A smiling woman with blonde hair stares out from posters engulfed in flames. Her face disintegrates into ashes as protesters, one by one, drop the sheets of paper onto a small fire outside the police station in the city of Girona, 100 kilometres north of Barcelona, in the autonomous region of Catalonia. A line of riot police officers, guns strapped to their chests, observe the scene. They appear unfazed by the small act of rebellion.
It’s a sweltering evening in July, and hundreds of people have gathered for a procession led by the latest victims of Spain’s escalating ‘policia infiltrat’ (police infiltration) scandal. Just one week ago, the woman whose picture was being burned had been known among Girona’s progressive movements as Maria Perelló, a student and committed activist. But that wasn’t her true identity.
Maria was in fact an undercover police officer with the Spanish National Police Corps. During her three-year deployment she embedded herself in the city’s popular movements, making close friendships, and entering a long-term romantic relationship with prominent activist Óscar Campos, with whom she lived for over a year. The police spy took her deception to extreme heights, enlisting her own mother to play a role in the operation.
‘I cannot find the words to describe the pain you have caused us’, Campos says, addressing the procession with a message to the woman he had thought of as the love of his life: ‘But I can say I’m proud of having loved you, and cried as much as I have. Because this is what sets us apart... As of today, the city of Girona, which has taken care of you, which has embraced and loved you as if you were its child, declares you persona non grata. You are not welcome.’
Some people in the crowds are crying, others have their fists clenched. The infiltration is viewed not just as an attack on the people directly deceived by Maria, but on the city itself, a sentiment expressed through the placards and banners which read: ‘Girona infiltrada’ – Girona infiltrated.
This shocking case is part of a much wider surveillance scandal which has left progressive movements across Spain reeling. In just over a year, journalists have exposed six undercover police officers embedded in leftwing activist groups, among them anti-eviction and anarchist movements, in Catalonia, Valencia and Madrid. Four of those officers infiltrated groups involved or linked with the left faction of Catalonia’s pro-independence movement, adding to a growing sense of activism in the region being under attack.
‘He seemed nice and open’
The unravelling of the policia infiltrat scandal began in June 2022, when the first of the police spies, an agent using the cover name Marc Hernàndez Pon, was exposed by Barcelona-based publication La Directa.
Like Maria, he enrolled in study as part of his cover. At the University of Barcelona’s Faculty of Education he joined the pro-independence Catalan Countries Students’ Union (SEPC), a large organization with branches across the territories where Catalan is spoken, including Catalonia, the Balearic islands and Valencia, which promotes the rights of students.
‘He seemed like this nice person, very kind, very open,’ says SEPC spokesperson Júlia Portet, who knew Marc through her work with the student union. I meet her at Casal Popular Lina Òdena, a self-managed space and cultural centre in Barcelona’s bustling Eixample district. It was here, in June 2020, that Marc first got his foot in the door of the city’s activist scene. Once he’d become a trusted face, the officer joined his campus branch of SEPC and was later chosen as coordinator. The union believes Marc’s objective was to put himself in strategic positions to get a grasp of who was involved, and how the union functioned.
The group eventually grew suspicious of the fake activist, and approached the team at La Directa, who were able to confirm that he was a police spy through a lengthy investigation. Recalling the period after the cop was outed, Portet says: ‘There was a lot of fear and distrust. You think about what you could have said one day and how much he knows.’
There was anger too. ‘We are students. We are not terrorists. We just fight for our rights and try to change things for the better.’ She explains how those initial feelings of paranoia were quickly replaced with a sense of defiance and refusal to be intimidated: ‘When there’s repression, there’s also a lot of solidarity.’
The spy in my phone
Just a few weeks before Marc was exposed, another huge surveillance scandal erupted in Catalonia. In April 2022, Citizen’s Lab, a research group at the University of Toronto investigating high-tech human-rights abuses, revealed that at least 65 figures involved in the independence movement – including politicians, lawyers, activists and their families – had been targeted using a powerful phone hacking tool called Pegasus. The spyware, developed by Israeli firm NSO Group, grants the hacker complete control over the target’s mobile phone (see page 24).
