The Spy Who Called Me

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The wave of scandals that would engulf Spain began with a police raid on a wooded property outside Madrid. It was Nov. 3, 2017, and the target was José Manuel Villarejo Pérez, a former government spy. Villarejo’s name had been circulating in the Spanish press for years. He was rumored to have had powerful friends and to have kept dirt on them all. The impressive variety of allegations against him — forgery, bribery, extortion, influence peddling — had earned him the nickname “king of the sewers.”

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In the late morning, the police, some of them scaling the fence around his compound, forced their way inside. They had come searching for evidence of money laundering, but it wasn’t Villarejo’s accounting books that gave them pause that day. In the spy’s living room there was a safe. And in the safe there were audio recordings: a pile of encrypted hard drives, large tape cassettes and microcassettes that were made over decades, amounting to thousands of hours. On them could be heard the voices of Spain’s richest and most powerful people. Most of them had been secretly recorded by Villarejo. “I said to myself: It’s not a legend, it’s true — he’d been recording everything for the last 40 years,” a prosecutor in the case said in an interview years later.

For many decades, Villarejo’s face had been known to almost no one. He was, after all, a spy — and not just any spy, but one who had started his career in the secret police of the Spanish dictator Francisco Franco. In those years, he would dress in overalls from Telefónica, the national telephone company, as he conducted surveillance operations in the mountains, and on several occasions he even wore a priest’s collar in order to infiltrate the Basque separatist group ETA. More recently, Villarejo had taken to simply introducing himself as a lawyer who ran a private-investigation firm, offering those he met to dig up compromising material on their enemies. His formal connection to the government was increasingly ambiguous. Of all of the identities he assumed over the years, this was perhaps the most powerful one. It made him rich through the hefty fees he charged, and it opened a door into the worlds of business tycoons, government ministers, aristocrats, judges, newspaper editors and arms traffickers — all of whose trust he gained, all of whose private words he taped.

Villarejo was handcuffed and taken to Madrid. But as he sat in jail awaiting trial, the question left hanging over Spain was this: What happens to a country’s secrets when they have all been recorded by one man? And what happens when that man finds himself suddenly backed into a corner?

The answer, it seemed, came the next year, as tapes began leaking to the press. There was the tape of Spain’s then-justice minister — the woman overseeing the court system that would try Villarejo — overheard using a slur for gay people. There was the tape of the judge in Villarejo’s case considering whether to grant a favor to an arms dealer. There were tapes of the former deputy leader of a major political party, of a bank executive, of a prominent Spanish lawyer who was helping Julian Assange.

And there were the tapes about Juan Carlos I, Spain’s former king. The voice on the recordings wasn’t the monarch’s but that of a former lover, Corinna zu Sayn-Wittgenstein, telling Villarejo of her disappointment in Juan Carlos. For years, she said, he had been hiding money in Swiss bank accounts and had secretly been given a penthouse by the sultan of Oman. “He behaves like a 5-year-old with his toys,” she says. Prosecutors soon opened corruption investigations against the former king.

As this all unfolded, Villarejo insisted that he’d had nothing to do with the leaks. But he also warned, rather darkly, that he had been recording people for decades and that only a small portion of his trove had been released. Villarejo had become something akin to J. Edgar Hoover, the longtime F.B.I. director who kept damaging recordings of leftist activists and powerful politicians for the purpose — sometimes explicit, sometimes implicit — of blackmail. But unlike Hoover, Villarejo had been arrested, and it seemed he was now using his tapes to attack the very state that was prosecuting him.

