He's gone up against drug lords, arms traffickers, corrupt politicians, billionaire businessmen, and Islamic extremists. Baltasar Garzón, Spain's top investigating judge, knows no fear--and, say his critics, no restraint. Garzón first came to international attention in 1997 when he demanded the arrest of Argentina's former military dictators for the murder of Spanish citizens who disappeared during the Dirty War of 1976-83. In 1998, he charged ex-Chilean strongman Augusto Pinochet with genocide and demanded that he be extradited from Britain, where he had traveled to seek medical treatment. (Pinochet was ultimately declared unfit to stand trial and returned to Chile.)
One of Garzón's most recent moments in the spotlight came when he coordinated dawn raids in Madrid and Granada that netted eight Islamic extremists accused of lending support to the September 11 terrorists. Now he's racing between Puerto Rico, the isle of Jersey, and the FBI's offices in Washington, pursuing claims of money-laundering and bribery against the former executives of Spain's No. 2 bank, Banco Bilbao Vizcaya Argentaria.
The 46-year-old Andalusian is one of the few European investigating magistrates who contributed to the downfall of a government. It was Garzón who in 1995 uncovered evidence that Spanish police had tortured suspected Basque terrorists. He won a conviction against a former interior minister and 11 other officials accused of waging their own dirty war against the Basques and helped drive Socialist Prime Minister Felipe Gonzalez from office. He also shuttered a Basque newspaper for supporting terrorism. Garzón, who is eager to see greater cross-border collaboration among criminal justice officials, is now investigating Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi for alleged tax evasion in connection with Berlusconi's stake in Madrid-based television giant Telecinco. "Garzón has a character that pushes the limits," says Pilar Urbano, the author of a recent biography, Garzón: The Man Who Saw the Sunrise.
Born to a family of middle-class farmers, Garzón studied in Catholic monasteries and considered the priesthood. He later switched to law and financed his education working as a gas-station attendant. By age 23, he was appointed a provincial judge and at 32 joined the National Court. A dashing figure with slicked-back hair and a bruising build who loves bullfights and flamenco, Garzón has become a national hero for his dedication to rooting out corruption. Critics say Garzón stretches the limits of his authority and relishes the limelight a little too much. But, after all, taking on everyone from the elite to the underworld is not for the faint of heart.