The Lives of Marilú [Part 1]
For Marilú, what started as a spiritual transformation would end with an arrest before dawn and her life turned upside down.
You can read a Spanish transcript of the episode.
You can also read an English translation.
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*Correction: In the episode we say that the Spanish Minister of the Interior in 2015 is José Fernández Díaz. His name is Jorge Fernández Díaz.
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[Daniel Alarcón, host]: Welcome to Radio Ambulante from NPR. I’m Daniel Alarcón.
[Ana Marilú Reyna Castillo]: What I remember from that night is that I start hearing very loud knocking. I wake up. My husband was shouting out: “Who’s there? “Who’s there?”
[Daniel]: This is Ana Marilú Reyna Castillo. She goes by Marilú. She’s Mexican, but since 2011 she’s lived in Spain.
[Marilú]: I leave my room, running to my kids’ room, and it’s nighttime, it’s pitch black. There was no light or anything. So, when I get there, the first thing I see is lights, and when I see the lights, I think: “We’re being robbed.” That was what I thought at the time. And then when I hear that they’re closer and I see their long weapons, they say: “Civil Guard! Get on the floor!”
[Daniel]: In early hours of May 3rd, 2016, agents from the Civil Guard entered the apartment of Marilú and her husband, Aziz Zaghanane. Marilú didn’t understand what was happening. But as soon as she could, she spoke with the agents.
[Marilú]: I asked: “But, what’s… what’s going on?” And he tells me: “We’ll inform you later.” Eh… he said: “But at the moment, your husband is under arrest.” And I said: “But, why is he under arrest?” I say: “What did he do?” And he tells me: “He’s accused of terrorism.” And I say: “What!?!” I said: “But, what are you saying? What’s the basis of this?” I said: “On what basis are you saying that?”
[Daniel]: Accused of terrorism. Aziz was one of four men the Civil Guard arrested that day in the state of Madrid. He was accused of leading a group that distributed propaganda over the internet, that was recruiting and radicalizing people to join the jihadist movement.
[Marilú]: So, I ask them: “Where are you taking him?” And they refused to tell me. He says: “You’ll be informed later. You’ll be informed later.” Well, all in all, that was the last time I saw him.
[Daniel]: Today, Marilú’s story. How a Mexican woman, five years after moving to Spain, comes to find herself in this situation —with her home full of agents, with her husband arrested on terrorism charges— and everything that comes after that.
Our editor Silvia Viñas brings us this story.
[Silvia Viñas]: Marilú is from Monterrey. She’s 39 years old and lives in Pinto, a town of about 50.000 people, 20 kilometers south of Madrid.
After communicating over WhatsApp for several months, in late May of 2018, I traveled to Madrid to interview her. We met up at the train station in Pinto, and we walked to her home, a simple, interior apartment. Very tidy and very quiet. Marilú was alone. Her children —one six-year-old and one three-year-old— where in Morocco with her in-laws.
Before starting the interview, Marilú went to the kitchen and came back with a tray. On it there was a kind of cookie her in-laws had sent her from Morocco; there was also water and juice, but just one glass, for me. I was visiting her in the middle of Ramadan, the month when Muslims fast from dawn until sunset every day, and Marilú was fasting.
[Marilú]: Yes, yes. I’m a Muslim, a woman, Mexican, and a Muslim woman. Don’t let Trump see me (laughs).
[Silvia]: Her conversion to Islam was a long and complex process. She grew up in a very Catholic family. Her mother, in particular, was very devout.
[Marilú]: The first Friday of every month, well, to the Sacred Heart, to Mass on Sundays and all that. So, it was like she started inculcating that in us.
[Silvia]: And she, of course, had her First Communion.
[Marilú]: I didn’t question it, you know? It was… we… we did it because everyone did. I mean, it wasn’t… I didn’t really understand what was going on.
[Silvia]: When she was 11, her grandmother died. They were very close; her grandmother took care of her while her parents were at work. She says she was like her mother. And her death made her question a few things, like why people get sick or if God is fair. Two years later, her dad got sick and had to be hospitalized, and Marilú started asking the same questions again. But in her house, she continued being educated in the Catholic faith —maybe even more so because of the situation they were in.
[Marilú]: In fact, there was a period, after my dad got out of the hospital when we were… we prayed the Rosary every day. So, well that was how I grew up, you know? With that idea that God exists but that… at the same time God is distant, you know? Why do these things happen to us?
[Silvia]: As a teenager, Marilú started writing letters to God… almost like a diary. She read me some of them, like one from April 16th, ‘95.
[Marilú]: April 16th, ‘95. Look at that, ‘95. So much time has passed.
