A citizen-led campaign last month succeeded in prosecuting Spain’s top banker-politician, Rodrigo Rato, and 65 co-conspirators in a case that rattled the upper echelons of the country's political and financial elite. But Rato would not have faced trial not all if not for 15MpaRatoand Xnet, two collaborating networks of activists and hackers who worked tirelessly to ensure the corrupt figure's downfall.
If you read many reports on the February sentencing, this key fact is omitted. For instance, there is no mention of any citizen engagement leading to Rato's sentencing in The New York Times, BBC, the Guardian, or Al Jazeera. But as Occupy.com reported over a year ago, this failure by the media is no surprise.
“We have found it is much easier to put in prison a banker or politician – even a hundred of them – than to get the press, the government and the institutions to recognize that this is the work of ordinary citizens,” Simona Levi, 15MpaRato organizer and Xnet co-founder, told us in January 2016.
Rato, former president of the major Spanish bank Bankia, was sentenced to four and a half years in jail for embezzlement relating to unofficial corporate "black credit cards" that siphoned 12 million euros out of Bankia. The bank’s collapse catalyzed Spain’s financial crisis, and Rato's institution was given the most money in Spain’s bailout.
The defrauded credit card money was often used for lavish spending: luxury items, hotels and extravagant parties. Spain’s anti-corruption court found that Rato and Bankia’s other executives also gave away the nefarious credit cards to buy political favors.
Michael Blesa, the president of Caja Madrid bank from 1996 to 2010, was sentenced to six years. Rato took over as President of Caja Madrid in 2010. The bank then merged with six other banks to form Bankia. In the sentencing in late February, Rato was found to have replicated the "corrupt system" established by Blesa. The politicians and banking executives are appealing the decision.
The case indicts both the Spanish and international political financial systems. Rato was Spain’s Economy Minister between 1996 and 2004, working for Partido Popular, the same political party that orchestrated the bailout. He was later the Managing Director of the IMF, from 2004 to 2007, another body essential in coordinating the bank bailouts. He undertook these roles before spinning back through the revolving door into Spain's banking industry.
Citizens vs. Bankers
Perhaps more than anything, the Rato case showed how ordinary people can organise and take down a corrupt financial-political establishment. 15MpaRato was launched on May 15, 2012, on the one-year anniversary of the 15M movement that saw millions of Spaniards occupy town and city squares throughout the country, kicking off what would help turn four months later into a global Occupy movement.
Five years ago, 15MpaRato stated its plan and primary mission: to see Rato sentenced by 2017. Lo and behold, the group succeeded.
They did this by working together with Xnet, which helped create an anonymous and secure dropbox enabling whistleblowers to leak information about Rato and Bankia. The information soon came gushing in, including emails from Blesa that lifted the lid on the credit cards scam.
Next, the coalition crowd-funded for a lawyer to begin legal proceedings. In Spanish law, any case deemed in the public interest can be taken on by the public prosecutor.
Responding to the recent verdict, a joint statement from 15MpaRato and Xnet thanked all those who supported the case, the citizen funders, those who leaked information, and those who continue to defend the freedom of information. The statement added: “The lawsuit is not over yet. 15MpaRato and Xnet's fight against corruption goes on and more will fall. Expect us.”
La Lucha Continua
In fact, the fight is not over yet in two senses. First, those indicted are set to appeal. But also, the trial brought forward by 15MpaRato is broader than just the focus on credit cards. Rato, Bankia executives and other members of Spain's financial-political establishment are also being charged with false advertising, for duping high street customers into buying a share flotation in which the shares collapsed shortly afterwards. Another core charge is tax evasion, as well as further mis-selling charges.
In mid-February, the former Bank of Spain Governor Miguel Ángel Fernández Ordóñez was charged for allowing Bankia to float on the stock market with the knowledge that its Initial Public Offering was dubiously over-valued. The mis-selling resulted in more than 200,000 citizens losing €1.86 billion, or over $2 billion, in their investment, often in the form of life savings.
The 15MpaRato legal case started by honing in on the IPO and the way the bank targeted ordinary citizens by selling them preferred shares. These shares were complicated financial products that should have only been sold to experienced investors. Former Bankia employees ultimately leaked an internal document that instructed bank staff to target "families and small investors." On every page of the internal document, it read: “This information should not be visible to customers.”
As Simona Levi explained to Occupy.com last year, taking down Rato was always a means to an end, not the only target for the network of hackers and activists. Rato was targeted because everyone in Spain knew him: he was a kingpin in a political-corporate nexus of power, and considered untouchable. The broader mission, however, was to bring about more profound, systemic change.
Another recent success for Xnet – and an example of such change – was the launch of an anonymous dropbox as part of Barcelona City Council. The dropbox, which came into effect on Jan. 19, is the first time a municipal council has offered a secure means for citizens to anonymously whistle-blow on corruption. Barcelona City Council, like many councils across Spain, has been run by a network of activist groups since the local elections in May 2015.
After the dropbox launch, Xnet emphasised how these and other direct democracy tools, as powerful as they are, cannot alone combat corruption. “Xnet has always espoused the idea that democracy can only exist if institutions work together in equal conditions with aware, well-organised citizens," the group stated.
"The [drop] box aims to provide a way to make this kind of teamwork possible. Corruption can’t be eliminated by institutions scrutinising themselves. Civil society must play a central, continuous role.”