On paper, the cyber-weapons can only be used by states to combat terrorism and serious crime, but as the Catalan case shows, it has been extensively abused to target dissenting voices. The Lab describes the ‘unrestrained operation’ from 2015 to 2020 as part of an effort to place ‘a significant slice of Catalan civil society under targeted surveillance for several years’, making it the largest forensically documented cluster of such attacks on record. In the year since the revelations, Spain’s intelligence agency, the National Intelligence Centre (CNI) has confirmed the ‘lawful’ targeting of 18 of the victims, but claims the figure of 65 is exaggerated.
I’ve talked to several Pegasus victims including Joan Matamala, a businessman in his mid-60s, who runs a bookshop promoting the Catalan language and culture. Between 2019 and 2020, his phone was infected at least 16 times with Pegasus, and his computer was targeted with another spyware tool called Candiru.
I meet Matamala in his air-conditioned office in the science and technology campus of the University of Girona, situated on the outskirts of the city. He was here, in February 2021, when he received a peculiar call from a researcher at Citizen Lab, informing him that a live infection of a powerful cyber-surveillance weapon was currently running around inside his computer.
The researcher instructed Matamala to cover his device in aluminium foil, a rudimentary way of blocking the malware from communicating with servers. By catching the active malware red-handed, the Lab team were able to send a copy to Microsoft which developed an update to prevent future attacks. In the Lab’s report, Matamala’s laptop is described as ‘patient zero’.
‘It was one of the few happy moments I had related to that period because it was a way to stop some of these weapons that are very dangerous and harmful,’ Matamala tells me through an interpreter. He believes he was targeted due to his work developing digital voting tools with Fundació Nord, the company he co-founded in 2019. The tools, he says, mitigate the risk of states tampering with elections.
For someone so heavily targeted by some of the most powerful spyware in the world, he’s surprisingly calm. A pro-independence activist, Matamala says he’s used to being watched. ‘We try to make light of it. There are times that we meet and someone jokes, “Let’s say hello to them”.’ He gestures to his phone on the desk. ‘We try not to let it affect us.’
Like Matamala, many people who experienced Pegasus attacks were already resigned to the fact that they were under some sort of surveillance and seemed to take it in their stride, admittedly often as a self-defence mechanism. For them, it was one of a number of repressive tactics used by the Spanish state in recent years, especially in the aftermath of the 1 October independence referendum in 2017, which was declared unlawful by the Spanish constitutional court. On the day of the vote, polling stations were raided, and hundreds of civilians injured by Spanish riot police. Half of the Catalan government went into exile and the other half were arrested.
In 2019, nine Catalan civil and political leaders were convicted of sedition for their role in the referendum and sentenced to up to 13 years in jail, sparking a wave of mass protests and riots. While the nine prisoners were pardoned in 2021, some politicians remain in exile today.
The timings of the Pegasus attacks and infections coincide with key dates in the trials of the nine leaders, as well as the post-referendum negotiations between the Catalan and Spanish governments. ‘The targeting of individuals through this type of technology doesn’t happen in a vacuum, it typically answers to a particular context,’ Elina Castillo Jiménez, a digital surveillance researcher at Amnesty International, explains. A correlation between spyware abuse and political events such as elections and protests has been documented by Amnesty and other human rights groups.
Elisenda Paluzie, who led the pro-independence Catalan National Assembly organization between 2018 and 2022, and is a prominent economics professor at the University of Barcelona, was targeted with Pegasus in 2019 and 2020. She believes the organizations were spied on so the hacker could have ‘total control’ over the movement ‘in the sense that they know our visions, our quarrels, our political strategies’, as well as their private lives.
‘I’d rather be punched in the face’
The intrusion of the state into someone’s private life, whether digital or in the real world, leaves a mark. ‘It’s something you are aware exists, but you can never imagine it will happen to you,’ says Andreu Van den Eynde, a criminal barrister who represented some of the jailed Catalan politicians, and those in exile. His phone was infected in 2020 during the pandemic, when most of his professional work was conducted via messaging apps.