[Silvia]: Marilú was 16 years old.
[Marilú]: It says: “Thank you, God, for everything you have given me, for the moments that I live every day of my existence, for feeling the love you have for me, even though, sometimes, God, I don’t show it through my attitude toward my brothers and sisters.” How powerful.
[Silvia]: In that letter, she asks for forgiveness, not just for her, but for the people who she says get carried away with material things. And she laments the violence that exists in the world.
[Marilú]: “I know we’re living in the times of Noah, that soon you will come to save us. I’m waiting for your arrival and for you to take me to live in your kingdom.”
[Silvia]: Another letter, from almost a month later.
[Marilú]: It says: “You know…” It says: “I feel…” I’m crying, this is really powerful. It says: “Sometimes I feel an emptiness inside myself. I feel alone, wanting to cry. But I know you are with me and nothing bad will happen to me. I feel sad for my brothers and sisters that are less fortunate than me.”
[Silvia]: I asked her why reading that letter was so emotional for her.
[Marilú]: It’s emotional because I haven’t read it in years. I kept it here in the Bible. And it’s emotional because here on the first lines it said that, at the time, I felt empty, and I can assure you I haven’t felt empty in ten years. I don’t feel empty. And that’s what motivates me, you know? To say: Alhamdulillah, alhamdulillah.
[Silvia]: “Praise be to God.”
[Marilú]: I’ve found what I was looking for.
[Silvia]: Three years after writing those letters —in ‘98, she was 19 years old, studying psychology at the Universidad Autónoma de Nuevo León— Marilú felt a little upset, not knowing what was going to happen to her life when the new millennium came. She was still feeling that emptiness she just mentioned. And one day, someone in her department invited her to a Catholic retreat. She says that was when her faith started to be more genuine.
[Marilú]: I mean, saying: “God is always there.” So that’s where I started reading the Bible, and I’m telling you this Bible I… that I have here, well it was the first Bible I had.
[Silvia]: She showed me that Bible. It’s small but thick, with a blue cover. From the wear on the pages and the cover, you can tell it’s been read and studied and carried around in a backpack for years.
After that retreat, she started getting more involved with the Basílica de Guadalupe in Monterrey. While she was still studying at college, she would help the priests and nuns giving speeches to vulnerable communities in the city. And she loved it.
[Marilú]: Being in contact with the people was fulfilling, it was very fulfilling because a single word can change a person’s perspective. And well, that’s what it was like. It’s all a process. That whole process of growing, shaping myself professionally as much as spiritually.
[Silvia]: Her plan was to go on Catholic missions after she graduated. But she started to wonder…
[Marilú]: “And what if I’m supposed to be a nun? What if I’m supposed to dedicate myself to God entirely?” And I started that process.
[Silvia]: She took classes and even went on a week-long Jesuit retreat. But she didn’t get very far in the vocational process. Not because of a lack of faith or commitment on her part but, but because something discouraged her.
Marilú told me that a seminarian —a man who was preparing to become a priest— started harassing her. When she refused him, he accused her of flirting with him. Marilú says that the director of the vocational process believed him. She says that it seemed sexist, that it opened her eyes to the hierarchy that existed in the Church. It was very hard to accept that being a nun wasn’t for her, however much she wanted it. But all of this didn’t cause her to distance herself from the church. On the contrary, she started going to Mass and confession more.
[Marilú]: At that time, changing my religion didn’t even cross my mind. I never thought about it, never.
[Silvia]: She started to practice as a psychologist, and in one of her therapy sessions, she met the principle of a Catholic high school where Marilú had given religious talks. They needed a religion teacher, and the principle offered Marilú the job. She accepted. It combined two things she liked: working with kids and talking about God.
Even though she was no longer in the process of becoming a nun, Marilú kept studying. She signed up for a course on the Bible, and in one class the teacher said that from the children of Abraham —Isaac and Ishmael— a great lineage would descend. Marilú knew who Isaac’s descendants were: the house of Israel, the Jewish people. But she wanted to know more about Ishmael’s descendants. So, she went to ask a priest who she trusted.
[Marilú]: And he tells me: “Well, you don’t know?” And I say: “Well, no.” He said: “They’re the Muslims.” And I said: “What!?!” Yes, the concept of Muslims I had was September 11th, I mean, terrorism and all that. How could there be a great lineage coming from them? And well, that’s the way it was.
[Silvia]: In 2007, there was a cultural forum in Monterrey. There were several representatives from different religions. The activities and events focused on four topics: cultural diversity, sustainability, understanding, and peace.
[Marilú]: And to my surprise, there were a lot of stands from all the religions, and there was one that said “Islam.” So, I went to them one by one asking questions, because I said: “This is going to help me in my class.”
