Sunday, 8 June 2008

Mark Thatcher in hiding at Casa Flores rumours abound of kidnap squads Russian gangs has been mentioned being recruited to snatch Sir Mark

It would be hard to find a better bolt hole than the Casa Flores, a luxury villa hidden in dense forest on a mountain above San Pedro de Alcantara, southern Spain.
Casa Flores is part of a complex called El Madronal. Unlike the high-density “urbanisations” that now disfigure the entire Mediterranean coast of Spain, El Madronal offers luxury, privacy and, above all, security. A central control room within the huge complex monitors all movement 24 hours a day via a bank of CCTV screens. The steep terrain makes El Madronal inaccessible other than through one
of six electronic gates, where visitors must state their business. Their names, addresses and car registration numbers are logged in the control room. A guard then contacts the property being visited and if the owner agrees, the iron gates roll open. (I was only able to gain access by posing as a potential buyer; Sotheby’s International Realty kindly escorted me in to view a villa currently on the market for a trifling E4m.) Another set of electronic gates protects every property, each of which has its own alarm system.
None of this was enough for the man who rented Casa Flores for E7,000 a month two years ago. Before he moved in with his then girlfriend, he spent £35,000 on additional security precautions that made Casa Flores virtually impregnable. But after the latest episode in his inglorious career, Sir Mark Thatcher probably has more to worry about than most. Famous for getting lost during the Paris-Dakar motor rally and making his mother cry in public, notorious for shamelessly exploiting her name to further dodgy business ventures, renowned for his rudeness, arrogance and pomposity, and no stranger to controversy, none of his previous dubious escapades can compare with his reckless involvement in an ill-fated plot to oust the offal-loving president of Equatorial Guinea. While publicly denying any significant role, in January 2005 Sir Mark pleaded guilty in South Africa, after a plea bargain, to “unwittingly” abetting the coup. He was fined 3m rand (£266,000), given a suspended four-year jail term, and obliged to leave South Africa, his home for a decade. As part of the deal, he is required to co-operate with the ongoing investigation, a rider that may yet come to haunt him. Many observers concluded that he got away lightly – the youth wing of South Africa’s ruling African National Congress called the deal “an abomination and miscarriage of justice” – but he is not yet out of the woods. It seems President Teodoro Obiang Nguema, who is not a man to cross, is determined that the son of our former prime minister should stand trial in Equatorial Guinea alongside his Old Etonian friend Simon Mann, the alleged leader of the plot who is currently languishing in Equatorial Guinea’s infamous Black Beach prison. Although there are no extradition treaties between Equatorial Guinea and the EU, Obiang has noted that the US no longer troubles with the tedious details of legal process and moves prisoners around the world by “extraordinary rendition”. He sees no reason why he should not follow suit. Thus it is that rumours abound of kidnap squads – a Russian gang has been mentioned – being recruited to snatch Sir Mark, spirit him away and produce him in an Equatorial Guinea courthouse, where his chances of a fair trial would be rather less than even and he could expect a sentence in excess of 30 years. The unfortunate Mann, removed with what he called “gratuitous violence” from a prison in Zimbabwe to Malabo, the capital of Equatorial Guinea, earlier this year, faces the same fate. Jose Olo Obono, the country’s attorney-general, has promised that Sir Mark will be pursued “wherever he goes”. If the South African authorities require Sir Mark to return to answer further questions – and he is legally obligated to do so – a kidnap operation would be much simpler. Alternatively, Obiang could seek rougher justice by simply putting a bounty on Sir Mark’s head and wait for someone to claim it. Thatcher’s life began to fall apart after his conviction in 2005. His American wife, Diane, returned to the US with the children, and in September the couple announced their intention to divorce. She was furious with her husband about the Equatorial Guinea adventure, and she was fed up with his infidelities, having caught him cheating twice. Diane has always avoided the limelight and is thus mistakenly viewed as a somewhat insipid member of the high-profile family she married into. When introduced to Mrs Thatcher at Chequers in 1984, she was surprised by the formal way Mark addressed his mother. “Prime Minister,” he said, “this is Diane Burgdorf.” The formality endured: Diane was never encouraged to call her mother-in-law anything other than Mrs Thatcher or Lady Thatcher. In the autumn of 1989, shortly after the birth of their first child, they took a 10-day break at the Eden Roc hotel in Antibes, where they met the three vivacious daughters of the millionaire property developer Terence Clemence. While they were enjoying themselves, the Thatchers, Sarah-Jane Clemence recalled, behaved like “Mr and Mrs Glum”. Diane returned to Dallas while Mark flew to Paris, where he had business to attend to. Her suspicions were raised when she looked at his American Express statement and noticed