Like many residential and commercial buildings in Madrid's exclusive Chamberí neighborhood, a security guard is always on duty during the day in the red brick building at 92 Calle de Zurbano. The doorman, at his desk in the building's spacious lobby, is wary of visitors and brusquely deflects questions about tenants, including hematologist José Luis Merino Batres.
But the doorman wasn't as successful in getting rid of agents from the Spanish Guardia Civil, a military and civilian police force, when they showed up in the spring and wanted information about visitors to Batres's laboratory on the mezzanine level. Investigators from the UCO, a special police unit, installed cameras underneath his desk and above the barred entry door and ordered the doorman to keep their activities a secret.
The surveillance operation was somewhat less complicated at an unadorned, seven-story apartment building at 53 Calle Alonso Cano. In that building, only about 300 meters (984 feet) from the blood specialist's practice, the police were interested in an apartment occupied by a doctor, Eufemiano Fuentes. Residents of the high-turnover building hardly know each other; indeed, turnover is so high that a real estate company has hung a banner from the building that reads: "Viviendas en alquiler" -- Apartments for rent.
The police agents kept a close eye on both buildings for weeks. Then, in late May, during Italy's Giro d'Italia cycling race, they moved in and arrested the two physicians, Merino Batres and Eufemiano Fuentes.
The doping factory
They were charged with behind-the-scenes involvement in Spain's biggest doping scandal, an affair that has since spread well beyond the country's borders -- and in which, according to the 500-page investigative report, German cycling idol Jan Ullrich finds himself deeply enmeshed.
The police seized more than a hundred 450-milliter (approx. one pint) bags of blood, growth hormones, anabolic steroids and EPO -- in short, a full assortment of the tools of performance enhancement in sports.
Spanish prosecutors are convinced that the two nondescript addresses in downtown Madrid represent something akin to catalysts for the careers of about 200 athletes. The photos taken with the hidden police cameras are seen as important evidence in a case involving charges of "offenses against public health."
Of the fifty-eight professional cyclists mentioned in the investigation files, nine, including T-Mobile stars Ullrich and Oscar Sevilla, were removed from their respective teams for the Tour de France. Although no one has been charged and no sentences have been handed down, it is clear that the Spanish police's "Operación Puerto" ("Operation Mountain Pass") has shown a bright light on the clandestine structures of the international performance enhancement business. In the process, it offers detailed information into how top athletes avail themselves of a network of doctors, managers and prescription drug dealers.
The principal suspect, 51-year-old Eufemiano Fuentes, would never call his activities fraudulent. Last week Fuentes, who was released on a €120,000 bail, offered an insight into his understanding of fairness in athletics. In an interview on "El Larguero" ("The Crossbar"), a popular Spanish radio talk show broadcast daily at midnight, he described himself as a man of honor for whom nothing is more important than the health of his patients. "There is no offense, neither against public nor private health," say Fuentes's lawyers, in describing their defense strategy.
Fuentes sees reverse transfusions of one's own blood as therapeutic treatment for an athlete's overburdened body. In his view, it isn't the treatment that's wrong, but the rules and regulations governing the use of performance-enhancing drugs. Fuentes's principle is that anything that promises to enhance performance should be tried. And anything that can't be detected in tests for these substances should be permitted.
To circumvent the rules, Fuentes used a carefully worked out series of secret codes. According to the Guardia Civil, a star in the drug lists indicates the administration of a growth hormone, a black dot represents 1,000 International Units (I.U.) of erythropoietin (EPO) and a black squiggle stands for anabolic steroids.
During the weeklong surveillance period, investigators were shocked at the level of imagination with which the doctor and his associates went about their work. They deliberately chose detours when traveling by car, and the suspects were constantly changing mobile phones. When Fuentes was arrested, the police confiscated seven phone cards and three mobile phones. Because the network avoided using real names when speaking on the phone, investigators analyzing the wiretapped conversations needed a great deal of patience to trace the individuals involved in the operation, including Jan Ullrich.
The authorities were ready to move in on May 18. Fuentes's telephone rang at about 8:15 p.m. It was Rudy Pevenage, a friend and father-like figure to Jan Ullrich. "A third person won today," the caller said, clearly pleased. A look at the list of results at the Giro d'Italia identified this "third person" as Jan Ullrich, who won the individual time trial on May 18.