[Silvia]: As a religion teacher, she had to teach about the three major monotheistic religions: Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. So, she went up to the Muslim’s stand.
[Marilú]: And we end up in a debate that lasted about an hour. Afterward, my mom said to me: “Marilú, please let’s go now, a lot of people are gathering around.” And I said: “No, wait, I have questions I want to ask.”
[Silvia]: What surprised her the most was that they spoke Spanish, that they were Mexican, from Monterrey.
[Marilú]: Which didn’t make sense to me. I mean, you always place them… well Arabs, over there, far away. Not someone who’s right there. So, I started talking to them, and I asked my questions. I said to them: “Well,OK, but you’re terrorists.” (Laughs). I mean, directly.
[Silvia]: You said that to them directly?
[Marilú]: Directly, yes, I did. They said: “No, no, no. Islam has nothing to do with terrorism, September 11th… eh, we don’t know what happened.” He said: “But it doesn’t have anything to do with Islam, not at all.” And I said: “Alright, OK.”
[Silvia]: And they clarified a point that for Marilú was the most important: they believe there is only one God. They also explained that, to them, Jesus is neither God, nor the son of God, but he is a prophet.
[Marilú]: I said: “Alright, let’s talk about that a little more.” And well, we started talking and then he tells me: “Look, I can’t tell you too much because I don’t want to confuse you or anything.”
[Silvia]: They gave her books and pamphlets to study. Marilú went back the next day and they gave her another book. She started reading and studying everything they gave her and a few months later she went to a mosque for the first time, it was the only one in Monterrey. Her initial goal of getting close to the Muslims at that forum —to get material for her class— had changed. Now it was something more.
She started meeting with them, making Muslim friends, and she kept studying, Islam as much as Catholicism. She asked the priest for books on the history of the Catholic Church.
[Marilú]: So I start reading it, and I say: “Oh!”. I mean, everything I had believed started to vanish. I couldn’t believe it.
[Silvia]: She became disillusioned with Catholicism, but she kept teaching the Catholic religion at a school.
[Marilú]: And well, at that time —it was May— they had to have their Confirmation. And when I was preparing them, I was conflicted. I said: “But, why am I preparing them, if I don’t believe in this anymore, if I have doubts?” And that was a terrible time in my life. I mean, it was… it’s called a spiritual desert. Where you’re like: “Let’s see, what’s really going on. Everything I had been taught, what I had been brought up with, what I had learned, or what I knew turned out to not be true.”
[Silvia]: So Marilú decided to get away from it all.
[Marilú]: I refused to go to church or talk to the Muslims. I said: “This is a decision between me and God alone.” And I started to pray, all alone in my room.
[Silvia]: She didn’t want anyone to influence her. She had already done the reading, she had already done the research, she had already talked about her doubts with the Muslims as much as with the priest. It was time to make a decision. After about three months, she says she realized that…
[Marilú]: I said: “They’re right,” in this case, the Muslims. And I said: “They are right.” And that was when I was really sure that Jesus isn’t God. That was when I said: “You know what? I want to be a Muslim.”
[Silvia]: Now she had to tell her family. She knew it wasn’t going to be easy.
[Marilú]: And I tell them: “You know what? I think Islam is what I want.” My mom said to me: “What!?! No! These people have brainwashed you! What? Do you want them to kill you?” (laughter). I say to her: “No one’s going to kill me.” I said: “No one’s going to kill me.”
[Silvia]: She told her mother that those kinds of prejudices —the same ones she had had months earlier— were just that, prejudices.
[Marilú]: To every argument she presented me with, I would say to her: “OK, let’s see.”
[Silvia]: For example, about the veil.
[Marilú]: People say: “Oh, Muslim women cover their hair.” No, we don’t cover our hair, we cover our auras, and for women, our auras go from our head to our feet. A man’s aura is different: it goes from their belly-button to their knees. Maybe it’s sexist, maybe it is what everyone says, well they’re going to think what they want. But if God has given us that command, I’m not going to question God’s command. If other people don’t agree, well, when they die, they can ask Him (laughter).
[Silvia]: She told her mother that she liked how they worshiped God and that she felt that in Catholicism it was something that was missing.
[Marilú]: And she said to me: “Fine, do what you want. And you’re going to have to dress like that? Go around all covered up and all that?” I said: “We’ll go in steps.” No, it’s not going in all at once: it’s little by little, little by little. But, well, from the time I met the Muslims to the moment I said: “You know what? This is for me,” it took nine months.
[Silvia]: On July 4th, 2008, Marilú quit her job as a religion teacher and the next day —the 5th— she officially became Muslim. She did what’s called “the Shahada.”