that huge charges from the Ritz had been billed to his account, along with a second air ticket from the Riviera. By then Mark was in London. Diane hired a private detective and had him followed, and she was soon in possession of a photo of her husband with a woman he was spending all his time with: Sarah-Jane Clemence. When Mark got back to Dallas she confronted him with the evidence. He admitted it immediately, pleaded for her forgiveness, and promised never to see Sarah-Jane again. But Diane was not finished. The private detective had provided her with the phone number of her husband’s lover. Diane called her and asked for a meeting. Amazingly, the other woman agreed. They met in Sarah-Jane’s flat in London for what Diane describes as a “friendly chat”, although one can imagine the atmosphere was somewhat frosty. “I wanted to appeal to her sense of what was right and thought I’d gotten through to her,” Diane says. The Thatchers did their best to patch up their relationship with marriage counselling, but a few years later Mark returned from a health farm in California acting strangely, very taciturn, moody and critical of everything. Diane began to worry that he was having another affair. She said she prayed for help: “God, if you want me to know something, please let me find it out.” She would help God along a little. When Mark made a lame excuse for another business trip to California she waited until he was asleep then went into his dressing room and found his travel itinerary, flight number and hotel reservation. Next morning, she booked herself on an earlier flight.
When Thatcher walked into the lobby of a Santa Monica hotel with his arm around a pretty American air-force pilot, his wife was sitting on a sofa waiting for him. He looked, she said, “as if he had seen a ghost”. What she described as “a little confrontation” followed. He tried to introduce the woman as a business associate but Diane snorted “I’m not stupid”, and she beat a hasty retreat. After this Diane said she wanted a divorce. Thatcher seemed resigned to the fact, but over the next few weeks and after another round of marriage counselling, they effected some kind of reconciliation for the sake of their children. Diane agonised at length about whether she should go with Mark to South Africa and she was not unhappy that she did so, particularly when she became a member of a women’s bible-study group. It was his irresponsible foolhardiness getting involved with the Equatorial Guinea coup and putting his family at risk that finally convinced her to end the marriage. “I think his choice not to pull out when he became suspicious showed his priorities,” she said. “He was incredibly selfish, putting his own needs for self-fulfilment, greed and lust for power before his family.” Diane’s decision to return to Dallas with the children effectively cut them off from their father. With a criminal conviction, there was no possibility of his obtaining a visa to enter the US. Amanda, then 12, took it badly and wrote an anguished letter to President Bush: “You know how you feel about your daughters? I want my Daddy back in America.” She received no reply.
During the spring and summer of 2005 they got together for two family holidays in the Turks and Caicos and the British Virgin Islands. Diane briefly considered a reconciliation, but then she discovered Mark was again seeing Sarah-Jane, who in the interim had become Lady Francis Russell, having married in 1996. It was the final straw and she filed for divorce
It is ironic that he should have ended up, temporarily at least, on the Costa del Sol, since it is the traditional haunt of Englishmen with criminal records. You can usually find one or two in Sinatra Bar in Puerto Banus. Deeply tanned, heavily tattooed and festooned with bling, they sit staring at the moored superyachts with rheumy eyes, perhaps dreaming of their favourite pub in south London, or a dish of jellied eels. Understandably, Sir Mark does not socialise much with the expatriate criminal fraternity and is never seen in the fleshpots of Puerto Banus or Marbella, usually only leaving his forest fastness for a round of golf or business meetings in Gibraltar. “Mark Thatcher keeps a very low profile around here,” says David Eade, a stringer for the Costa del Sol News. “Interest in his comings and goings is about zero.” Nobody seems to know how he passes the time, where he goes, or who he meets. His reputation as a businessman can hardly have been enhanced by his arrest and conviction in South Africa, yet he apparently still travels to Russia and Japan in pursuit of “oil deals”. If asked about his business he likes to say he “gambles on oil tankers”. Interest in his comings and goings is much greater in Equatorial Guinea where, earlier this year, a warrant was issued for his arrest. A mosquito-infested jungle hellhole tucked into the armpit of Africa, Equatorial Guinea has one of the worst human-rights records on the continent. A predecessor of Obiang, who seized power in a bloody coup in 1979, set a new standard in brutality by executing 150 opponents in a sports stadium to the broadcast strains of Mary Hopkin’s Those Were the Days.In truth, nobody gave a damn about the former Spanish colony until oil was discovered there in 1996. Sewage ran through the streets of Malabo, there was little drinking water, and no regular electricity supply. Oil brought prosperity, but only to the ruling elite: Obiang and his family misappropriate much of the country’s £370m annual oil revenue, while the majority of the country’s 500,000 wretched inhabitants still languish in poverty on less than 50p a day. In 2000, Thatcher attempted to do business with Equatorial Guinea through a company called Cogito, which he had set up to provide security advice and intelligence to multi-national companies in Africa. Cogito offered Obiang a £134,000 contract to gather intelligence on his opponents and draw up threat assessments. Thatcher hoped it would lead to securing valuable oil concessions, but in the end Obiang rejected the offer. The source of both Thatcher’s so-called business expertise and his fortune (estimated in the 2006 Sunday Times Rich List at £64m) is a mystery. He failed to shine academically at Harrow, where his nickname was “Thickie Mork”, and gave up a career in accountancy after failing his exams three times. Only when his mother became prime minister in 1979 did his business career take off: five months after Mrs Thatcher moved into Downing Street, Mark set up his own “international consultancy” company, Monteagle Marketing, and found his services much in demand, trading on his mother’s name and promoting everything from sportswear to whisky. There were a few hiccups, particularly when Mummy was banging the drum and exhorting everyone to “buy British” while her son was discussing a lucrative sponsorship deal with a Japanese textile firm. The Financial Times memorably described him as a “sort of Harrovian Arthur Daley with a famous mum”. It was not long before Mark was viewed as a serious liability in Downing Street, although no one dared raise the subject with his mother. Mrs Thatcher had a blind spot about her son. When Bernard Ingham, Mrs Thatcher’s plain-speaking press secretary, was asked how Mark could best help in an upcoming re-election campaign, he famously replied: “Leave the country.” In 1981 there was the threat of a full-blown scandal when it was alleged that he received £1m commission for the construction of a university in Oman, a contract negotiated by his mother. The affair led to difficult questions being asked in the Commons. Three years later he was said to have received a £12m kickback on the £40 billion Al-Yamamah arms deal with Saudi Arabia, again pushed through by his mother. Complaining he was being victimised by the media and that he was “not appreciated” (a fundamental truth, if ever there was one), Thatcher decamped to the US, where he met Diane Burgdorf, the daughter of a Texas millionaire car dealer, whom he would marry in 1987. Meanwhile, a confidential briefing prepared in March 1984 for George Shultz, then the US secretary of state, offered a withering view of Mark Thatcher, businessman: “Most of his business dealings were predicated on the belief that he had only one asset – with a limited life span – his link to the British prime minister.” Controversy continued to dog his various business activities. The IRS investigated him for alleged tax evasion, and a racketeering case was settled out of court. In 1995 he moved with his family to South Africa and bought a large house on Dawn Avenue in Constantia, the best part of Cape Town, where Elton John, Earl Spencer and Michael Douglas all owned property. Before moving in, paranoid about his personal safety, he had had bulletproof curtains fitted as part of the state-of-the-art security equipment in every room. Three years later he was in the news again when a company he owned was accused of running a loan-shark operation, offering unofficial loans to police officers, military personnel and civil servants and then charging punitive interest rates when they defaulted. Thatcher, of course, insisted he’d done no wrong. One of his neighbours in Constantia was Mann, a former SAS officer and adventurer who had made a fortune providing mercenaries to protect oil installations against rebels in Angola’s civil war, crushing an uprising in Papua New Guinea and shipping arms to Sierra Leone in flagrant contravention of a UN embargo. In the summer of 2003, Mann met Severo Moto, opposition leader of Equatorial Guinea, who was living in exile in Madrid. At the end of the meeting, Mann agreed to recruit a mercenary force to overthrow Obiang. His fee was to be £10m plus a share in future oil revenues and 30% of all assets recovered from the Obiang family. Back in South Africa, Mann involved two friends in the plot: Crause Steyl, a pilot who had worked for him on previous operations, and Nick du Toit, a former officer in South African special forces. Steyl was to organise all the air transport; du Toit was to help with recruiting, then set up logistical support in Equatorial Guinea. In November, Mann and Thatcher had several meetings in London to discuss “transport ventures” in west Africa. Sir Mark would insist that he was never told about the coup, although he admitted agreeing to finance the chartering of an air-ambulance helicopter for one of Mann’s “ventures” and later suspected that it might be used for “mercenary activities”. He could have pulled out at that moment, but did not. In December, the newly widowed Lady Thatcher flew to Cape Town to spend Christmas with her son, daughter-in-law and two grandchildren, Michael, then aged 14, and Amanda, 10. Steyl and Mann were among the guests at Sir Mark’s traditional pre-Christmas drinks party around the swimming pool in the garden on December 22.