Villarejo leaving prison in March 2021 after being detained for more than three years. He is awaiting a verdict in a subsequent trial on charges including bribery, influence peddling and disclosure of secrets. Credit…Jesús Hellín/Europa Press, via Associated Press

Adding to the mystery were the outlets where the leaks were published: often small websites that appeared out of nowhere with blockbuster scoops. As more tapes surfaced, many showed new crimes Villarejo may have committed, triggering additional investigations against him. To many, it pointed to a bizarre possibility: As Villarejo was leaking some of his tapes to bring down his enemies in the government, they were leaking others to further incriminate him. “The problem for everyone is he recorded everything he was doing,” Alejandro Suárez, the owner of, one of the websites that published the leaks, told me. “At these lunches you can hear him going to the bathroom to pee and talking to himself in the urinal.”

Then, early this year, there came another twist. I received word from a man who wished to remain anonymous — a friend of Villarejo’s, he said. Villarejo had given few interviews since his arrest, but the judge was nearing a verdict in his latest case, and Villarejo feared he would go to jail for many years. Before that happened, the man said, Villarejo wanted to tell his side of the story.

Villarejo suggested we meet at a steakhouse a short drive from his home on a cold day in January. Without a disguise, he looks quite ordinary: a portly 71-year-old with white stubble on his face, a bald head and a baritone laugh. He has a penchant for curse words and stories that end with off-color jokes. But before we got very far into our conversation, I needed to interrupt him: “Are you recording us right now?” I asked.

His banter stopped and, for a moment, he looked offended. He wasn’t recording me, he said, with the insistence of someone who had never recorded someone without their previous consent. In fact, he worried that h was being recorded by someone, by way of a phone tap. The idea seemed plausible — Villarejo has countless enemies in Spain — and yet this kind of role reversal is exactly the thing you expect from a man who spent his career trafficking in information.

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When people call Villarejo the king of the sewers — e — they are referring not to literal sewers but to a shadow state or deep state that, many say, has pulled levers of power in the country since the time of Franco, the nationalist dictator who took power in the same era as Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini. But unlike them, he ruled his country until 1975, in a decades-long dictatorship whose ghosts remain easy to spot to this day. Franco’s former mausoleum still overlooks the capital. Spain’s time zone remains an hour off from its original one because Franco changed the clocks to match the hour in Nazi Germany — part of the reason dinner here often begins at 10 p.m.

And then there are the so-called sewers, a network of current and former police chiefs, intelligence officials and military officials — all largely men of Villarejo’s generation who grew up under the dictatorship and still wield power now. It was among this crowd that Villarejo had been dubbed “king.”

I asked him what he thought of that title. He shrugged. “What people don’t understand is that sewers don’t generate the crap, they clean the city, they take the crap away,” he began. “Rome triumphed because it had good sewers.” He told me about a sanctuary in the Roman Forum, the Shrine of Venus Cloacina, built to celebrate the city’s drainage system. “Sure, you go into certain places and you come out smelling bad. But someone has to do this work, and instead of punishing the guy who does this job, we should think about thanking him.”

The spy began recounting to me the long story of his life. He was born in 1951 in the Andalusian town El Carpio, a son of a pharmacist and a midwife. Villarejo started his career in Franco’s military during a time when conscription was mandatory. If the morality of fighting for a dictator weighed on him as a young man, it certainly didn’t show now. He reminisced about Antonio González Pacheco, known as Billy the Kid, a notorious police agent of the regime who later was charged with torture. (“He was a great success,” Villarejo said.) He joked about a failed coup d’état in 1981, attempted by right-wing officers who burst into the Congress of Deputies with guns. Villarejo was flipping through the decades like someone trying to find his place in an old book.

I interjected to ask about his time as a soldier — why did he leave the military? Villarejo took a deep breath. He was a loyal soldier, he said, but the army was just not for him. “Since I was always rebellious, I could have been an anarchist. But another side of me believed in order, discipline and the fatherland. I wanted to help my country, but I couldn’t submit to the rules.”

Unhappy as a soldier, Villarejo instead became an intelligence agent. In the early 1970s, he joined the Social Investigation Brigade, a branch of Franco’s secret police charged with rooting out disloyalty. Most often, the targets were leftist activists and student leaders who were jailed for years. Political opponents were silenced with blackmail, fed by secrets delivered up from tapped phone lines.

