The perverse twists and turns of politics inside the celebrated white town of Gaucín have led to the description as ‘El Culebron de Gaucín’, or The Gaucin Soap Opera. As the mayor is sacked for allegedly not issuing enough building licences, here the Olive Press tells the inside story of the wide-scale urban projects, the shady backhanders and passive threats that could have turned Gaucin into another Mijas. A complicated story, tragically it is one that could be based on dozens of other towns around the region
ON September 11 Gaucín Council met to dismiss the sitting PSOE (socialist) mayor, Teodoro Molina de Molina, who was elected last year. Claiming he had achieved nothing, opposition councillors railed about how few planning licences he had approved and how the town was at a standstill. In his place they appointed Francisco ‘Paco’ Ruiz, the local head of the Partido Popular (PP), whose leadership challenge was backed by four councillors of the Partido Andaluz (PA), all currently charged with planning crimes.
Even Paco, regarded locally as a practical rather than intellectual man, must have appreciated the irony. The Council session was chaired by Francisco Corbacho, mayor from 1999 to 2007, and for long a bitter political enemy of Paco Ruiz.
The irony arises because during the elections last year Paco Ruiz had bitterly attacked Corbacho and the PA for the misuse of public funds and corruption, this after Corbacho was duly convicted last year of the syphoning off of public funds.
The three PA councillors and Corbacho also face another trial in Ronda court later this year for issuing illegal building licences.
Observers noted that in his acceptance speech, Ruiz, after insisting the town was in ‘paralysis’, stressed the importance of introducing a new zoning plan (PGOU) for the town, hinting at a more liberal regime of urban development for the future.
Like many Andalucian towns, building work, mainly for foreigners, is a chief source of employment in the village, now that small farms and agriculture are no longer profitable.
Apart from complaints about the lack of construction, part of the campaign against Teodoro was that he was a “foreigners’ mayor.”
Like many Andalucian towns, a certain resentment has arisen in Gaucín against the influx of foreigners, mainly British, with their greater wealth and acquisitive power.
It is ironic that Corbacho should attack foreigners, since many voted for him when he came into power by a very slim majority in 1999.
As village doctor he had met many expatriates and visited them assiduously during his campaign. He spoke no English, but often had an aide who did.
No one in the village doubted that he needed the money to pay gambling debts
Most foreigners swayed by this campaign were unaware of his reputation as being a compulsive gambler since his late teens, and seldom available for consulting in the mornings, as he was sleeping off his long nights at the casinosgambling addiction continued when he became mayor and eventually led to his conviction last year for misappropriation of about 200,000 euros, later repaid, from the town hall coffers.
While he claimed he had borrowed the money to buy land for the town hall, no one in the village doubted that he needed the money to pay for his gambling.
Apart from this embezzlement, his two mandates as mayor were marked by a series of allegations about the granting of favours to friends and supporters and the sale of building licences, some illegal. These allegations form the basis of his forthcoming trial in November.
His “verbal permissions” became notorious in the village. People would seek a licence for a hut, or barn, on rural land, and these were duly extended into houses based on verbal agreements with Corbacho.
This approval of illegal building licences finally came to the notice of the authorities and Corbacho and three PA coucillors face a number of charges for flouting the law.
Although there were a number of earlier projects, such as the construction of 228 houses beneath the castle, all of which failed, it was not until 2004 that the true colours for Gaucin’s future became more evident.
The first scheme was in March 2004 when the town council narrowly voted (5 – 4) in favour of urbanising a large finca, El Perejil, situated in the south of the municipality. A promoter duly applied for permission to erect 5,300 homes, which would have created a huge conglomeration bigger than Gaucín (pop. 1900).
It was an alarming plan for the celebrated town that sits on the edge of the Serrania de Ronda, but Corbacho subsequently made clear his intention to promote the intensive Costa–style development to outsiders.
He argued that to cover the hills with rows of houses would bring economic benefits in terms of taxes for the town hall, not to mention jobs.
Concerns that this might not be his sole motive for the scheme were reinforced by widespread reports in the village about his visit to Geneva to cash a mysterious cheque.
