The shocking rape trial that galvanised Spain’s feminists – and the far right

The ‘wolf pack’ case inspired widespread anger and protests against sexual assault laws in Spain. But the anti-feminist backlash that followed has helped propel the far right to its biggest gains since Franco.

In the early hours of 7 July 2016, surrounded by throngs of revellers dancing and drinking, an 18-year-old woman suddenly found herself alone. She was standing on Plaza del Castillo, a square in the centre of the northern Spanish city of Pamplona, which was hosting its annual festival, the running of the bulls.

The weeklong festival combines a religious celebration of the city’s patron saint, San Fermin, with the eponymous bull run – and copious amounts of alcohol. Every morning at the stroke of 8am, the bravest festivalgoers sprint ahead of a group of bulls leading them from the pen where they’re kept to the ring where they will die later that day.

Then the drinking resumes. The festival has long had a reputation for bad behaviour – exasperated locals often complain about outsiders turning their town into a lawless city – and after photos of young women being groped by groups of men went viral in 2013, the city launched an anti-sexual assault campaign whose symbol, a red hand, was plastered across billboards, walls and buses. But the festival has not lost its somewhat seedy reputation. “People come here to fuck,” a hospital receptionist told me wearily, fanning herself against the July heat, when I attended last year.

The young woman, who had just finished her first year of university, had been drinking with a few people she had met that night, but after leaving them to dance, she lost sight of them. As she would later testify in court, she nudged her way past the crowds to a bench on the edge of the square to get her bearings. There, on the bench, a man struck up conversation with her. His name was José Ángel Prenda, a 26-year-old from Seville with a broad face and a paunchy stomach across which he had inked his name in large, gothic script.

Prenda had come to the festival with a group of friends, four men in their mid-20s, who called themselves la manada – the wolf pack. One member of the group, a soldier named Alfonso Jesús Cabezuelo, had a tattoo of a howling wolf on his foot, along with the words “The power of the wolf lies in the pack”. Another member, Jesús Escudero, a hairdresser, had a wolf paw tattoo on his ribcage. The other two members were a police officer, Antonio Manuel Guerrero, and Ángel Boza, the rookie of the group, who, like Prenda, was unemployed. The woman and Prenda compared tattoos and talked football while the other men hovered around, occasionally dipping in and out of the conversation.

In the woman’s recollection, the chat was friendly but unremarkable. She was tired, and after about 10 minutes, she said she was going to head back to a friend’s car, where she would spend the night. Offering to walk her, the men accompanied her past busy terraces before turning into quieter and increasingly deserted streets. When she pointed out that they were close to the car, Prenda suddenly rushed ahead, catching up with a woman entering a nearby apartment building. Pretending to have rented a room there, Prenda held the door for the resident and then slipped into the lobby.

Outside, one of the men – the woman wasn’t sure which – had begun kissing her, and she had kissed him back. Soon they were interrupted by Prenda’s hushed command from inside the lobby of the apartment building: “Let’s go, let’s go.” The man she was with took her hand and led her towards the door. Before she could register what was happening, she had been corralled into the back of the lobby and felt herself being undressed. Over the next 20 minutes, the five men would take turns repeatedly penetrating her orally, vaginally and anally. She shut her eyes and waited for it to end.

At 3.27am, according to CCTV footage, the men filed out of the building. Once the woman was alone, she got dressed and looked for her phone to call a friend, but the men had stolen it. That’s when she began to cry. She left the building and eventually found a bench to slump on, sobbing inconsolably. Eventually a passing couple stopped to talk to her. When she told them what had happened, they called the police, who drove her to a local hospital where she was treated for vaginal wounds and given a morning-after pill.

The men, meanwhile, had headed back into town, some to continue partying, others to sleep. At 6.50am, Prenda wrote in the WhatsApp group they shared with a few other friends back in Seville, “Good morning. The five of us fucked one girl. Hahaha.” He added: “We have video.” At 8am, the five friends ran with the bulls. They were still catching their breath when the police officers approached.

By that evening, the five were behind bars. What had taken place in Pamplona would become known as the “wolf pack” case, and for the next two years, as the trial approached and more and more details seeped into the press, the story would rarely be out of the headlines.

In April 2018, the verdict was finally handed down and the court acquitted all five men of rape, finding them guilty of the lesser crime of “sexual abuse”. It came down to the fine print of the law: because the men had not used violence to coerce the woman into the act, the crime could not technically be categorised as sexual assault, which includes rape. The men were sentenced to nine years instead of the 22 to 25 years the prosecution demanded.

For many women across the country, even before the verdict arrived, the case had been a moment of reckoning, which laid bare a deep culture of misogyny in Spanish society. The wolf pack case “brought out the worst in our society, the worst in our judicial system, the worst in social media,” the human rights lawyer and analyst Violeta Assiego told me. But the outcome of the trial galvanised feminists in Spain like never before, turning feminism into a movement with unprecedented visibility and real political power. Immediately after the verdict, hundreds of thousands of women flooded plazas in dozens of Spanish cities to protest against the ruling, calling for Spain’s sexual assault laws to be rewritten.

