The former king of Spain, Juan Carlos de Borbón, left the country in early August 2020 following a recent investigation into alleged money laundering. His departure is seen as an attempt to protect and distance the crown from a series of scandals that have damaged the reputation of the once highly respected king. The institution of the Spanish monarchy has now been plunged into its worst crisis since its restoration in 1975.
After compromising tapes were leaked — in which the monarch's former lover talked about his alleged money-laundering schemes — an investigation was opened on July 27. Although the investigation is currently ongoing, Juan Carlos is not charged with any crime. The Royal Family published a letter from Juan Carlos to his son, King Felipe VI, in which he announced his intention to leave the country. They initially refused to provide any further information on the former king's location; however, it was later revealed that he was in the United Arab Emirates.
The popularity of Juan Carlos I began to deteriorate in 2011 with the Nóos case, a corruption scandal involving his son-in-law who was accused of allegedly embezzling public funds. Then in 2012, the king himself suffered an accident during a luxury elephant-hunting trip in Botswana, where he was accompanied by his lover, Corinna Larsen. The monarch's costly habits sparked anger in Spain which was suffering from one of the worst economic crises in its history. The scandal reached such proportions that Juan Carlos was forced to publicly apologise. In 2014, as public suspicions about his involvement in these scandals was still ongoing, Juan Carlos I decided to abdicate the throne in favour of his son and heir, the current King Felipe VI.
However, in 2017, scandal followed the royal family yet again after leaked recordings between former police inspector Jose Manuel Villarejo and Corinna Larsen implicated the former king in a money-laundering scheme.
Jose Manuel Villarejo was a police commissioner during Francisco Franco‘s regime. The self-acclaimed “problem solver” has been accused of leading a police mafia which helped launder money and provide spying services for a large client network, including many multi-millionaires. For decades, Villarejo secretly recorded his conversations with politicians, judges, and other influential individuals in order to protect himself if the need should arise. One such person was Corinna Larsen, the alleged lover of Juan Carlos I.
In 2017, Spain's Anti-Corruption Prosecutor's Office and Internal Affairs began an investigation into Villarejo, which led to the former commissioner's preventive detention. Villarejo tried to negotiate his release with the prosecution by promising not to reveal materials that were “sensitive to the foundations of the rule of law”, including tapes and messages that directly concerned members of the Royal Family.
In the summer of 2017, the taped conversations between Larsen and Villarejo were leaked to various media outlets, including El Español. In the recordings, Larsen explains how Juan Carlos registered properties in her name without telling her so that she could subsequently transfer them back to him. Larsen herself described these operations as money laundering and accused Juan Carlos of using her as a front figure, taking advantage of the fact that Larsen was a resident of Monaco. In other tapes, she revealed the names of more people who also served as front figures and who had illegally brought dubiously-earned money into Spain for the former king. She also talked about current accounts in Switzerland and explained how the monarch received a substantial commission for facilitating the construction of the AVE high-speed rail link from Medina to Mecca in Saudi Arabia. Larsen claims she did not know she was being recorded during these conversations.
In March 2020, Swiss prosecutor Yves Bertossa launched an investigation into a “donation” from Juan Carlos to Larsen, allegedly made to launder the aforementioned commission from Saudi Arabia. Although the Spanish judiciary had shelved any case opened against the emeritus king, claiming his sovereign immunity as stated in the Spanish Constitution, the Spanish High Court reopened a case based on the conversations between Larsen and Villarejo. The Supreme Public Prosecutor's Office is currently investigating the cash movements that surrounded the Saudi AVE contract.
In mid-March 2020, King Felipe VI stripped his father of the allowance that he received as emeritus king. King Felipe also renounced the inheritance that he was in line to receive from his father.
Observers say that the Spanish judiciary, along with mass media and some political parties, have afforded too a high degree of protection to the Spanish monarchy. Journalist José Antequera explained to Diario16:
La situación empieza a ser esperpéntica y roza el ridículo internacional (…). En medio de la negociación con Bruselas [por las] ayudas y préstamos para la lucha contra el coronavirus (…), la peor noticia que podía llegar es que un inmenso fango de corrupción alcanza hasta la cúpula misma del Estado.
The situation has become absurd and borders on international humiliation (…). In the middle of the negotiations with Brussels [for] aid and loans for the fight against the coronavirus (…), the worst news that we could hear of is the mire of corruption reaching the upper echelons of the State itself.
La monarquía española no podría sobrevivir con el apoyo sólo de los partidos de derecha, monárquicos por naturaleza. El apoyo del PSOE es fundamental. Y Sánchez ha salido a decir que eso no cambia.
The Spanish monarchy could not survive with the sole support of the right-wing parties, who are monarchical by nature. The support of the PSOE is essential. And Sánchez has come out and said that that does not change.
Social media, on the other hand, has seen a very different reaction. On the same day that the departure of the former king was announced, the hashtag #RepúblicaYa [Republic Now] was trending on Twitter.
— Maika (@maika_rguez) August 3, 2020
Juan Carlos I, another sticker in the large collection of loyal servants of Spain… who fled the country. #reyalafuga [King on the run] #RepublicaYa [Republic Now] #ReyEmerito [Emeritus King]
Royalists tried to counter this with the hashtag #GraciasMajestad [Thank You Your Majesty].
#GraciasMajestad por la democracia que nos ha dado, por su reinado de paz y prosperidad, por su continua promoción de España en el extranjero, por todos los años que ha dedicado a mejorar España. Gracias por todo.
— Sares (@fheras) August 3, 2020
#GraciasMajestad [Thank You Your Majesty] for giving us democracy, for your reign of peace and prosperity, for continuing to promote Spain abroad, for all the years you have dedicated to improving Spain. Thank you for everything.
This hashtag ended up being taken over by tweets that criticised those who continue to show their support for the emeritus king.
— Mulo ?ﾟﾇﾦ? #TodosConAitor (@AbreCesar23) August 4, 2020
-¿Have you seen the hashtag #GraciasMajestad?
-They’re all idiots, right?