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The victim-turned-activist: a new kind of hero

There has been a tendency in Spain in recent years to thrust victims of unfortunate events and tragedies into the public spotlight and assign them prominent positions, regardless of their background. But there is a risk these public figures will do more harm than good in trying to carry out their new roles.


The AVT terrorism victims' association has become a prominent presence in Spanish politics. Photo: Petezin

When the father of a missing girl in Huelva captured the media spotlight in late 2007 as he led the search for his missing daughter, he capitalised on the nation’s attention to launch a national public awareness campaign about the flaws in the Spanish justice system. Five-year-old Mari Luz Cortés disappeared after she ran off to buy a bag of crisps at a neighbourhood kiosk. Following a massive two-month nationwide search her body was found in January 2008 in a river in Huelva province’s Torrearenilla marshland. A convicted paedophile, Santiago del Valle, who had been granted an early release from prison, was arrested after he confessed to the murder.

Thus began Juan José Cortés’ crusade for changes to the Penal Code; specifically he was demanding stricter punishments for paedophiles and other sex offenders. That spring, Cortés and his wife Irene Suárez were received by Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero and then-Justice Minister Mariano Fernández Bermejo, who both listened to the father’s concerns. A new national debate was ignited over whether life sentences should be given to certain dangerous criminals  – although the Socialist Party (PSOE) has resisted backing this measure. Finally, after being a member of the PSOE for seven years, a disgruntled Cortés announced on February 27, 2010, that he was abandoning the organisation’s ranks to join the conservative opposition Popular Party (PP).

In explaining his decision to reporters, Cortés, an articulate individual with basic studies, said that the main opposition party was giving him “the support” he needs in parliament to push for harsher sentencing guidelines; something, he says, the Socialists were not interested in doing. “There was an offer made by the PP and I gave them my answer,” said Cortés, an evangelical pastor of Roma origin. That offer was to become the opposition party’s top advisor in judicial affairs. Now there is talk that Cortés may run for office in his native Huelva on the PP slate in the next elections.

During a popular television talk show recently, Maria Antonia Iglesias, a left-leaning journalist who served as news editor for state broadcaster RTVE, told Cortés that he was being used as “a show parent” by the PP. “This is the type of demagoguery that takes advantage of the feelings of a mother or father who have suffered such an unfortunate affront. Politicians need to stay above this and not bow to sensationalism.”

Cortés is just one of a string of individuals who in recent years have earned semi-celebrity due to their status as victims of horrific crimes and have gone on to become established single-issue activists.

Among the more prominent have been the leaders of terrorist victims’ groups, which due in part to ETA’s more than 800 murders over the last four decades have a relatively prominent role in society. Francisco José Alcaraz, the former president of the AVT victims’ association, lost a brother and two nieces in a 1987 ETA attack. Alcaraz has been a particularly outspoken and divisive figure, siding with the PP and attacking both the Socialist government and even other relatives of victims that he has deemed “soft” on terrorism.

Refusing the political baton

Some, however, like Sandra Carrasco, have refused to jump into the political fray. She and her mother both witnessed her father, former Socialist councillor Isaías Carrasco, being gunned down by ETA in Mondragón, Guipúzcoa on March 8, 2008, the final day of the general election campaign. Sandra Carrasco captured the hearts of Spaniards when she comforted her mother and siblings at her father’s funeral and read a statement. “Those who want to show their love for my father, please go out and vote,” she said. Although some have accused the Basque Socialist Party of using Sandra Carrasco as a campaigning tool, she has denied such charges and indeed has shunned the political limelight. In March, during the second anniversary of her father’s death, Sandra, now 21, led a vigil in her father’s remembrance. “I do not wish for any roles,” she told reporters who asked her whether she will enter politics. “What is happening here today is what is important.”

But there are also extreme cases of victims who crave media attention and appear to seek it out at any cost, regardless of the consequences. Jesús Neira, a former constitutional law professor, who was propelled to hero status in August 2008 when he apparently tried to help a damsel in distress and got punched in the process, has generated nothing but controversy since his public persona was launched.

