3 min

Daniel Strauss, a Dutchman who became a Mexican citizen, and his Italian partner Perlowitz invented a thirteen-number roulette wheel in the 1930s. The peculiarity of the device was that the croupier could manipulate the ball with a clockwork mechanism activated by an electric button and, therefore, the bank won when it suited.

The device, sold as a parlour game, made its debut in The Hague, from where the scammers were expelled, as well as from casinos in Nice and Ostend. From there Strauss and Perlowitz went on to Sitges, where they carried out tests without the Companys government finally allowing the operation. It was then when Strauss and Perlo approached the nephew of Alejandro Lerroux and the ineffable Joan Pich i Pon, who made successful negotiations for the legalisation of the machine by the Ministry of Home Affairs and obtained in exchange a hefty percentage of the exploitation benefits for themselves, their political partners and some journalist friends. In this way, the manipulated roulette, legalised thanks to contacts and corruption, was briefly installed in the casino of San Sebastian and in the Hotel Formentor.

The machine was called Stra-Perlo, an acronym of Strauss and Perlowitz, and gave its name to a way of doing things that is still very deeply entrenched.

Legally, the estraperlo hoax had no major consequences, but the scandal helped to finish off the Radical Party and Alejandro Lerroux's career, who was denounced by Strauss to the president of the Republic, Niceto Alcalá-Zamora, in 1935. Estraperlo became synonymous with fraudulent business and, by extension, during the Spanish post-Civil War period it gave name to the black market of goods intervened by the State or subject to rationing.

Robbing with the times

Decades later, eighty-seven years to be precise, Spain still has an ecosystem where it is easy to do business thanks to cosy relations between political careerists, the court and the monarchy itself, which in 1931 was forced to leave the country.

The country is not the same, but there is still an unpleasant feeling of impunity. Spain is a member of the European Union and NATO, has multiplied its growth and has practically put an end to illiteracy, but there is always a rogue who connects with the literary tradition for whom it is easy to act when he relates to the administration and especially to the People's Party. A rogue who is not condemned to the most absolute public humiliation, but who is considered the smartest person in the group.

This is the only way to explain that, until the Anti-Corruption Prosecutor's Office filed a complaint, no one reported two intermediaries who at the worst moment of the pandemic made a fortune thanks to an aristocratic surname and connections with relatives of the Mayor of Madrid. One is Luis Medina, known for being the son of a duke convicted for corrupting minors and brother of the current Duke of Feria, and the other is the partner who in turn scammed him over the profits obtained, a certain Alberto Luceño. The two intermediaries purchased masks and other sanitary equipment in Malaysia on behalf of Madrid City Council at a cost of €12m. Some of the material was defective, but they still received €6m in commissions which, to make matters worse, were spent with tacky opulence in a context of a thousand deaths a day and thousands of people working for the common good in conditions of uncertainty and fear in hospitals, supermarkets, cleaning services and other unglamorous jobs.

The problem is not that emergency mechanisms were set up for the purchase of material in an extraordinary situation, but the access through a cousin of the mayor, the looting of the public coffers and the lack of assessment and auditing mechanisms for all the contracts made. In Spain, the culture of accountability is still lacking, but only when the smartass is considered a pariah will democracy have come of age.

Unfortunately, we must not think that the racketeering spirit was not present in Catalonia, albeit in a more discreet way. In fact, in the context of the great emergency, all kinds of businessmen proliferated and mistakes were not avoided. From the analysis of public contracts during the pandemic, we now know that the Generalitat paid €8m by mistake to a respirator company.

As explained by the Treasury of the Generalitat, the "computer system of compensation of invoices" failed and "€7.9m were paid to the supplier, incorrectly". The Audit Office specified that "in the month of July 2021 the ICS demanded via email the supplier pay the outstanding debt", but "at the date of the end of the fieldwork this amount had not been compensated".

The body that audits and controls where public money goes detected numerous formal irregularities in the over 6,000 contracts it analysed (emergency and urgent awards) that were made during those months. At that time they acted in desperation and mistakes were made. Better to make them in the search for a solution than to be trapped in bureaucracy and inaction, but now it is necessary for transparency and justice to act against the abuses that were committed.