[Marilú]: The Shahada is the profession of faith, saying: “Lā ‘ilāha ‘illā-llāhu Muhammadun rasūlu-llāh, I testify that there is no god but God and Muhammad is the messenger of God.” But you don’t just say it. You have to believe it.
[Silvia]: That day she was accompanied by a group eight or nine people: a few Mexican Muslims, one Moroccan, and, as she remembers, an Iranian. The Muslim community in Monterrey is small but very diverse. There’s one mosque, the Centro Cultural Islámico del Norte. Their spokesperson —Sergio Orta— told me there are about 200 people in the community, including women, men, and children. Most of them are foreigners; there are about 60 Mexicans. And now she’s part of that small community.
But, what does it mean to be Muslim in Mexico? In Marilú’s case, it was feeling like everyone was watching you. It’s going to being part of a tiny minority in a Catholic and Christian country. It’s feeling a change in the way people treat you, especially when you’re wearing the veil.
[Marilú]: I started wearing a veil progressively, you know? Right after I did my Shahada, well, I didn’t wear it every day. In Mexico, a country where no… Islam isn’t a religion a lot of people know about, well, it attracts a lot of attention. And it’s not easy, especially for work, you know?
[Silvia]: But time passed, and Marilú felt more comfortable with her new identity. She was learning more and more about Islam, and every day she felt more confident in herself. But something was missing.
[Marilú]: Well, I knew, in Islam, you complete your… the religion when you get married. So, in Islam… well, it’s that. You have to… celibacy isn’t conceived of.
[Silvia]: In Islam, marriage is an essential step in order to continue progressing as a Muslim. Even though Marilú says she wasn’t in a hurry, she knew that someday she would get married. It wasn’t easy to meet many Muslims her age in Monterrey either. So, with her new friends, she got on the internet.
[Marilú]: Well, the girls and I got on these websites… to look for a husband and things like that. And I said: “Let’s see, the guy in the picture has nothing to do with what he’s describing.” I mean…(laughs).
[Silvia]: They’re websites for Muslims.
[Marilú]: Uh-huh, yeah, yeah. They’re websites for Muslims. So, you would read the description and look at the picture, and you would say: “This one says he’s 41 years old, but he has the face of an 18-year-old.” Or people look very handsome, and you say: “Are people really that good looking?” (Laughs).
[Silvia]: She met a lot of Muslims on Facebook. For almost a year, she was talking to a guy who lived in Spain, but he only wanted an open relationship. Something that she didn’t think went along with Islam. A short while later —in July of 2010— she got a Facebook message from Aziz.
[Marilú]: And Aziz was… very direct. He said: “OK, I’m a person… a very serious person. I’m very responsible,” and I something else. “I’m looking for someone to marry.” And I said: “And who is this guy?”
[Silvia]: Marilú answered that she was looking for the same thing, and they started a long-distance relationship.
[Marilú]: So, well, I started asking him more questions about… well: “How do you get along with your friends and family?” About all his relationships… You never stop getting to know someone. You need to really know what his intentions are and who he is. And that’s why, well, I showed off some of my skills in psychology (laughter). Because you should never believe what someone tells you, instead you have to look and the context and if it’s congruent and all that.
[Silvia]: What she found on the internet lined up with what Aziz was telling her. He was born in Morocco in 1978. When she met Marilú, he had already divorced his first wife and had been working in Madrid for several years for Lee Hecht Harrison —a multinational consulting firm headquartered in New Jersey with a focus in human resources.
On his LinkedIn profile, which is still open, it says that his position was as marketing director. There are several comments from past coworkers that attest to his being a, quote, “professional from head to toe in marketing, persistent, tenacious, determined, and always focused on results.”
They spent months talking and getting to know each other better. They each introduced the other to their parents virtually. Until in November, Aziz started talking to her about marriage.
[Marilú]: I said: “Look, you put it in your prayers to God and I will too.” Because that was another thing I liked about him, that he knew a little about Islam. He’s not… he’s not the typical person who says: “Oh, yeah, I’m Muslim, but I do what I want.” Well no, no, no. So, well, yeah.
[Silvia]: Aziz arrived in Monterrey on the night of December 25th. Marilú says that when she saw him at the airport, her heart started racing as if she were a teenager. Always when they talked online, he was sitting down, so what had the biggest impact on her was seeing how tall he was.
They had planned to get married on December 26th in the mosque, but before the ceremony, Aziz went to Marilú’s house to meet her parents in person.
[Marilú]: And that night we went to the mosque and then we… we got married there, religiously.