Villarejo was at the center of these dark arts, and he seemed to relish describing them to me in detail. He recalled a somewhat cinematic incident from his undercover work against ETA, involving a woman he met at a bar in the seaside city San Sebastián. One morning, while leaving her bedroom, Villarejo said he ran into Iñaki Pérez Beotegi, who went by the alias Wilson, a leader of the very group he had been pursuing. “At that moment, we both knew we were with the same woman,” Villarejo recalled, saying the men didn’t exchange words. The love triangle continued — “it was the ’70s,” he told me, as though this explained everything you needed to know — and Villarejo began to press the woman for intelligence on her other boyfriend. While this sort of 007-style intrigue was impossible to confirm decades later, what was clear was that Villarejo seemed to live for it.

But that era was about to come to an end. With his health declining, Franco announced that he had decided on a successor: a Spanish royal who would be named king, with powers akin to Franco’s, after the dictator’s death. The man was Juan Carlos.

In the end, Spain’s new king in waiting didn’t want to become an autocrat. He saw a return to democracy in the offing, and after Franco’s death, Juan Carlos kept the title given to him but began reforms. Voters approved a constitution in 1978, and four years later, the head of the Socialist Party, Felipe González, became prime minister. The changes did not bode well for Villarejo. The new prime minister ordered a purge of Franco holdovers in the police. Villarejo, who was head of the police union at the time, was now on the outs as Spain sought a different way.

Villarejo finished dessert, a sorbet he’d ordered along with an espresso. He put on his hat and glasses, and we both stood up to go to the door, but he asked me to sit down and wait for a few minutes alone as he walked out first. It was very likely that his former intelligence colleagues were following him, he said, and he didn’t want to be seen leaving with a journalist. He added that I, too, should keep a low profile in the coming weeks — because if I wanted to write about him, these same people would want to interfere.

“You’ll see,” he said as he ducked out. “I know how these things work. Remember that people called me the king of the sewers.”

“I wanted to help my country, but I couldn’t submit to the rules,” Villarejo said.Credit…Christopher Anderson/Magnum, for The New York Times

Before our next meeting, Villarejo sent me a copy of a letter that he wrote to a judge in his case. It ran to more than 100 pages and was peppered with references to great thinkers of the past — Sophocles, da Vinci, Machiavelli, George Orwell and a 17th-century Jesuit theologian named Hermann Busenbaum. It was, to say the least, a confusing read. But throughout the letter, Villarejo hewed to a simple defense: that, while not completely innocent of the accusations against him, he was operating in a system where his kind of espionage was long accepted. He was a patriot, he declared, following the orders that he was given to protect the state. If there was a problem, the problem wasn’t with him, he argued; it was with Spain itself, for letting Villarejo be Villarejo.

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When next we met, it was at his lawyer’s office in Madrid, on the fifth floor of a cream-colored building. Villarejo and the lawyer stood up to greet me. I started by asking Villarejo why he had wanted to do these interviews at all. He thought for a moment. He had been savaged by his enemies in public, he said, to the point that he was now a boogeyman in the eyes of most Spaniards. Now everyone knew his face — but no one knew him, and he wanted that to change. He chose me, he added, because he could tell I was an honest man. Such flattery must have opened many doors for him in the past.

I thanked him, but added that I needed him to be honest, too. “Who is leaking your tapes?” I asked.

“Those tapes were taken from me by the police,” he said. “Ask them.”

I told him I found that hard to believe: He was a spy, and spies kept copies of things in case they were taken. Villarejo stared at me for a moment. Well, he said, if he did have a copy, then it wouldn’t be with him — it would be with a friend. And the friend, he said, would need to be in another country and under very strict instructions not to release the tapes unless Villarejo personally traveled abroad to give him instructions to do so. Because he wasn’t allowed to leave the country currently, there would be no way he could be behind the leaks.

