The mysterious disappearance of 51-year-old Dutchman Martin Verfondern in a remote abandoned village in the mountains of Galicia in 2010 and the subsequent murder trial last month of two brothers has highlighted the darker side of rural life in Spain.
By Richard Torné
Martin and his wife Margo Pool were determined to start afresh. They quit their office jobs, sold their home and happily set off in their camper van in search of new beginnings in the wilds of Europe.
Their dream appeared simple enough, even if the details were sketchy – to live off the land and create an eco-friendly rural retreat for backpackers (“a Noah’s Ark,” according to Martin).
After arriving in the northwest Spanish region of Orense in May 1997, they stumbled upon the abandoned hamlet of Santoalla, where almost every building lay in ruins – all, that is, except the house belonging to the Rodriguez clan.
Inside the ramshackle home lived Manuel O Gafas, his wife Jovita and their 30-year-old mentally disabled son, Juan Carlos Rodriguez. Another son, Julio, lived in the nearby village of Petín but regularly helped out with farm chores.
Margo recalled the early years with fondness. “We thought we had found the perfect place, the first four years we were very happy.”
There was a mood of bonhomie between the Rodriguezes and the Dutch couple, as evidenced by contemporary local TV news footage, showing a smiling Julio helping Martin out – even if the former gave a hint of the trouble that was to come by remarking “yes, I’m happy they’re here – as long as they leave me alone”.
The cracks began appearing when Martin tried to make modest improvements and the Spanish family objected to the installation of a water intake and the clearing of rubble from the dilapidated streets.
Eventually, the hostility which had been simmering under the surface turned into all-out war and Verfondern began to fear for his life. Armed with a camera – and a deep sense of foreboding – he began videotaping the clashes, particularly with Juan Carlos, who often appeared with a hunting rifle slung over his shoulder. In one instance he tells the Dutchman: “I’m coming for you – you’re fat enough to kill.”
In separate footage, Verfondern filmed the family, apparently invading his land and spraying weed killer on his crops. By now desperate, he accused the Rodriguez clan of committing “rural terrorism”, ranting that at times he felt as though he was “living in an Arab country” and that the octogenarian family patriarch behaved like a feudal “lord of the mountains”.
The conflict came to a head in December 2009 when the couple won a legal battle against the Rodriguezes over communal land rights. This meant the Verfonderns, as bona fide residents, would be able to reap the economic benefits of exploiting the land.
But it was a Pyrrhic victory as it sealed Martin’s fate less than two months later. On a bitterly cold January afternoon while Margo was abroad, Juan Carlos lay in wait for Martin along a country lane and shot him dead in his car.
Julio arrived at the scene shortly afterwards and decided that the best option would be to hide both the body and the car in the woods.
The Civil Guard gave up searching for Verfondern after three months, and for years it looked as though the case would never be solved. It was only through sheer chance that in June 2014 a police helicopter crew discovered his remains and partially burnt-out Chevrolet Blazer hidden next to a firebreak, sparking a murder investigation and the arrests of both Juan Carlos and Julio, and culminating in a week-long trial last month.
The jury reached a majority guilty verdict against Juan Carlos, now 51, but although he is due to be sentenced soon, it is not certain he will remain in prison for longer than the three-and-a-half years he has so far served on remand.
His learning disability became a key issue during the trial after the public prosecutor Miguel Ruiz agreed to reduce the charge to second-degree murder, arguing that while he was able to tell the difference between good and evil, he was incapable of premeditation. He described Santoalla as “the wild west” and blamed the parents, who have since passed away, “for messing up his head” and instilling the hatred that led to the shooting.
His elder brother Julio confessed only to having disposed of the body, but as covering up a crime for a relative does not constitute a penal offence in Spain, he will not remain in jail.
Such was the moral dilemma faced by the jury over Juan Carlos’ condition that they recommended he be pardoned, but the clash has left a bitter taste in the mouth of the local community and thrown up uncomfortable questions about rural life in deepest Spain.
Defence lawyer Sonia Jiménez insisted the tragedy was mostly to do with “a clash of cultures and not money”, but local businessman Celestino Naveira, the head of the Bioca winery and close friend of the Verfonderns, disagreed. “This was a problem with the neighbours who didn’t want him there for economic reasons. The rest of the family are morally to blame because they filled his (Juan Carlos’) head with hatred.” He insisted, however, that the tragedy was a one-off. “Galicia is a quiet place, with good neighbours.”
Psychologist Izcalli Fernández painted a more disturbing picture, telling this reporter she was hounded out of another Orense village when she tried to open an animal assisted-therapy centre in Esgos.
“They began tearing fences down and I was constantly threatened. I was told by an elderly man to leave the village as I was ‘not from here’, and people would turn up in the middle of the night hurling insults at me.”
One of her horses died after getting entangled in barbed wire she believes had been deliberately placed to injure her animals. In another incident while she was away, her house was ransacked.
“They have a twisted mentality in inland villages and have a strange attitude towards property – they are prepared to kill for every centimetre of land. Even though the land may be barren, they prefer to leave it that way rather than have someone else make the most of it.”
She has since relocated her centre elsewhere in the region and encountered no further problems.
Lawyer Gerardo Vázquez, who advises the AUAN expat property rights association in southern Spain, suggested “going native” to avoid problems.
“You need to respect and understand local customs and try to work in collaboration with the community. The best way to channel (investment) is to work hand in hand with the locals.”
As for Margo Pool, she has chosen to remain in Santoalla. “I’m grateful to Martin for bringing me here. It made me the person I am today. Santoalla is my home and I will never leave.”