The latest furore surrounding Neira stems from his recently published book, España sin democracia (“Spain without Democracy”) which makes a scornful attack on the period of transition from dictatorship to democracy in the late seventies and early eighties – an era that mainstream politicians generally refuse to criticise. In the book, Neira charges that the return to democracy was nothing more than a behind-closed-doors pact between the major political parties to ensure that they would be the sole benefactors of power for decades to come. “To recall those years gives me a simple feeling of pity,” Neira writes. “What they told us we were getting was a parliamentary system, but what they chose for us instead has been the worst and weakest system in whole world – Spain isn’t a democracy.”

And it isn’t only the book that is causing concern. The 57-year-old has been appearing on conservative radio talk shows insulting the Socialist Party, specifically its leader in Madrid, Tómas Gómez, describing him as an “idiot,” “stupid,” “riff-raff,” “impotent,” and “a clown.”

None of this would be such great cause for concern if Neira hadn’t been appointed by Esperanza Aguirre, the PP regional premier of Madrid, to head up her office for combating gender violence.

Gun-loving professor

Neira’s suitability for public office was further questioned when he applied for a gun license. The former academic says he has every right to ask for permission to carry a weapon. His application was filed after Antonio Puerta, his alleged assailant from the now infamous altercation that propelled him to fame, was released from prison on bail while awaiting trial on assault charges. But his bid to protect himself, as well as his strange behaviour, has generated concern among the women’s groups he was appointed to defend.

Spaniards were first introduced to Neira in August 2008. On a hot afternoon, Neira and his young son stopped off at a hotel in the Madrid suburb of Majadahonda to get a cool drink and, as they entered, they came upon a couple who were bickering outside the entrance. What happened next is still being disputed. Neira said that he intervened when he saw Antonio Puerta push his girlfriend Violeta Santander to the ground. But Santander claims that she lost her balance and fell, denying that Puerta laid a hand on her. For his part, Puerta later testified that Neira began insulting him, using obscene language, and that he warned the professor to back off. Santander has also supported this version, saying she told Neira to mind his business. As Neira walked into the hotel, Puerta attacked him from behind, throwing a powerful punch to the back of his head and knocking him flat on the floor. The assault was captured by the hotel’s security cameras.

Neira was in a coma for three months, but questions have now arisen over whether his condition was actually caused simply by Puerta’s punch or malpractice at the Madrid hospital that treated him. After he regained consciousness, Neira was showered with honours for his bravery by both the national and regional governments, including the appointment to the Madrid gender violence post. He became the toast of the town.

While Neira was feted, Santander embarked on the talk-show circuit, denouncing what she called Neira’s false chivalry and the media’s unfair treatment of her boyfriend Puerta, who was now in jail. Neira reacted virulently, calling both of them “roaches” and “trash.”

“Some of the things that Neira says and does are scary,” says Ana María Pérez del Campos, president of the Federation of Divorced and Separated Women. She has asked that both the regional and national governments strip Neira of all his honours. According to a poll taken by Telecinco network last month, more than 80 percent of viewers surveyed believe that Aguirre should sack Neira.

Public platforms for such inexperienced and eccentric individuals risk fomenting the tensions of an already divided society. But many Spaniards love to love the latest champions of the unfortunate and underprivileged, even if means turning a blind eye to the actual objective they were recruited for. But for now, these victims-turned-campaigners appear to be an integral part of the political landscape.

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Published: Apr 29 2010
Category: Politics
Republication: Creative Commons, non-commercial
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3 Comments for “The victim-turned-activist: a new kind of hero”

  1. There is a typographic error in the fourth last paragraph that states that Puerta, not Neira, was showered with honours.

    Apart from that Neira's own words cut him down. His book argues that there is no democracy in Spain, where as, if the 80% public poll vote had any reference, he would not be in his PP placement. Another mishap on the part of "Esperanza".

    (Hopeless would be more apt -with or without her heels).

  2. Thanks for pointing out the Puerta-Neira error, it has been corrected.

  3. It's so disgusting to realise that this is only another crapy corner of Spanish nationalists and centralists. You miserably happen to see the world just from your skinny point of view, and although this site pretends to be cosmopolitan, you actually have to do something else than writing in English to prove a broader (and more generous) approach to the news and the reality of the multi-national Iberian peninsula and the rest of the world.

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