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Spanish Town's Controversial Mayor Ignores Critics

Politics: Widespread corruption allegations fail to slow down Marbella's Gil y Gil.

November 11, 2001|JEROME SOCOLOVSKY | ASSOCIATED PRESS

MARBELLA, Spain — A bodyguard built like an NFL linebacker restrains a Doberman while opening the door to the home of Mayor Jesus Gil y Gil, Spain's most scandal-ridden politician.

A painting of Marlon Brando as the Godfather hangs in the foyer next to ceiling-high elephant tusks. Outside, winged cherubs kneel over fountains, and life-size gorilla statues poke out of the hedges.

Gil's political opponents have long accused him of turning this garish Mediterranean resort into a mecca for mobsters from Moscow to Medellin while ruling it like a dictator. Now he's in the spotlight after someone stole 50,000 pages of evidence from a court in what is considered modern Spain's worst judicial breach.

Most of the evidence belonged to the 80 corruption cases pending against Gil. A key suspect in the theft, court clerk Francisco Calero, committed suicide Oct. 3, leaping to his death from the roof of his apartment building during a police raid.

In an interview, the 68-year-old mayor appeared blase sitting under a poolside gazebo in unbuttoned shirt, shorts and bare feet. Petting a lapdog, he compares himself to infamous African despots.

"You can call me a Bokassa or an Idi Amin--I couldn't care less," Gil says. "In life you triumph not by doing good, but by believing in what you do."

The construction magnate turned politician was first elected during a local economic downturn in 1991, when the Gulf War prompted Arab sheiks who reveled in Marbella's hedonistic nightlife to pack up and leave with their petrodollars. According to the newspaper Diario Sur, the young Osama bin Laden vacationed here in the 1970s, before his conversion to a puritan form of Islam.

During Gil's decade in office, Marbella's balmy coast has been transformed into a concrete jungle of condominiums, with a tenfold population increase to more than 500,000.

Although Saudi King Fahd's replica of the U.S. White House still rises on a hilltop above town, European princes and global glitterati like Sean Connery and Elizabeth Taylor are rarely seen anymore.

According to court documents, millions of dollars have been laundered in Marbella's booming real estate market, while millions more have disappeared from city coffers.

Calling his political foes "liars" and "scum," Gil denies wrongdoing and portrays himself as the victim of a government smear campaign.

"What's my crime? I have transformed this city," he says.

Isabel Garcia Marcos, a local opposition leader, is the target of much of Gil's vehemence. In the interview, he calls her a prostitute and a number of unprintable epithets.

"When someone doesn't have rational or intelligent arguments, the only thing he can do is insult," she retorts.

Gil's brushes with the law go back to 1969, when a complex he built collapsed, killing 58 people. After 18 months in jail, he was pardoned by dictator Francisco Franco.

In 1999, Gil was jailed during an investigation into his funneling of public money to his soccer team, Atletico Madrid. He was released after six days for health problems and is now appealing a six-month jail sentence and 28-year ban on holding public office stemming from the case.

After Calero's suicide, newspapers reported that a Porsche and Harley-Davidson were found in his garage although his salary was the equivalent of just $700 a month. The vehicles were traced to a ring that trafficked in stolen goods from France, the reports said.

Despite the scandals, Gil keeps getting reelected, and even the many foreigners living on the Costa del Sol praise him.

But some citizens are beginning to protest.

Two years ago, Ramon Leal got a court order to halt construction on 240 housing units in a park where children once played across from his home.

"Where Senor Gil lives, they put a huge garden with beautiful fountains. And here--" he says, pointing to an immense gash in the hillside, "--he doesn't care if we live like cockroaches."

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