But it wasn’t just a transformative moment for feminists – it also became a rallying point for the far right. As more and more women took to the streets, a reactionary counter-movement of aggrieved men was forming online, while the far-right party Vox pitched itself to supporters who felt threatened by the increasing prominence of what they called “radical feminism”.

This past December, Vox became the first far-right party to win multiple seats in Spain since the death of Franco. In Spain’s upcoming general election on 28 April, polls are predicting that Vox is likely to win roughly 10% of the vote – up from just 0.2% in 2016 – meaning that it could play kingmaker to a rightwing coalition government. “Vox isn’t an isolated case. It’s part of a global trend where a minority of the population can see that their privileges are in danger,” Ada Colau, mayor of Barcelona, told me recently. “That’s why feminism needs to show its strength.”

Long before the wolf pack trial began, it seemed most Spaniards had already reached their own verdicts. For months, they had pored over the men’s WhatsApp conversations – both text and audio – which had been leaked to the press and posted online. Many predated the Pamplona festival visit, and seemed to suggest a level of premeditation.

“Mate seriously, if the five of us all fucked a fat girl together at San Fermin, it would be the best thing ever. I’d rather fuck a fat girl with all of you than a hot one by myself,” one of the men had said. “Are we bringing burundanga [a date rape drug]? I got reinoles [another date rape drug] at a really good price. For the rapes,” a message read.

“This trip is a baptism of fire to become a wolf,” read another.

Even more damningly, a leaked video from the same WhatsApp group showed four of the five accused men groping and kissing an apparently unconscious woman in the back of a car two months before the running of the bulls, at another festival in Andalucía. A separate investigation into that incident was launched. (The men stand accused of sexually abusing the woman and are currently awaiting trial. Their defence argues the woman consented because she voluntarily stepped into the car.)

On 13 November 2017, the first day of the wolf pack trial, a famous TV presenter glibly polled his followers on Twitter: “Do you think it was rape or consensual sex?” Followers had to select one option or the other. He deleted the tweet after a storm of condemnation, but not before thousands had picked and clicked their answer. It all seemed to boil down to one question: who was lying?

When the plaintiff took the stand, she insisted that over the course of the 40 minutes she spent with the accused, they “never talked about sex, ever”. She described freezing in shock after the men led her into the lobby, and, because she had her eyes closed, she said she did not realise that the men had filmed her. In the wake of the alleged assault, she said she had tumbled into a spiral of self-blame, shame and guilt. She had suffered from nightmares, insomnia and difficulty concentrating. Months later, when university exams rolled around, she had been unable to sit them.

By contrast, the men’s testimonies read like porn scripts. According to their accounts, they were hanging around, minding their own business, when suddenly an attractive young woman materialised and, within five minutes, declared she would go to bed with any one, two or five of them. They all claimed there was no doubt she enjoyed herself, though admitted they never asked. Most of the men boasted about frequently partaking in orgies, and insisted that it wasn’t surprising an 18-year-old stranger would agree to one given the “festival context”. Guerrero, the police officer, said he was so convinced of the gang’s innocence that when police informed him he was accused of rape, he asked to see their superior and, cop to cop, offered the video he had taken on his phone as exonerating evidence.

When we spoke recently, the men’s lawyer, Agustín Martínez, called the incident “consensual sexual relations among six adults” and suggested that the plaintiff only changed her tune out of fear the men would leak videos of the act and tarnish her reputation. Martínez said that anyone who suggested the plaintiff would not have wanted to have sex with five men she had met minutes earlier was denying her her freedom to do so.

Most of the trial was closed to the public and media to protect the privacy of those involved. But that hardly mattered: as well as the WhatsApps, the testimonies were continually leaked to local press and picked apart by the public like weekly soap opera instalments.

To many observers, one of the most astounding elements of the trial was what was deemed admissible as evidence and what was not. While the three presiding judges – two men and one woman – ruled that the personal lives and social media activities of the accused were generally irrelevant, they took a different view when it came to the victim. During the preliminary “instruction” phase of the trial, they admitted a report compiled by a private investigator, who had been hired by the family of one of the accused to monitor the plaintiff’s behaviour in the months after the alleged assault.

Without her knowledge, the investigator had trailed the plaintiff while she enjoyed a brief holiday with friends and family in September. The investigator’s report concluded that she seemed to be living “life as normal”. The investigator also delved into the plaintiff’s social media activity. The defence ultimately withdrew most of the report, but hung on to what their lawyer considered a key piece of evidence proving the plaintiff had not suffered any trauma. It was a picture that the plaintiff had posted on Instagram, two months after the incident. It showed a T-shirt emblazoned with a quote from one of the contestants on Spain’s Jersey Shore spinoff, Super Shore: “Whatever you do, take off your underwear.”

When she read the news about how the Instagram post was being used as evidence against the plaintiff, Teresa Lozano, a 31-year-old actor from Madrid, felt her blood boil. “You need two things to feed feminism: one is t