We weren’t getting far with the tapes. Villarejo told me that after he left the police, he set up a private-investigation firm. One of his first accounts involved the Church of Scientology, which Villarejo told me was worried about impostors using its branding without permission. Villarejo sent investigators to take seminars offered by rogue Scientologists in various Spanish cities, and church lawyers followed up threatening legal action. (A 1990 article published in the Spanish newspaper ABC mentions a trial in which Villarejo and church members were accused of framing one of the uncooperative Scientology impostors for a robbery by coercing a recovering drug addict to falsely implicate him. The group was later acquitted.) Scientology officials were so impressed by his work, he claimed, that they flew him to Los Angeles to attend a gathering of top church members where Villarejo says he briefly met John Travolta. (The Church of Scientology says it has no record of Villarejo attending such an event.) During the party, Villarejo told me, he had tape rolling, as he always did.

Why, though? There was, he said, so much you missed in a conversation if you couldn’t listen to it later. “The shades and nuances, they are all there in a recording; the tonality, the timbre of the voice,” he told me. “You can hear when they have doubts about the information they are telling you.” At first, he strapped large tape recorders to his chest, but when microcassette devices became widely available in Spain, he sneaked them inside his socks. Finally, he just used his smartphone.

He recorded everyone, he said: a Moroccan general who was assigned to protect the royal family; a husband looking for the bank account of a soon-to-be ex-wife. At one point Villarejo taped Monzer al-Kassar, a notorious Syrian arms trafficker living in Spain, a recording that became part of an American federal court case against him. (“I don’t want some trap,” the trafficker told Villarejo before the sting operation that caught him.)

Yet mention Villarejo to anyone in Madrid, and there is only one set of recordings that they want to know about. At one of our next meetings, I told Villarejo that I wanted to spend the morning talking about the tapes concerning the former king, Juan Carlos. He looked at his lawyer for a second, considering where to begin. After a decade of working on his own as a freelancer, Villarejo said, he got a call from Spanish officials. They were asking him to go undercover again for the National Police. Once pushed aside by the government for being a member of “sewers,” Villarejo was now back at the center of the intelligence establishment.

The Syrian arms trafficker Monzer al-Kassar being escorted by Drug Enforcement Administration agents in New York in 2008. Recordings by Villarejo became part of an American federal court case against him.Credit…Louis Lanzano/Associated Press

Villarejo folded his arms over his chest and looked in both directions, the way one does before letting you in on a big secret. In his last years as king, Villarejo said, Juan Carlos fell in love with Corinna zu Sayn-Wittgenstein, a German-born Danish national who kept the name of her aristocratic ex-husband, Prince Casimir of Sayn-Wittgenstein-Sayn. She met Juan Carlos on a hunting trip in Spain. The affair was an open secret, and before long, Juan Carlos told members of his circle that he planned to divorce his wife, Queen Sofia, and marry zu Sayn-Wittgenstein. Top officials at C.N.I., Spain’s national intelligence service, were alarmed. A divorce could seriously harm the reputation of the monarchy, Spain’s most traditional institution after the Roman Catholic Church. According to Villarejo, intelligence agents devised a plan to break the couple up, nicknamed Operation Fari, after Farinelli, an Italian singer who, after being castrated, became one of the most celebrated sopranos of the 18th century.

The plan was to do something similar to the king: Military bodyguards were recruited to replace pills in his pillbox with female hormones. The idea, Villarejo said, was that the drugs would cause Juan Carlos’ hair to fall out and decrease his libido such that neither the king nor his lover would find each other attractive. I asked Villarejo to stop for a second. It sounded like a ridiculous plan, I said. How did he feel about it? “It all seemed wonderful,” he said, laughing. “But then again, the king could have been poisoned.” (C.N.I. has never acknowledged that such an operation took place.)

