders in the reserves which until 2005 depended on the Ministry of Defense’s budget, an event was held to honour a Neonazi sentenced for the attack on the Blanquerna, the office of the Catalan Government in Madrid, Pedro Chaparro Velacoracho. He received an award for ‘patriotic sacrifice’, the Víctor Pradera Prize of 2017.

Another example is that of the son of Tejero (the officer who led the attempted 23-F coup), who in 2014 invited numerous 23-F coup participants, including his father, to a commemoration lunch. Although he was dismissed at first, the sanction was reversed and later, he was promoted. Defense ministers, decades later, continued to elevate military coup participants from 23-F, or those who spoke out in favour of the coup.

We also find present at such military events, ultra-populist groups and organisations of Spanish legionaries, who are also to a large extent present at manifestations of the extreme right, indicating the link between the current military institutions and the far right.

The army has maintained a structure, without any effective oversight or control, in exchange for not engaging in politics. They have only spoken out when needed, that is to say, when decisions were not liked, such as in the case of the Catalan process and now with the exhumation of Franco. As long as the desired “official line” has largely been followed, they have remained in the shadows. The proportion is still one officer per two soldiers and, like in most structures in Spain, any renewal or modernisation, forty years on from transition from dictatorship, has yet to arrive.

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