This article was originally published by VICE Portugal in February 2013.
Antonio Salas has lived a lot of lives. For a story on neo-Nazi football hooliganism, the Spanish investigative journalist infiltrated a group of far-right Real Madrid ultras, shaving his head and going to white power gigs while he played the part.
Next, he went undercover in one of Madrid’s human-trafficking rings, auctioning off the virginity of 13-year-old girls—an experience he said is perhaps the hardest thing he’s ever done, emotionally and psychologically. More recently, he spent six years with various jihadist cells for El Palestino [The Palestinian], his book on Islamic terrorism, but only after getting an emergency circumcision (in case he ended up in a public bath with his subjects) and writing out the entire Qur’an in Arabic.
Of course, “Antonio Salas” is a pseudonym, because the investigations he undertakes usually involve the kind of people you want to keep a distance from. But he was easy enough to get in touch with, so I gave him a call and spoke to him about being maybe the bravest investigative journalist working today. VICE: Hi, Antonio, how have you been?
Antonio Salas: Hi, Rui. Everything’s fine; I'm still alive. That’s a funny answer,
Not at all. Recently the leader of the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement, Chino Carias, announced my death. The worse part about being an undercover journalist is that you can never enjoy what success brings. The best part is that you are allowed to stay alive and continue investigating. You have written that when you infiltrated Real Madrid’s skinhead movement you found yourself enjoying it, at times. But that there were also times you wanted to say, “Look, I’m a rat. I’m betraying you.”
When I work undercover, I am one of them. I live, sleep, and eat with the single purpose of investigating, 24 hours a day, to understand people's motives. And that requires developing emotional ties with neo-Nazis and terrorists. We all do what we think is right. The people I investigate do too. It is often difficult to remember that I am an undercover journalist and not part of them.
That also happened when you infiltrated the human trafficking business, right?
Although it wasn’t the most dangerous situation I have been in, the investigation was by far the most traumatic and psychologically taxing experience. I started the investigation with a handful of clichés in mind and what I found was a much harsher reality. When did you decide to make a living out if this?
I always thought being a doctor or a conductor is the greatest thing anyone could ever be. I can’t imagine a better job. But I’m too much of a rebel and undisciplined to be either. Being a journalist was my third option. I strongly believe that looking for the truth and showing it, just like it is, is a very noble way of making a living.
Is your credibility at all undermined because people don’t know who you really are? How do Spanish journalists treat you?
With only a few exceptions, my colleagues treat me with a kindness that I don’t deserve. Regarding credibility, I understand the skepticism. If a colleague of mine told me that he negotiated young virgins into prostitution, in a restaurant in Madrid, I wouldn’t believe it either. But that's the beauty of hidden cameras; you don’t have to believe. You can just watch the videos. Everything’s in there. Why did you choose the name "Antonio Salas"? Does it mean anything in particular?
There isn’t a special meaning, no. Antonio, Toni, is a common name in Spain. It's easily forgettable, and when you do what I do, it is important not to attract too much attention. Also the name Toni is used in many other languages. Salas is a vulgar name. It doesn’t stand out.
Will you ever reveal your true identity?
I don’t know. I must admit that, sometimes, I feel sad that I can't accept awards and conference invitations. I would love to sign my books, like every other writer. We all have some vanity in us. The day I reveal who I am, of course, will be my last day as an investigative journalist. And I believe the type of journalism I do is useful for society, so I’ll continue doing it for as long as I can. I’m not as brave as Roberto Saviano, Günter Wallraff, or Hunter S. Thompson, but I’m more ambitious. At the beginning of Diary of a Skin you write that the person who denounced you was a cop.
That was terrible. If it wasn’t for David Madrid, who warned me that his superior had given me away to the Ultras Sur supporters [Real Madrid’s hardcore fan club], that afternoon I would have gone to the stadium and probably you and I wouldn’t be talking today.
Unfortunately, police corruption is actually more real than what you see in the movies. The economic crisis and the restrictions everyone has been facing create an easy path for it. In some investigations, like the one about organized crime and women trafficking, I found that many policemen, lawyers, and judges were implicated in the business.
What about the skinheads?
That’s different. My skinhead comrades have an ideology closely tied to the right wing. They like discipline, uniforms. They’re traditional, love the military hierarchy, and that fits the profile of the common cop. Many skins I dealt with were cops' sons.
Interesting how you still call them “comrades.” Are they still your comrades?
The truth is that it was really difficult for me to leave the movement. If you don’t fully integrate you’re going to be found out, and if you do it the right way, you take the risk of becoming one of them. That’s why spies and cops work in pairs; so that there is a control figure who doesn’t let the other person become the character he/she is interpreting. But I work alone. When I published Diary of a Skin, I went through a sort of Stockholm syndrome. I felt bad for betraying my comrades. But a psychologist friend of mine helped me a lot. He explained to me that, in reality, they weren’t really Antonio's friends. They were Tiger88's friends; that's the character I was interpreting. Even so, all “infiltrations” can get really intense and there’s always emotional scarring. Lastly, what is your personal life like? What do your parents or you girlfriend say about what you do? Are you at all able to live a normal life?
I try hard to separate my personal life from my work. My parents have been under police protection since the day I “traded” women. My mother, in particular, deals with it all rather badly. Only a few of my friends know who I really am. Most of them don't suspect anything. Sometimes they talk about Antonio Salas and the movies that have been based on my books, and I’m sitting right there. Hearing others talk about you without them knowing—it's a very strange feeling. But it is the only way to know what they really think about my work. In my professional life, death is always present. How do you handle that?
I’m not afraid anymore. I still carry around a necklace with a 9mm bullet that almost hit me during the women trafficking investigation. Until that day, I had no idea what a gunshot sounded like. During the investigation for The Palestinian, I became familiar with guns and the idea of death. My conscience is clear, and even if they catch me, I’ll go having made sure I’ve lived my life to the fullest. I learned all I could and tried to do something useful. What scares me is that death might be painful. But I suppose everyone has that fear.