On January 12, 2004, Mann wrote a memorandum outlining the potential risks in the operation that appeared to directly implicate his friend. “If MT’s involvement is known,” he noted, “the rest of us and project is likely to be screwed – as a side-issue to people screwing him… Ensure doesn’t happen.” Four days later, Sir Mark signed an agreement with Steyl committing him to a maximum investment of $500,000 in an air-ambulance company. Despite Mann’s plea for secrecy, du Toit’s recruiting activities inevitably attracted the attention of the South African intelligence service, which alerted the governments of Britain, Spain and the US. In backstreet bars where soldiers for hire gathered, all the talk was of the upcoming action in Equatorial Guinea. Mann himself realised that the operation might have been compromised, but made the fatal mistake of interpreting diplomatic silence as tacit approval of his plans. Certainly no tears would have been shed had Obiang’s corrupt regime been toppled: apart from stealing the country blind, he maintained power through terror. Severo Moto told Mann that if he ever returned to Equatorial Guinea while Obiang was still in power, he would be tortured and murdered and Obiang would eat his testicles. Telephone records later obtained by a private detective hired by Henry Page, a Paris-based lawyer representing the government of Equatorial Guinea, showed that Mann and Sir Mark spoke very often in the days immediately before the coup. “Of course we don’t know what was said,” Page explained, “only that Mark Thatcher’s number appears on the record of Simon Mann’s calls with increasing frequency.” On the evening of Sunday, March 7, a US-registered Boeing 727 carrying 64 mercenaries, mainly former members of the South African special forces, landed at Harare airport, where they were due to collect Mann and an armoury of weapons before flying to Equatorial Guinea. The Zimbabwe intelligence service was waiting for them. They were all arrested, along with Mann. In Malabo, du Toit and 13 other men were also arrested and accused of plotting a coup. Steyl, waiting in Mali for word that the coup was a success before flying into Equatorial Guinea with Severo Moto, escaped arrest. Held in solitary confinement in the hellish Chikurubi maximum-security prison in Zimbabwe, Mann wrote desperate letters to his wife, his lawyer and friends asking them to contact the “investors” in the operation to raise more money: “What we need is maximum effort – whatever it takes – now… It may be that getting us out comes down to a large splodge of wonga.” Among the investors he suggested approaching was “Scratcher” – his nickname for his friend Mark Thatcher. Dries Coetzee, a private detective hired by Mann’s lawyer, was given the thankless task of collecting the “wonga”. It was not easy. He telephoned Mark Thatcher at his home in Cape Town, explained he had a mandate from Mann to raise funds, and demanded $300,000. Sir Mark was in his study watching a grand prix when he took the call. “Look, Mr Coetzee,” he said, “I tend not to give money to people I’ve never met, so why don’t you just f*** off.” In March, Crause Steyl quietly returned to his home in South Africa, expecting to be arrested. Instead, the Directorate of Special Operations, an elite crime squad known as “the Scorpions”, offered him a deal: immunity in return for complete co-operation. Steyl was sickened by the way his friends Mann and du Toit had been left high and dry and decided to tell all. Significantly, he was convinced that Thatcher was in on the plot from the beginning. In fact Thatcher was already talking to the South African intelligence service, possibly because they threatened to extradite him to Equatorial Guinea if he did not co-operate. At 7am on August 25, 2004, the Scorpions arrived at his Constantia mansion with a search warrant. Six hours later, he was driven away in a police vehicle and appeared in court that afternoon charged with contravening the Foreign Military Assistance Act, which bans South African residents from taking part in any foreign military activity. He was released on bail of £167,000, paid by his mother, and warned not to leave the Cape Town area.
