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Spain's Bulldog on the Bench Is Loved, Hated

Europe: The judge has been a fearless foe of terrorism and graft. Some question his methods.

April 07, 2002|SEBASTIAN ROTELLA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MADRID — Once a year, Judge Baltasar Garzon comes out from behind the bodyguards and bulletproof cars of his vida blindada, the "armored life" endured by endangered crime fighters in the Spanish-speaking world.

Wearing cleats and goalie gear instead of a designer suit, Garzon takes the field at a pro soccer stadium for an annual celebrity game he organizes to benefit anti-drug charities.

It's a risk. The list of potential assassins is long. Garzon has prosecuted Basque and Islamic terrorists, Spanish Cabinet ministers and police chiefs, South American tyrants, drug lords, weapons traffickers and thugs of assorted nationalities.

But the judge plays soccer the way he leads police raids, climbs mountains, dances flamenco at parties, dabbles at bullfighting and travels the world: with abandon.

It takes a certain personality to throw yourself around in front of a goal. You have to be tough and quick. It doesn't hurt to be cocky, a bit reckless. You are the difference between triumph and disaster, a leader who is profoundly alone at the moment of truth.

At 46, Garzon is one of the most admired and criticized law enforcement officials in Europe and Latin America. And a born goalie.

"He accepts risk, he understands that risk is something circumstantial that you accept like rainy or sunny weather," said Judge Tomas Sanz, a close friend. "If he has to submerge 10 or 15 meters scuba diving in Acapulco, he submerges. Participating to the utmost. . . . He tries to enjoy everything, to get to know everything."

In 1998, Garzon ensured his place in history with a stroke of a pen. He issued a warrant for former Chilean dictator Gen. Augusto Pinochet, whose 16-month house arrest in London amounted to a revolution for international law. The attempted trans-border prosecution of Pinochet--British officials eventually ordered his release--was a warning shot that echoes in the nightmares of despots.

An investigative magistrate who joined the elite Audiencia Nacional court in 1988, Garzon has been a decisive, divisive force during Spain's boom years. Economically and culturally, the country has caught up with longtime European powers by balancing rich tradition and rapid change. Garzon embodies modern Spain: brash, stylish, fun-loving, frenetic.

Law-and-Order Leftist Has Admirers, Enemies

Garzon, who made a brief foray into politics in 1993, represents a breed that may seem odd to a U.S. perspective: a law-and-order leftist.

"I think a world can be created that differs from a strict and voracious globalization that crushes the weakest sectors and creates poverty and misery," he said recently in a rare interview. "If it's a choice between economic power and solidarity, I'm inclined toward solidarity. If being leftist is fighting against corruption, for better income distribution, responsive public services and an economic power that doesn't dominate us to the point of losing our identity, then I'm leftist. If it's rightist, then I'm rightist."

The judge has become a kind of national symbol, evoking paladins such as the fictional Don Quixote and the real-life El Cid, a medieval warrior who fought the Moors. Garzon has the courage of El Cid and the idealism of Don Quixote, his admirers say.

His enemies retort that, like Don Quixote, he is deluded; and that El Cid, upon closer inspection, was less a gallant knight than a ruthless zealot.

"He'd like to be everything: president of the world," scoffed Socialist Sen. Juan Alberto Belloch, a former Cabinet minister and longtime nemesis. "No post is enough for him. His ambition is unlimited. . . . His style clashes with what a judge should be. He doesn't do the job well. There are errors, gaps in his work. He has a comic-book view of the world."

Although Garzon rarely speaks in public--he granted the interview with The Times on the condition that he would not discuss open cases--his critics call him a publicity hound. European investigative magistrates have high profiles, combining attributes of U.S. prosecutors, judges and police chiefs.

Garzon's investigations have caught big fish, notably a former interior minister and security chiefs who were convicted in the mid-'90s of running anti-terrorist death squads. But he is also accused of filing spectacular indictments that are whittled down by other courts, with suspects released or acquitted.

His defenders argue that police bring him hot leads because he is a pioneer, building innovative cases that test the limits of a changing justice system--and international jurisprudence.

Most Spaniards praise his fight against the initials of fear: ETA. The Basque terrorist group has killed more than 800 people since 1968. ETA, short for Basque Homeland and Freedom, survives in this otherwise peaceful society because some Spanish leaders believe that it's politically incorrect to confront nationalist fanaticism, and others are tacit accomplices of the terrorists.

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