ARRECIFE – Years of a legal battle against rampant construction activities have resulted in countless half-finished complexes and establishments operating without permits. Large-scale property corruption led to the coastal strip with the most illegal hotels in Spain.
Nowhere will you find more illegal hotels than on Lanzarote, the most northeastern island of the Canary archipelago. Things got out of hand, especially in the small community of Yaiza. The Sandos Papagayo hotel is located directly on the beach. This hotel is located in the middle of the spectacular volcanic landscape of black rocks. Not only was the permit revoked in 2007 by the Supreme Court of the Canary Islands, but the hotel is also breaking the law as it is too high and blocks public access to the beach.
Four most serious cases
The white mass of concrete has often been compared to the Algarrobico hotel in Almeria – another symbol of uncontrolled construction activity. However, there is one important difference: the resort in Lanzarote is open to the public. In this southern corner of the island are also other illegal hotels, such as Princesa Yaiza, Son Bou, and Dream Gran Castillo. Together they are considered the four most serious cases of the 44 complexes whose permits have been annulled by the courts in Lanzarote.
Local Ecosystem Protection Campaign
The unique island is in its entirety a UNESCO biosphere reserve. Thirty years ago, it pioneered the curbing of urban sprawl after artist and environmentalist César Manrique led a local campaign to protect the island’s fragile ecosystem.
Six of seven mayors convicted
But in Lanzarote, a huge real estate corruption also came to light. Of the island’s seven municipalities, six have had a mayor convicted of a construction or real estate crime. These are Yaiza, Teguise, Arrecife, San Bartolomé, Haría and Tinajo.
Numerous important figures persecuted
Aldermen, city planners, and entrepreneurs have been prosecuted. Many of them ended up in the local prison of Tahiche. Even the all-powerful Dimas Martin, former president of the Island Council of Lanzarote and former leader of the Partido Independiente de Lanzarote (PIL), ultimately did not escape the long arm of the law.
Trace of illegal hotels
However, the buildings themselves proved difficult to tear down: the legal battle against urban corruption has left a trail of concrete skeletons and illegal tourist accommodation. For some, such as the Sandos Papagayo hotel, a solution is not easy.
Action on Lanzarote against real estate corruption
“Lanzarote has not been more corrupt than other regions in Spain, but action has been taken here against the rampant urban development, which has resulted in legal action that has exposed corruption cases,” said Dolores Corujo, the current president of the island council.
She emphasises that two municipalities, Yaiza and Teguise, have “granted a large number of licenses in violation of the rules in force”. Consequently, the owners have appealed and we are waiting for the court’s decision.
Hotel Princesa Yaiza was also affected by the partial annulment of Yaiza’s general zoning plan that aimed to legalise it, making it illegal.”
Biggest case against the Sandos Papagayo hotel
The biggest case is currently against the Sandos Papagayo hotel. According to the island council, this hotel is probably committing the biggest urban offence on the coast. Despite this, both the responsible company and Yaiza’s officials are trying to save it.
“We think it is possible to legalise the hotel,” said Daniel Valenzuela, a lawyer for this tourist complex. He explains that the legalisation process could lead to the removal of 111 of the 475 rooms and partial demolition of the dome. “There’s still a long way to go before we can talk about demolishing the hotel,” he says.
Hotel blocks beach access
Lawyer Irma Ferrer, who represents the citizens’ association Transparencia Urbana, sees it differently. For her, it is an insurmountable problem that the building blocks part of the pedestrian access to the beach. People can only reach this stretch of the beach via the hotel, using a lift.
Four-day ‘storm’ of urban corruption
The Papagayo hotel is one of the projects that got a permit during a four-day “storm” of urban corruption in 1998. The verdict of the provincial court of Las Palmas in the so-called Yate case (the name is a combination of the names of the municipalities of Yaiza and Teguise) shows that the then-mayor of Yaiza, José Francisco Reyes, of permits granted in one day for personal gain. These permits authorised the construction of more than 1,500 tourist beds.
According to court documents, on May 29, 1998, the city received paperwork for permit applications to build seven major hotels. Just two days later, on June 1, these were all approved. As the ruling states, the mayor did this with “full knowledge of the illegality of the concessions because they violated the city planning regulations in force at the time.”
El Guincho movement went into battle
The island’s ecologists started the El Guincho movement together with artist César Manrique. With that, they started a years-long struggle to protect Lanzarote’s unique lava landscape. Attorney Ferrer says they didn’t take her seriously until people ended up in jail. “I used to go to criminal cases where a dog had bitten a neighbour and there were the judge, the district attorney, the private prosecutor’s attorney, the defence attorney, and the insurance company representative,” she says. “But when a mayor had to make a statement in a case of real estate corruption, the prosecutor did not show up, the judge knew nothing and I was alone against 15 lawyers.”
The striking power of the local elite
The intensification of the investigation into construction crime had a lot to do with the arrival on the island of prosecutor Ignacio Stampa. Sometime later, Javier Ródenas joined him. “Lanzarote is very special; the power of the local elite is striking. When I arrived here as an outsider, I had the feeling that there were several authorities no one would dare to question or betray,” Stampa says. “Moreover, it is a small community and there is no one who is not a relative or friend of a corrupt person or businessman. These corrupt figures also control much of the finances. That makes it very difficult when you’re in a position like Irma Ferrer’s or myself. “You are the enemy and they will fly you to your throat.”
The story took a new turn when a Socialist Party (PSOE) politician, Carlos Espino, reported a businessman was trying to bribe him. In exchange money, he had to approve a development project. This led to the deployment of undercover agents from the Central Operational Unit (UCO) of the Guardia Civil, in the so-called Operación Union.
“From the moment they started tapping telephones on the island, everything came out,” said Isabel Lusarreta, director of news platform La Voz de Lanzarote, who has studied the corruption network in Lanzarote intensively. “One [tapped] phone call led to another, exposing cases that had absolutely nothing to do with what was originally investigated. Consequently, Operation Union was eventually split into several investigations.
The arrest of island council chairman
In the search for the protagonist behind a scheme to collect illegal commissions, UCO agents used wiretaps. These led them To Tahiche Prison. Furthermore, this resulted in the arrest of Dimas Martin, former president of the island council. He also is a former mayor and leader of the Partido Independiente de Lanzarote (PIL). At the time, he was already serving an eight-year prison sentence for illegally building an agro-industrial complex in Teguise. However, despite his detention, he instructed the councillors of the municipality of Arrecife to demand payments from businessmen. This is evident from recordings and documents that the police found in his cell. Martin had to go to prison again in 2019 following Operation Union.
The struggle against illegal hotels takes its toll
Ferrer volunteers to Tahiche Prison every Friday to provide legal advice to inmates. There she avoids Module 2 because “everyone is there”. After years of trials, insults, and pressures, she admits the battle has taken its toll. Especially given the size of the island. However, she believes she and others have done the right thing. “It was what we had to do, otherwise we would be much worse off; even if they kick us out and we have to leave the island,” she says.
Meanwhile, the concrete skeletons are the silent witnesses to the corruption and greed on the island. Once they were promoted as luxury tourist complexes. Now they are little more than ruins covered in graffiti and filled with rubbish, home to the homeless and squatters.