[Silvia]: Marilú had told the imam that they wanted to have the ceremony that day. A few girls from the mosque brought food, but in general, Marilú says it was a very simple religious wedding. But her mom also wanted to have a reception for the rest of the people who didn’t go to the wedding at the mosque, for relatives and friends who weren’t Muslim.
[Marilú]: Afterward, on December 28th —Día de los Inocentes, like April Fool’s Day (laughs). And, well, it was an event for 60 people more or less, and half of them went. The other half thought it was a joke. (Laughs).
[Silvia]: On January 2nd, she flew to Madrid, and they went to live in Aziz’ apartment in Pinto.
[Marilú]: Well, you always arrive with the expectation, right? Of: “Oh, a new country, new customs and all that.” Everything was new to me. We got there and everything. I got there at the worst time —it was in 2011— when here the… the most difficult crisis started. I mean, it was… I was surprised to see so many people looking for food in the dumpster that I said: “Don’t even think about that.”
[Silvia]: In Pinto, the Muslim community is a little more visible. There’s a mosque and their spokesperson, Mohamed Samadi, told me he estimates there are about 1,200 Muslims. Here, for example, Marilú didn’t feel like she was the only one wearing a veil.
[Marilú]: Yes, yes. I get here, and I see there are a lot of Muslims, women wearing veils, and I said: “Oh, well, look.” I felt free, in quotes, free.” I said: “Well, I’m going to get dressed, and I’m not going to call people’s attention, I’ll pass like anyone else.
[Silvia]: It’s not that she went unnoticed, but without a doubt it was different. There were other challenges: Marilú didn’t speak Arabic. So, it wasn’t very easy to make close friends in that community —a problem she hadn’t had with the Muslims in Mexico.
At the same time, when they saw her, Spaniards assumed she was from Morocco or another Islamic country.
[Marilú]: I would even be walking down the street, and I think people didn’t think I spoke Spanish, they say things like: “You disgust me.” Or: “Go back to your own country.”
[Daniel]: We’ll be back after the break.
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[Daniel]: We’re back with Radio Ambulante, I’m Daniel Alarcón. I’m Daniel Alarcón. Before the break, we were with Marilú —a Mexican woman, recently married to Aziz— about to begin a new life.
Silvia Viñas continues the story.
[Marilú]: If you want, have a seat. Look, these are the photos on the… the ID and all that. This is Adam and Ryane. Look, here at my in-law’s house, their grandparents.
[Silvia]: Are they learning Arabic?
[Marilú]: Yes, yes. Yesterday Ryane said to me: “I’m going to be your Arabic teacher.” I say: “OK. Alright, son. You’ll teach me.” Here he is.
[Silvia]: This is in Morocco?
[Marilú]: Yes, that’s in Morocco.
[Silvia]: Marilú showed me pictures of her children. The oldest —Ryane— was born in 2012, a little more than a year after they came to Spain. And two years later, their second was born: Adam. Marilú decided not to work and give herself one hundred percent to her children in their first years.
But in 2016, she started standardizing her psychology degree. Her plan was to set up a practice. They wanted to move to a bigger house, but before —to save— they decided to move to an apartment with the option to purchase. It’s the apartment where I interviewed her and where —in May 2016— they arrested Aziz.
So, let’s go back to the scene we started the episode with. On May 3rd, 2016, only a few days after moving into their new apartment.
[Marilú]: My head couldn’t… I couldn’t really process what was happening. But yes, I saw a lot of dogs’ paws, people’s feet, of the people walking past, and guns. And then I say: “The kids.” When I see them start coming in, I say: “Don’t shoot. There are two children, there are children,” something like that. When they check the whole house, they turn on the lights, and a bunch of people come in. They get my husband on… on his feet, and they sit them there. Me… They also stood me up, they take off my handcuffs and tell me: “Stay here with the kids and don’t leave.”
[Silvia]: Marilú says that a guard stood at the door, and she stayed inside the room with the children.
[Marilú]: And obviously, my two children were awake. Ryane had an expression like: “What’s happening here?” and Adam was… well, very small. He was a year and a half. He was laughing and laughing (laughs). Because he saw the dogs, you know?
[Silvia]: When she was telling me this, she showed me where the kids were while all this was happening. By her side, next to her.
[Marilú]: It was like: “What’s going on.” And I was right there. And he was here.
[Silvia]: Adam, the youngest, was hungry. The sun was coming up. The agents allowed Marilú to go prepare him a bottle and one of them accompanied her to the kitchen.
[Marilú]: And obviously, I go out and try to see what was going on, you know? What little… I saw that my husband was still there. There was… this table was there. Several guards were there with computers. Eh… there were more people in the other hallways, I mean, in the hallway. There were people in every room, and he tells me: “Let’s go, let’s go. Quickly, quickly. Don’t waste time. Don’t waste time.”