‘When I first found out, I was like OK, these motherfuckers have all my life,’ he tells me, as we sit in a cafe in the Sant Antoni neighbourhood of Barcelona. ‘Now we have all of our lives on our smartphones, professional, personal, ideology, health, financial… so it was tough. I always say that I would prefer someone to punch me in the face than to have my life hacked.’
Van den Eynde now speaks to his clients in code, and communicates places to meet them via addresses scribbled onto pieces of paper and passed through trusted contacts. ‘We are seeing the same methods used during the [Franco] dictatorship and we are seeing them evolve,’ he says.
Other Pegasus victims have self-censored in response to the constant feeling of being watched, he explains. ‘We call this indefensión aprendida [“learned helplessness”] – when victims are so used to being victims, that they adapt to being victims. I think this is what is happening to us.’
While the immediate impact of surveillance on individuals is the theft and potential use of their personal information, the act itself has a secondary impact of intimidating and silencing individuals and organizations beyond those directly targeted. Earlier this year, four UN rapporteurs warned that the scandal could lead to self-censorship ‘which has a chilling effect on the enjoyment of the right to freedom of opinion and expression in Catalonia in general’.
As well as targeting Catalan politicians, major civil society organizations also feature prominently in the lists of Pegasus targets. They include six members of the Assembly, and four from Òmnium Cultural – both influential pro-independence NGOs whose leaders Jordi Sànchez and Jordi Cuixart were jailed over the referendum.
‘They have two objectives: one is to make a map of who is who in the movement, and the other is to create a chilling effect to try to demobilize us,’ Elena Jiménez-Botías, the international advocacy officer at Òmnium, tells me. ‘I can understand that someone could say, “enough, I’m going”. But that’s not the case for me or my colleagues.’
At the Assembly offices, staff leave phones outside of meetings and check the building for bugs, the organization’s new president, Dolors Feliu, tells me. ‘We are more conscious about the fact that the Spanish state is always there, always behind our backs,’ she says. Aside from tightening security measures, both campaigners say the scandal has had a minimal impact on their organizations. ‘We continue with our work,’ Feliu says resolutely.
As Matamala says: ‘Si et fan por, ja t’han vençut’. If they scare you, they have already defeated you.
Tools of repression
The activists who have been targeted by undercover police are also defiant. Sònia Olivella, a lawyer with the Barcelona-based rights group Iridia, is part of the legal team representing eight women in a legal challenge against an undercover officer who used the cover name Daniel Hernàndez Pons (Dani). He infiltrated anarchist groups in the Sant Andreu de Palomar neighbourhood of Barcelona, deceiving at least eight female activists into sexual relationships. One woman told La Directa she felt she had been raped.
‘It’s huge,’ says Olivella. ‘It’s the state that is supposed to protect you yet it is the one that is harming you.’ The fallout is also felt by the wider collectives, she adds. ‘There is a very big impact that is difficult to evaluate, which is the impact on the right to association... The infiltration, it seems, is not only to gather information, but also to affect the capacity of the society to organize and to express political views that might be different from institutional ones.’
If this is the intention, Eva Pous of the leftwing pro-independence group Alerta Solidaria, believes the spying operations have had the opposite effect. The organization is providing legal support to those spied on. ‘Realizing that the infiltration isn’t targeted at you, but rather as a tactic aimed at undermining your ideology, political group or movement has helped those impacted,’ she tells me. ‘It brought organizations together and made them more dedicated to persist in their struggle rather than give up.’
So far, the Spanish government has been tight lipped on the scandal. When confronted in Parliament about the case of Dani, Spain’s interior minister Fernando Grande-Marlaska insisted the operation was carried out ‘within the legal and constitutional order’, in the interest of preventing crime.
These two invasive surveillance scandals in Catalonia expose a disturbing truth: that democracies spy on their citizens for holding political views that differ from the state.