It emerged in 2005 that Corbacho had accepted a commission of several million pesetas from a promoter, in connection with permission to develop an estate called Los Olivos, situated on the Genal river. Under the scheme, there were plans for hundreds of villas and the celebrated excuse… a golf course. Half the money was paid in cash and half by a cheque drawn on a Geneva bank, according to opposition councillors. Corbacho, went to collect the funds, not realising that the promoters had employed private detectives to follow him and record a video of him collecting the money.
The “Geneva tapes” remained secret until 2005, when it became clear that the mayor had promised more that he could deliver. The Málaga authorities resolutely refused approval of the Los Olivos scheme, even though it was substantially modified to reduce the density of the housing. And, undestandably, the promoters, demanded their money back.
When it was not forthcoming, the existence of the “Geneva Tapes” was leaked, probably as a means of encouraging the mayor’s compliance. At the time, the village bars were convulsed with stories about the fix their money-loving leader had got himself into.
Either way, most of the foreign community of about 200 and a small proportion of environmentally-minded local people remain strongly opposed to the intensive development of Gaucín.
This staunch opposition – rather like that of the foreign population of Ronda over Los Merinos golf – caused some bad feeling in the town. On several occasions, Corbacho accused foreign residents of wishing to hinder progress so that the village would remain like an “American Indian reservation” and hence a source of cheap labour.
Whether chief of an Indian reservation or not, Sr Corbacho seems to have perfected the art of speaking with forked tongue. He certainly never mentioned the economic pressures linked to land development.
Experience on the Coast shows that such pressures are substantial and often result in payments to town hall officials.
In 2004, atill pursuing his goal of greater urbanisation, Corbacho contracted a team of experts led by Rafael González Baquerizo, a well-known Marbella architect, to draw up a new town plan (PGOU) for the municipality.
But it didn’t go exactly to plan and in their initial report, the architects strongly criticised an agreement which Corbacho had signed with a promoter, OSIPE SL, to develop the Perejil area. A number of Gaucín residents and ecology groups from the Genal Valley and Ronda also filed objections to it.
When the projects were not approved he could not refund the money
As a result the Perejil agreement was withdrawn and redrafted in an effort to meet the objections. However, it appeared that Sr. Baquerizo’s objections were more fundamental, and he declined altogether to classify El Perejil as building land in his draft zoning document.
Consequently, Corbacho refused to accept the plan when it was presented to him in December, 2004. In a fit of pique, he failed to present the proposals a public presentation and alleged that the architects had not understood the local territory, nor carried out the wishes of the council.
In a war of words, one of the architects commented that “not one” of Corbacho’s claims was true. After damning his refusal to allow opposition parties to see the plans, he added: “The true motivation of the mayor is clear. Our plan simply did not suit his economic interests, namely the charging of millions of pesetas in commissions for the reclassification of land, including the famous Perejil. The Perejil was not included in our proposals because its development proved totally unfeasible in the overall context of the new plan (PGOU).”
As an urban developer, Corbacho, thankfully for Gaucin, was a total failure. None of his grandiose schemes were approved, while the repayment of the fees and commissions he accepted were a major factor in the economic and administrative chaos which was his main legacy.
So bad was the situation that when Teodoro de Molina took over in 2007, he discovered there was a deficit of about four million euros. Many suppliers had not been paid for months, or, in some cases, years. Patricularly damaging, according to Teodoro, was the fact that fees and commissions from promotors were used to cover current expenditure.
Corbacho, as ever the gambler, had assumed that the projects would be approved. When they were not, he could not refund the money.
It remains to be seen how the new mayor will cope with these difficulties. The law allows only one motion of censure during the four year mayoral term of office. Paco Ruiz is with Gaucín until the next elections in 2011. In the court cases pending against Corbacho and his three councillors, the Public Prosecutor is asking for 18 months imprisonment and ten years of disqualification from public office. Whatever happens to the councillors, Paco Ruiz, like The Vicar of Bray, will still be mayor of Gaucín.