[Silvia]: There’s a video on the Civil Guard’s YouTube channel where you can see some of the scenes that Marilú is describing. The music, of course, is from the Civil Guard, not us.
[Voice]: Agents from the Chieftaincy of Intelligence of the Civil Guard along with units from the Madrid Command have detained four individuals in Pinto and Ciempozuelos, Madrid, for allegedly belonging
[Silvia]: The video shows scenes from the arrests they made that day, under what they called Operation Ariel. In one scene, you can see agents wearing ski masks standing around a man —who appears to be Aziz— sitting with his hands behind his head. In other scenes, you see agents opening computers, taking photos of some swords and then walking out of the building carrying a computer.
Marilú and Aziz were able to talk before he was taken away. He told her to take his wallet.
[Marilú]: “Pay the rent. Don’t call my parents yet. We’re going to wait and see… see what happens.” He says: “Talk to my work and tell them I can’t come in.” And I said: “OK, OK.” I said: “Don’t worry,” I said: “I’ll take care of all this. Uh…We’re going to get out of this.” The police that were here told me: “In 72 hours, either he goes free, or he’ll be brought before a judge,” or something like that. I said: “Look, in 72 hours you’ll be free.” I said: “This was just a mistake. Don’t worry.” I said: “Don’t worry about anything out here. I said: “You concentrate on yourself, that you’re OK and all that.” So I asked them: “Where are you taking him?”
[Silvia]: It would take Marilú days to learn where they had taken Aziz.
Finally, with the help of a lawyer, the next day they located him in the Tres Cantos jail, north of Madrid. She also learned a few of the details of the accusations against him. The authorities named Aziz as the leader of a group that was distributing jihadist propaganda, that recruited and radicalized people in Pinto.
Reading or hearing news about police operations like this one has become common in Spain. The Civil Guard’s press releases about these detentions tend to point out that all investigations related to this kind of terrorism —and I quote— “have been strengthened”. This is since they elevated the anti-terrorist alert level in the country.
(SOUNDBITE FROM FILE)
[Jorge Fernández Díaz]: Would go from being a level three out of five…
[Silvia]: This is José Fernández Díaz, the minister of the interior at the time, at a press conference on June 26th, 2015. He was announcing that the level three out of five alert, which meant “medium,” was being raised to a four out of five: “high.”
(SOUNDBITE FROM FILE)
[Jorge Fernández Díaz]: This increase in the level of alert means, basically, reinforcing prevention, protection, and investigations that security forces carry out on potential targets of attacks and critical infrastructure…
[Silvia]: When you talk about the battle against jihadist terrorists in Spain, first you think of the attacks on March 11th, 2004.
[Journalist]: When the first bomb went off in one of the cars of the commuter train approaching the Atocha station at the time. There, the terrorists…
[Silvia]: When ten explosions in four trains in Madrid left 193 people dead and 2.000 wounded. This is how it was reported that day:
[Journalist]: The Minister of the Interior has confirmed that there is no doubt that the ETA was behind this massacre, this attack and that…
[Silvia]: That is was the ETA —a Basque separatist group that was founded in the late ‘50s. And this is important. I’ll explain: These attacks took place just three days before the presidential elections and thinking it was the ETA made the most sense. Though the group had ceased its armed activity in 2011 and dissolved in May of 2018, at the time —2004— the ETA was still active. Their war against the Spanish state had killed hundreds and wounded thousands. Just months before —in December 2003— the police had arrested two members of the ETA who planned to detonate two bombs in a train in Madrid.
But this time, it wasn’t the ETA. Two days after the attacks, the police in Madrid made the first arrests: five people who were presumably part of an Al Qaeda cell. And that night, the police found a video in which terrorists linked to Al Qaeda celebrated the attacks and explained that they were in retaliation for Spain’s support of and participation in the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan.
The “11-M” bombing is still the jihadist attack that has claimed the most victims in Spain. And because of the attack, Spanish security forces changed their focus. They realized that the terrorism they would face in the future would be very different from that of the ETA. That they would have to dedicate more resources and personnel to fighting global terrorism. A form of terrorism that carried out much more lethal attacks.
Now, let’s go back to 2015 when Spain raised the anti-terrorist alert level to “High.”
[Journalist]: France maintains its level of alert after the terrorist attack against the weekly magazine Charlie Hebdo and the president…
[Silvia]: Spain and the rest of Europe were on alert.