Like those targeted with Pegasus, activists in Catalonia’s leftwing groups also believe they were infiltrated in a bid to monitor the independence movement, at the grassroots level. The separatist movement is a broad church that ranges from the centre-right political party Junts to the leftist Popular Unity Candidacy (CUP). All share the common goal of an independent Catalonia – but little else. The CUP, Alerta Solidaria and SEPC are members of the pro-independence Catalan Left, an umbrella term used to describe a network of organizations that support the creation of a progressive independent state of Catalonia.
Others view the two intrusive surveillance operations as part of a wider assault on civil freedoms in s.
After the Catalan Pegasus cases were exposed, the World Organization Against Torture noted that the scandal ‘should not be understood as isolated cases, but rather part of a set of tools employed in the persecution of critical voices, political dissidence and shrinking civil society space’. Spain has been criticized in recent years for introducing legal changes cited as restricting freedom of expression, most notably the anti-protest ‘gag’ law and reforms to counter-terror legislation.
Barriers to justice
Pegasus victims want answers. Yet more than a year on, they are no closer to finding out why they were targeted. Several court cases on the issue have stalled. Much of the current delay is down to judges shelving the cases temporarily due to a lack of evidence, after rejecting the forensic reports by Citizen Lab. Victims are instead being asked to hand over their phones to the Spanish police for analysis. The irony is not lost, as Paluzie says: ‘So the ones who spied on us are the ones who are going to test our mobiles?’
Franco-era legislation may also stand in the way of victims accessing justice in both the police infiltration and Pegasus scandals. State surveillance in Spain depends on the decision of a judge applying the Official Secrets Act, a law signed by the late dictator himself. Politicians have already hidden behind the legislation to withhold information about the espionage scandals.
Action at the European Union level has also been disappointing. A European Parliament committee set up to investigate spyware abuse in member states has called on the Spanish government to properly investigate the cases. However, its demands have fallen on deaf ears in Madrid. ‘Now there have been recommendations, but no action has been taken,’ Jiménez-Botías notes.
Few people are hopeful that the domestic cases will have a positive outcome, and are instead pinning their hopes on accessing justice through the European Courts of Human Rights. Campaigners say a global ban on the sale of spyware is what’s needed. ‘Seeing how Pegasus works, there’s no way that you can use these tools, even for terrorism and serious crime, that complies with human rights standards,’ Castillo says. ‘We cannot continue to live in a world where those types of spyware exist.’
Activists impacted by the police infiltration cases are also facing an uphill battle. In September the public prosecution office urged the courts to throw out the case of the eight women, claiming the relationships were consensual. The women’s criminal complaint accuses the undercover cop, his manager and the Interior Ministry of committing the offences of sexual abuse, degrading treatment, disclosure of private information and infringement of the exercise of their civil rights.
An international human rights issue
The activists in Catalonia may be at the beginning of their quest for justice, but they are not alone. Another group of campaigners, across the continent, have been here before.
In 2010, activists and journalists in the UK blew the lid off a long and disturbing tradition of undercover policing of political groups dating from 1968 all the way to 2008. More than 1,000 predominantly leftwing organisations were infiltrated by police spies who used abusive tactics, including deceiving women into sexual relationships – with some even fathering children while undercover. These anti-democratic operations derailed social movements and inflicted immeasurable harm to countless lives. For the past 13 years, those spied on have been chipping away at the wall of secrecy surrounding the undercover policing units and winning significant battles against the police. In 2021, a tribunal in the UK ruled that the undercover operations environmental activist Kate Wilson was subjected to over several years had violated her human rights, including the right to freedom of expression and assembly.
The legal team in Barcelona are using this knowledge as a blueprint to inform their own campaign for the truth. The stark similarities between the cases ‘made us realize that this is an international human rights problem’, Olivella says. In the UK, ‘Lindsey’ – a member of the support group for women deceived into relationships by undercover officers Police Spies Out of Lives – hopes the campaigners’ experience over the last 13 years ‘may help speed things up on the Spanish side’.
But, if the courts don’t provide answers, campaigners have vowed to pursue other means. As Pous from Alerta Solidaria says: ‘It’s about getting people out on the streets in large numbers to show the state that if they won’t hold themselves accountable, society will step in to do it for them.’