MADRID — Over more than 20 years as a Spanish police commissioner, José Manuel Villarejo rubbed shoulders with politicians, judges, journalists, aristocrats and business leaders. He was decorated six times, including for helping Spain fight terrorists. Still, he was a relatively unknown figure to the Spanish public.
All of that changed 20 months ago, after he was arrested.
Today the onetime police hero sits at the center of a tangle of 10 investigations by Spanish prosecutors. They accuse him of having worked an illicit and lucrative sideline for years as a secret fixer for Spain’s rich and powerful, who they say used his services to spy on their rivals and smear their enemies.
With his trim white beard, dark glasses and cap, Mr. Villarejo, 67, is now one of Spain’s most recognized faces. But it is his voice that has sent shock waves through nearly every part of the Spanish establishment.
Mr. Villarejo secretly recorded his numerous dealings. Even as he sits in jail, snippets of those conversations are surfacing in the Spanish news media. The leaks have made it clear that the retired police commissioner may well have the dirt on just about everyone who is anyone among Spain’s political and business elite.
“He recorded absolutely everything — all his phone calls and meetings — so we know that it’s a huge archive,” said Joaquín Vidal, the director of moncloa.com, an online publication that has released several of Mr. Villarejo’s recordings without explaining exactly how it got them.
“He was somehow allowed to operate from the shadows while becoming a front-line actor in some of the key events of the recent history of Spain,” Mr. Vidal said.
The recordings, combined with Mr. Villarejo’s court testimony, have opened a window onto a world of dirty tricks at the top reaches of power in Spain. They have spawned numerous investigations, including whether Spain’s former conservative government used a special “patriotic police” — a secretive unit working for the Interior Ministry — to tarnish political opponents.
Mr. Villarejo learned his way around the underworld while stationed in the Basque region, as part of an antiterrorism unit responsible for dismantling the separatist group ETA, for which he received his first medal in the 1970s.
He then spent a decade on leave from the police, to dedicate himself to other unspecified business activities, before rejoining the police in Madrid in the 1990s and resuming his rise up the ranks. But his undercover work also stretched far beyond Spain.
His career began to unravel in 2016 after investigators stumbled across millions of euros that they say Mr. Villarejo had hidden offshore.
Among their discoveries, prosecutors say, Mr. Villarejo was paid 5.3 million euros (about $5.9 million) from the government of President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo — who has been in power in Equatorial Guinea, a former Spanish colony, since 1979 — to help the African leader tarnish his political opponents.
Since Mr. Villarejo’s arrest, judges have frozen millions of euros’ worth of assets controlled by companies that he and associates used to buy properties in Spain, as well as a hotel in Punta del Este, Uruguay’s fashionable beach resort.
Today, prosecutors are pursuing charges against him, including bribery and money laundering. About 50 other people, including some other police chiefs, have also been indicted in the sprawling series of investigations.
Mr. Villarejo denies the accusations and says his companies were set up as part of his undercover work, mandated by the highest levels of government.
In fact, he says he carried out his work on behalf of the Spanish state. He has portrayed himself as a loyal soldier of the Spanish government, its police and even its secret service, which he says has now jettisoned and betrayed him.
“There has been an attempt to demonize him as the public enemy No. 1 when it is exactly the opposite,” Mr. Villarejo’s lawyer, Antonio José García Cabrera, told reporters in January.
“Mr. Villarejo forms part of the state structure, he has helped political parties and governments in the missions that he was assigned as an undercover agent,” the lawyer said. “If things have to come out, then everything should come out and be made public.”
That defense has deepened questions of whether parts of the Spanish state and government improperly deployed members of the police and security services to smear and attack opponents.
“This is a very serious scandal,” said Diego Muro, a Spanish lecturer at the University of St Andrews in Scotland.
The big question, he said, is whether Mr. Villarejo’s activities provide “proof that there is a ‘deep state’ that governs in the shadows.’’
In a television interview shortly before entering prison, Mr. Villarejo said that he was ready to disclose his secrets “before I suffer a traffic accident.” At the time of his arrest, the police and prosecutors say, they confiscated about 20 terabytes of encrypted material from Mr. Villarejo’s computers.
It is not clear who leaked the recordings. But their authenticity has not been challenged — the people recorded by Mr. Villarejo have only denied wrongdoing, rather than talking to him. Many are paying a price already.
Dolores Delgado, Spain’s justice minister, told Parliament that she had been the victim of “political blackmail” by right-wing opponents after a recording was leaked in which Mr. Villarejo asked her during a group lunch to identify any “faggot” among her entourage. Ms. Delgado named Fernando Grande-Marlaska, who is now Spain’s interior minister and is openly gay.
In one of his recordings, Mr. Villarejo talks about having seven copies of the conversations that relate to the monarchy’s finances.
In another, a Danish-born aristocrat, Corinna zu Sayn-Wittgenstein, who was romantically linked to King Juan Carlos, can be heard complaining about being used by the monarch to hide some of his wealth offshore.
A spokesman for the royal household declined to comment.
Robin Rathmell — a lawyer for Ms. Zu Sayn-Wittgenstein, who has not been indicted — said, “The abuse she suffered, as a result of desperate attempts by senior Spanish figures to cover up their own financial impropriety, will shortly be laid bare in court.”
In one recording, Mr. Villarejo boasted of earning “a lot of cash” to dig up dirt on behalf of the Spanish state against Catalan politicians, at a time when a secessionist conflict was reaching boiling point.
That claim is now part of a court investigation into whether Spain’s former conservative government also tried to tarnish opponents in the left-wing Podemos party.
Shortly after Podemos entered Parliament in 2015, shattering Spain’s two-party system, the Spanish news media published articles about how the party and its founder, Pablo Iglesias, were illegally financed by Iranian and Venezuelan money, citing an undisclosed police report.
The conservative party of Mariano Rajoy, the prime minister at the time, used the news to set up a Senate commission to scrutinize the financing of Podemos and other rival parties.
In March, Mr. Villarejo acknowledged in court having investigated Mr. Iglesias as part of a police operation. But he denied being part of a political campaign to discredit Podemos. Mr. Iglesias has denied receiving illegal financing.
Some journalists have been indicted as part of an investigation into whether they helped Mr. Villarejo spread fake media scandals as part of government campaigns to smear opponents.
But Mr. Villarejo is also accused of spying on reporters, like Iñigo de Barron, a financial journalist at newspaper El País. The journalist has said that his cellphone was tapped by Mr. Villarejo in the summer of 2016, while he was reporting on management changes at BBVA, one of Spain’s largest banks.
BBVA has confirmed that Mr. Villarejo worked for the bank during the long tenure of its former chairman, Francisco González, but it would not say what he was paid for, pending the result of a court investigation in which several other executives of the bank have been indicted.
Mr. González stepped down in December, three months ahead of schedule, just before the Spanish news media released recordings in which Mr. Villarejo and the bank’s security chief can be heard discussing their wiretapping work.
“Villarejo seems to have belonged to a circle of people who believed that they were in privileged positions where they could earn a lot of money while benefiting from complete impunity,” Mr. de Barron said. “What I want to know is how high up this illegal system reached.”