[Journalist]: The attack has been described as an attack on the core of freedom, freedom of expression in particular…
[Silvia]: On January 7th, terrorists from a subsidiary of Al Qaeda had entered the offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris, killing 12 people and leaving 11 wounded. Two days later, an attacker claiming to report to Islamic State took hostages at a kosher market in Paris and killed four people.
Five months later —on June 26th, the day Spain decided to raise the anti-terrorist alert level— there were jihadist attacks in France, Tunisia, and Kuwait; the previous day there was an attack in Somalia.
[Journalist 1]: In manner practically parallel the attack in Southern France, two shooting were reported in two hotels in Tunisia. In the attack, at least 73 tourists died.
[Journalist 2]: There was also a mosque in Kuwait that was attacked by the terrorist group, the Islamic State. At least 25 people were killed.
[Silvia]: And June 29th was the first anniversary of the declaration of the Caliphate of the Islamic State, also known as ISIS.
[Journalist]: It’s the dream rocking in the jihadist cradle. Members of ISIS speak openly about a reconquista. “And I tell you, Spain is the land of our grandfathers…”
[Silvia]: For members of ISIS, Spain and practically the entire Iberian Peninsula —Spain and Portugal— has another name. Al Andalus. That’s what it was called when it was ruled by Muslims, for more than 700 years during the Middle Ages. For ISIS, Al Andalus is a land that was taken from them by force and that they want to recover at any cost.
So, this is the context in which the Spanish government decided to raise the alert level to “High” in 2015, reinforcing —as the Minister of the Interior at the time said— terrorist prevention and anti-terrorist investigations by security forces.
That year, for the first time, the number of investigations into jihadists surpassed those related to the ETA. According to figures from the Ministry of the Interior, there were 75 arrests linked to jihadism in 2015 —more than double the number from the previous year. And even though the number of arrests has been decreasing, the level four —“High”— alert has remained in place. To this day. The threat is still active.
[Journalist]: Terror strikes Barcelona. A van ran into a crowd in Las Ramblas, causing the deaths of at least 13 people and injuring 100, in the worst terrorist attack Spain has suffered since the Madrid attacks in 2004…
[Silvia]: August 17th, 2017, an attack in Barcelona left 14 dead and 137 wounded. Days later, the Islamic State posted a video in Spanish, threatening that there would be more attacks and saying, I quote, “with Allah’s permission, Al Andalus will return to what it was: Caliphate land.”
Let’s get back to Marilú. The day they arrested Aziz…
[Marilú]: That same day, the 3rd, well, I’ll say I was hit by reality. I say: “And what do I do now?”
[Silvia]: The apartment, which was half-organized after the move, had been left in total disarray after Aziz’ arrest.
[Marilú]: They threw all the books on the ground. They checked them one by one. I remember one of the kids’ balls we had and a big gym ball: pop, pop, pop, they popped them. They took out the drawers. They took down the blinds. And there was bags and boxes that we still hadn’t unpacked. They… they took all of it out.
[Silvia]: Marilú says that door to the apartment had been destroyed, so she and the kids stayed at a friend’s house until they could fix it. She got a lawyer, who appealed to have Aziz set free. But it was rejected because of the risk that he would flee or destroy evidence, or that he would continue participating in the activities he was accused of: distributing jihadist propaganda or recruiting people.
As soon as she could, Marilú went back to her apartment.
[Marilú]: I came here with the kids. I said: “The sooner we got our lives back to normal, the better.”
[Silvia]: The oldest of her two children, Ryane, was four at the time. Obviously, he didn’t understand what was going on.
[Marilú]: He didn’t ask me about it because Ryane is very prudent, you know? He doesn’t… He intuits things but doesn’t… he doesn’t say them, he keeps them to himself.
[Silvia]: He thought his dad had gone on a trip.
[Marilú]: But as the days went by… days went by, and he didn’t… he didn’t come. And it was like: “Ryane, is something wrong?” He says: “No” And I said: “OK.” I said: “Do you miss dad? We’re going to see him soon, OK? Don’t worry.”
[Silvia]: After going through the jail at Tres Cantos in Madrid, they transferred Aziz to other prisons. As soon as they could, Marilú and the children went to see him. The first time, Marilú told Ryane that they were going to go on a trip to see his dad.
[Marilú]: “Look, we’re going on a trip, and we’re going to see the countryside and look at the cows and the sheep.”
[Silvia]: And he started to associate these visits to the country with his dad.
[Marilú]: And he would always say the same thing: “And abi’s farm?” Abi means dad in Arabic, well, “daddy.” He would say: “Abi’s on a farm.” And: “When are we going to see abi?” Then the kids went to see him and everything.
[Silvia]: And how… what was that like?
[Marilú]: Well, very hard.
[Silvia]: I imagine.
