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.