The sensational arrest of the son of Lady Thatcher made headlines around the world. Sir Mark continued to protest his innocence, issuing a statement through his friend and unofficial spokesman, Lord Bell: “I have no involvement in any alleged coup in Equatorial Guinea and I reject totally all suggestions to the contrary.” But as damning details emerged, more and more people concluded he was lying to save his skin. Sir Bernard Ingham, whose admiration for Lady Thatcher remains undimmed, told me he thought it was “very difficult to believe” her son did not know what was going on. “He’s not the brightest spark but by God he knows how to make money. The plain fact is, he’s a barrow boy.” “Mark could not resist being involved,” said Mark Hollingsworth, co-author of Thatcher’s Fortunes: The Life and Times of Mark Thatcher. “He attended planning meetings at Simon Mann’s house, knew exactly what was going on and was looking for a slice of the action. The notion that he would invest $500,000 and not know what it was used for is risible. He hero-worshipped Mann and loved the secret world of soldiers of fortune, spies and high-risk shady business deals in oil-trading and gunrunning.”
Earlier this year, in an interview for Channel 4 conducted in Black Beach prison, Mann, shackled at hands and feet, confirmed Thatcher was “part of the team”. He also named Ely Calil, a rich businessman of Lebanese-Nigerian origin and a friend of Moto, as the principal financial backer. There had been rumours that the disgraced Tory peer Lord Archer was involved, but Mann denied it. Both Thatcher and Calil quickly issued statements suggesting that Mann’s plight had prompted him to make wild accusations. “Simon Mann is an old friend of mine for whom I have the utmost sympathy throughout this whole ghastly process,” said Thatcher. Calil’s statement read: “I confirm that I had no involvement in, or responsibility for, the alleged coup.” I asked Calil’s lawyer, Imran Khan, if his client would agree to be interviewed. Khan said he would put forward my request and get back to me either way. I heard nothing more. After his ignominious departure from Cape Town, typically protesting that his prosecution was politically inspired and that President Thabo Mbeki of South Africa had never liked his mother, Thatcher was adrift. He stayed with his mother at her house in Chester Square, Belgravia, before looking for a place to live. It was not easy. Monaco, famously described by Somerset Maugham as a “sunny place for shady people”, was his first choice, but he was told his temporary residency card would not be renewed. No explanation was given, but a spokesman for Prince Albert pointed out that the prince intended “morality, honesty and ethics” to be at the centre of life in the principality. France and Switzerland also failed to extend a warm welcome, which is how Thatcher ended up on the Costa del Sol, renting Casa Flores. Lady Francis Russell, newly separated from her husband, moved in with him in May 2006. Both obtained divorces during 2007 and in March this year they married, quietly, in Gibraltar, in a ceremony attended by only three friends. Notably absent was Thatcher’s twin sister, Carol.
Carol and Mark Thatcher actively dislike each other. No twins could be more different: Carol is jolly, down to earth and popular; her brother is rude, imperious and self-important. They have not spoken for years. When I asked her if she would be interviewed for this feature, her reply was nothing if not forthright: “Honestly, I really haven’t got anything to say about Mark. We have lived in different countries for decades.” In fact, finding anyone with a kind word about Mark Thatcher is not easy. His good friend Lord Archer was too busy writing his next novel and could not be disturbed, but his other good friend, Jonathan Aitken (who coincidentally dated Carol years ago), finally stepped forward. “Mark has never been arrogant or pompous in my company. That said, I have noticed that he can be a surprisingly shy person, which sometimes manifests itself in the form of being a little brusque. In his commercial activities while his mother was prime minister he was no saint, but he was far less of a sinner than his journalistic detractors would like to believe.” Aitken says Thatcher was a loyal and generous friend after he was jailed for perjury and perverting the course of justice in 1999. When he was released after serving seven months, Thatcher took him out to lunch and asked what he could do to help, offering him money, an all-expenses-paid holiday in Cape Town, anything he wanted. Aitken was genuinely touched.
Thatcher’s future is uncertain. He recently applied for tax-residency status in Gibraltar, prompting speculation that he intended to make his home on the Rock, but his application is likely to have been turned down. Adding to his problems, the owner of Casa Flores, a fellow Old Harrovian by the name of Stephen Humberstone, would very much like to evict him. Thatcher has an almost unique ability to rub people up the wrong way, which he has certainly done with Humberstone. “Basically, he just pisses me off. He is always late with the rent. Under Spanish law I have to wait three months before I can take him to court and he presumably knows that and pays up after two months. We were in the same house at school – I can’t believe he is treating me in such a shabby manner.
“He thinks a lot of himself. I think he likes the house because it is very secluded and a seven-minute drive from the main gate. Nobody would ever find him down there. He told me once he would like to buy it, but there is no way I would ever sell it to someone like him.



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