The couple eventually ended their relationship, though the breakup seemed to be more about the king’s inability to stay faithful to his mistress than the plot from the Spanish spies. This, however, created a new headache for C.N.I.: The spy agency, Villarejo said, believed that zu Sayn-Wittgenstein had access to a trove of damaging royal documents and intended to use them to blackmail her former lover. So in the spring of 2015, Villarejo was dispatched once again: This time he would go undercover to London to befriend zu Sayn-Wittgenstein with the hope that she would tell him the location of the files and all that they contained.

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Villarejo sought an introduction from a mutual friend, and the two men met zu Sayn-Wittgenstein at her apartment in London’s Eaton Square. Villarejo said he asked for green tea, sat down and established his cover. He was a lawyer with deep connections to the intelligence community, but unlike other officials, he felt she had been treated unfairly, and he wanted to help. Villarejo told me that to help him gain her trust, intelligence officials even sent him with documents to share with her that outlined plans by officials to frame zu Sayn-Wittgenstein for financial crimes.

When I listened to the tape of the conversation — the leaked clips are now easy to find online — I could hear zu Sayn-Wittgenstein shudder. She then starts to tick off a list of dirty financial dealings she was aware of during the relationship. Juan Carlos kept hidden bank accounts in Switzerland, she said. He had used one of his lawyers and a cousin as frontmen in numerous transactions, including payments for private flights he took. The king’s advisers had tried to put a property given to him by the King of Morocco under her name to shield him from tax payments. “And they started waging war against me because I didn’t want to commit a crime,” she says.

Villarejo and zu Sayn-Wittgenstein met again the next year in London. They ate at an Italian restaurant, and Villarejo said he broke his rule of not drinking during operations when she bought a bottle of fine wine. She said she had some love letters but nothing amounting to an archive of the king’s secrets. Villarejo kept pushing, but zu Sayn-Wittgenstein kept returning to her frustration about her relationship with the former king. “She had truly wanted this man,” Villarejo told me. “I think she was really in love with him.”

Whether the former king’s former lover really did have compromising documents remains unknown, but what’s clear is this: The operation to protect the monarchy backfired in 2018 when the tapes began to leak and prosecutors opened multiple investigations into the former king’s activities, including for tax fraud. In 2020, Juan Carlos I announced that he was abandoning his country. Shortly after that, he turned up at the Emirates Palace Hotel in Abu Dhabi, in the United Arab Emirates, a fellow monarchy seen as unlikely to extradite him.

As I continued to report on Villarejo, I kept thinking of his parting words after our first meeting near his home: that having spent so long practicing the dark arts of intelligence in Spain, he was certain that the country’s “powers that be” would try to interfere with the article about him that I was writing. I dismissed it as bluster at the time. I remembered a well-connected editor in Madrid telling me once that for every truth Villarejo offered, he also had five lies.

Then came a message from José Bautista, my researcher in Madrid: Someone had just sent him a file filled with dozens of unpublished Villarejo audio recordings. I had told Bautista that I was meeting with the spy but gave him strict orders not to tell anyone else, and he had kept to them. I asked him who he thought had sent the files. It wasn’t clear, he said, but the source seemed to be someone close to Spain’s intelligence service who did not like Villarejo. I hadn’t contacted anyone in Spanish intelligence yet about the story. It all seemed like a strange coincidence.

In the end, we found no blockbuster in the dump of recordings. We listened to dozens of tapes, some just a few minutes in length, others lasting for hours. They were muffled, largely undated and came with little context. We weren’t the first journalists to receive part of Villarejo’s vast archive and realize the fundamental truth about it: He recorded everything, and much of it is of little interest. But the source had also sent a copy of a handwritten daily agenda of Villarejo’s with the names and dates for many meetings. The agenda book was more useful, offering a way to cross-reference many of the meetings Villarejo claimed to have had.

There was one part of Villarejo’s tale that I couldn’t seem to confirm anywhere: Operation Fari, the attempt to drug the king. The plan seemed just too far-fetched, too much like the C.I.A.’s proposed plan to depose Fidel Castro by first making his beard fall out.