[Marilú]: Most of all for Ryane (sighs). But the hardest part was saying goodbye (sighs). Well, we left and gave him a big hug and everything… well, he tried not to cry (sobs). But it’s one of the things that you… you can’t stop.
[Silvia]: I asked Marilú if she ever thought of going to Mexico for a while, or Morocco, to be near family who could help with the kids. And she answered like she had heard the question many times.
[Marilú]: My residency card was active, I had my passport, and I had money, and a lot of people told me to leave. And I told all of those people: “I’m not leaving here.”
[Silvia]: For her, the most important thing was to be near Aziz.
On January 23rd, 2017 —eight months after Aziz was arrested— Marilú went to drop off the kids at school like any other day. First, she dropped off Ryane, and then she drove about five minutes to drop off Adam at daycare.
[Marilú]: It really caught my attention that there was a parking spot right outside the door to daycare when it was time to drop him off, and that time it was really weird. I said: “Wow, it’s full.” But I didn’t pay much attention to it.
[Silvia]: She found a parking spot a block away from the daycare.
[Marilú]: I get out and drop Adam off. I say goodbye to him. I still remember him saying goodbye with his little hand of… holding his teacher’s, quickly I go… let’s see, where do I go? I go to the car.
[Silvia]: And notes that now there are two cars —that weren’t there before— parked in front of and behind her.
[Marilú]: I said: “How weird. And since there was so much space, why are they doing this to me?” So, I open the lock for the car, and all of a sudden, a bunch of people come out from all directions. And I said: “Wow, what is this?” People come out of the cars around me, a woman comes, and everyone has guns pointed at the ground. And she tells me: “Are you Marilú?” I say: “Yes, I am.” She says: “OK, you’re under arrest.”
[Silvia]: She told me that the most embarrassing part of this scene was that two moms from her son’s class saw the whole arrest. The agents loaded her into a Civil Guard car and drove her to the station.
[Marilú]: And I’m thinking: “But, why did they arrest me?” I say: “Maybe they’re confused. Maybe they want to give a statement maybe and they’re saying I’ve been arrested just to say it.” I said, in my head.
[Silvia]: Marilú did what she could to remain calm. And when she told me about her arrest, she spoke with the same calmness. I asked her how she managed.
[Marilú]: I don’t even know. How is it possible? And I’m telling you, In my head I was telling myself: “There’s no reason for you to be this way, you don’t have… you have to shout or resist.” There was a kind of peace. There was a peace I can’t explain. I don’t know. I mean, I didn’t shout or resist or anything.
[Silvia]: The day after her arrest, Marilú went before a judge. There she learned what the charges against her were: recruitment, promotion, and indoctrination.
[Marilú]: I said: “OK. Well, that’s it.” I say: “Everything is going to be cleared up, everything is going to be cleared up.”
[Silvia]: She repeated it to herself again and again: “This is going to be cleared up.” And she had to believe it, so she didn’t lose hope.
[Daniel]: In the next episode…
[Marilú]: If I had seen something strange in him, however small it may be, I would have grabbed my kids right away and left.
Every time I had a thought about them, I pushed it aside. I pushed it aside because I said: “I’m going to fall apart. I’m going to fall apart.”
Look, here he is… Hello, how are you?
[Aziz Zaghnane]: Hello! (Unintelligible)
[Marilú]: Oh, my beautiful boy, how are you? Alright, here…
[Silvia]: How are you?
[Marilú]: Like I’m about to take a very important test. We’ll see what happens.
[Daniel]: Silvia Viñas is an editor and producer for Radio Ambulante. She lives in London.
This story was edited by Camila Segura and by me. The music and sound design are by Andrés Azpiri and Rémy Lozano. Ana Prieto did the fact-checking. Thanks to our editorial assistant, Victoria Estrada, for her help on this episode.
The rest of the Radio Ambulante team includes Lisette Arévalo, Gabriela Brenes, Jorge Caraballo, Andrea López Cruzado, Miranda Mazariegos, Diana Morales, Patrick Moseley, Laura Rojas Aponte, Barbara Sawhill, David Trujillo, Elsa Liliana Ulloa, Luis Fernando Vargas, and Joseph Zárate. Carolina Guerrero is the CEO.
Radio Ambulante is produced and mixed on Hindenburg PRO.
Have you joined our Club de Podcast yet? It’s a group on Facebook where we discuss episodes of Radio Ambulante with listeners from other places in Latin America and the world. Besides that, our team shares advice for producing audio stories. Look for it under Club de Podcasts Radio Ambulante.
Radio Ambulante tells the stories of Latin America. I’m Daniel Alarcón. Thanks for listening.