The only person I knew who might have answers was zu Sayn-Wittgenstein herself. This April, after several requests, she agreed to meet, and I flew to London. On a rainy Tuesday afternoon she welcomed me into her house, inviting me to sit at the same table where she met years before with Villarejo. Her life was filled with legal battles now, she said. She had testified in one of Villarejo’s cases and had her own lawsuit against Juan Carlos, who she said had sent other intelligence officials to harass her. The former head of the intelligence agency, Félix Sanz Roldán, once threatened her and her children’s lives, she said. (Sanz Roldán told me he didn’t want to talk about it but told a court he hadn’t threatened them. Juan Carlos’s personal lawyer, Javier Sánchez-Junco, told me of his client’s ex-girlfriend that “99 percent of what she says is false.” He pointed out that Juan Carlos had settled his tax problems with the Spanish government by paying back taxes and all investigations against him there had been closed.)

King Juan Carlos I and a former lover, Corinna zu Sayn-Wittgenstein, at an awards ceremony in Barcelona in 2006. Credit…Tom Mealsa/Schroewig, via Associated Press

Finally, I asked her if she recalled anything about the king’s hair falling out. She did. Juan Carlos, she said, was the first to suspect that someone was tampering with his medication after the couple noticed that his face was starting to bloat. Zu Sayn-Wittgenstein said she eventually flew a doctor in from France to examine Juan Carlos. The doctor also looked at his medicine box and found suspicious pills. The couple had suspected Spain’s intelligence agency was behind the plot but had no evidence that could prove it.

I asked how she felt about having been lied to by Villarejo. She said it was a betrayal and that she found it odd that so many in the country had all worked with the same dirty spy. “Villarejo shows that they’re stuck in the modus operandi of Franco,” she said. “It’s still a shady world where nothing is what it appears to be. It’s crazy that this could happen in Europe in the 21st century.”

In one of my last meetings with Villarejo in Madrid, I asked him how he was holding up. He had spent three years and four months in preventive detention before being released in the spring of 2021. The verdict he was awaiting from the trial last September, which he assumed would not be in his favor, was on charges of bribery, influence peddling and disclosure of nonstate secrets. It could put him behind bars for as many as 20 years. Villarejo had won some legal battles, including a defamation case that went to trial in 2021, and prosecutors have dropped a dozen other investigations. But more than 30 investigations into additional allegations of bribery and influence peddling — as well as embezzlement of public funds, falsifying documents, criminal conspiracy and threatening a dermatologist with a knife on behalf of one of his clients — remain. Villarejo could be defending himself the rest of his life. For the moment, he said, he was spending most of his days back at home, meditating and listening to Monteverdi and Boccherini.

I tried to imagine Villarejo meditating in a Spanish jail, at the end of a long prosecution. I tried to imagine the investigators applauding themselves for bringing him to justice. But I couldn’t see a system that had changed very much. There was just an old man — an unreliable narrator at best — telling his story one last time, in one last attempt to use his secrets to turn the course of events in his favor.

I thought again about the years of audio leaks that resulted from the police raid long ago. The attempt to bring down Villarejo, far from draining the sewer, had simply caused it to overflow. Now everyone could smell what was down there. I looked up at Villarejo and asked him again: Had he leaked the tapes? “I would be crazy to leak the tapes,” he said. But he didn’t sound quite as convinced this time. It had been a long day together.

Villarejo looked down at my recorders — I used two of them in case one cut out. He told me about times when his recorder failed and he “lost unrepeatable conversations with unrepeatable people.” He had recordings of Spain’s prime minister, he said. Of the handover of a Spanish tuna vessel captured by Somali pirates. Of … he trailed off. I had heard this before. He told me he hoped someone would get to listen to his full archive one day, not just the leaked bits.

“It is bigger than me,” he said. “I met so many people. It’s my history there. The entire history of this country is in there.”

Christopher Anderson is the author of eight photographic books, including “Odyssey,” out in November.

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