According to the Guardia Civil's report number CO.PP.4293/06, this code name proved to be Ullrich's undoing two days later. At 10:44 p.m. on May 20, investigators listened in on another telephone conversation between Pevenage and Fuentes, in which Pevenage said that he had "spoken with a third person on the bus. This person is interested in getting more, even if it's only half." Investigators are convinced that Fuentes and Pevenage were making arrangements to supply Ullrich with another concentrated dose of his own blood. This is an assumption that Pevenage and Ullrich vehemently deny.
But the evidence is not in their favor. One of the most incriminating documents in the investigation file mentions a "Jan" four times.
According to the document, this "Jan" paid €2,970 to be supplied with Vino, Nino, Ignacio and PCH. The investigators say that based on their "analysis of the documents and wiretapped conversations," they are convinced that these are code names for doctored blood, growth hormone, IGF-1 (a product similar to insulin) and testosterone tablets.
Those who have known Ullrich for years insist he is innocent. A close friend conjectures that cycling associates may have convinced Ullrich to turn to this supposedly safe method involving one's own donated blood "so that he could win the Tour this time around."
But perhaps Ullrich also didn't expect to be dropped by his sponsor, T-Mobile. Based on the investigation file, T-Mobile officials reacted to the news about Ullrich by immediately setting up a crisis management team -- in contrast to 1999, when an insider told SPIEGEL about performance enhancement activities within Team Telekom. After publishing a story describing the alleged performance-enhancing methods, the magazine was unable to offer any evidence that could hold up in court and eventually suffered a legal setback.
At the time, team sponsor and T-Mobile parent company Deutsche Telekom showed no interest in looking into the allegations. Instead, it condemned concrete reports about ties between cyclists on its team and shady sports doctors like Michele Ferrari and Luigi Cecchini as nothing but unfounded slander.
A changing corporate culture
Last week, however, it became clear that times have changed at the company's Bonn headquarters. When three T-Mobile riders were forced to admit to the Ferrari connection that had been reported in newspaper articles, their sponsor demanded that they immediately sever all ties to the doctor.
T-Mobile executives acted with similar resolve when Ullrich's relationship with Fuentes appeared to have been proven. For a company that pumps an estimated €12 million each year into its cycling sponsorships to improve its image, the Spanish doctor must be a persona non grata.
The first case of performance enhancement to which Fuentes has been linked was a family affair. It happened in the mid-1980s, and the athlete in question was Cristina Pérez, Fuentes's wife.
A few years later, Fuentes, after developing contacts to the cycling scene, became team physician for various profession teams, ultimately even becoming their training and competition strategist. The physician never seemed to be bothered by persistent rumors of his involvement in doping activities. "I was always under suspicion," he says, "but nothing ever happened."
The more successful his riders became, the safer and more confident Fuentes felt. Before a difficult individual time trial in the 1991 Tour of Spain, or Vuelta, the doctor was sitting on a plane bound for the Spanish Mediterranean island of Mallorca. Fuentes told journalists also traveling on the flight that the cooler on the seat next to him contained "the key to victory in the Vuelta." His comments proved to be true, when a pro on the team sponsored by Fuentes's employer at the time, Once, won not only the difficult time trial but also the overall tour.
The specialized doctor experienced a setback in his career in the spring of 2004. In an interview with sports publication As, Jesús Manzano, a professional rider on the Kelme team, discussed his team's doping practices after almost losing his life during a blood transfusion. However, the investigation against Fuentes, the Kelme team's physician at the time, was quickly dropped for lack of evidence.
The industry proved to be forgiving, as it usually is, and Fuentes's services remained in demand. The fact that he was able to turn himself into a performance enhancement guru also has something to do with Spain's permissive laws, which have only recently become more rigorous.
A paradise for performance enhancement
Besides, until now there has been very little public pressure in Spain to prosecute those involved in performance enhancement. Even El País, an investigative newspaper that now leads the pack in reporting on "Operation Mountain Pass," was long averse to even addressing the topic.
This atmosphere allowed Spain to develop into a paradise for athletes interested in performance enhancement. The first reports about compliant doctors and well-equipped laboratories began making the rounds in the track and field world in the late 1990s. The suspicion that a network had developed in this environment was confirmed last year when the police staged a spectacular coup against the drug cartel. In a series of raids on the Spanish mainland, as well as on the Canary and Balearic Islands, police secured 10 tons of illegal doping products.
Since the trial of former sprint trainer Thomas Springstein in Germany, anti-doping activists there, like Heidelberg cell biologist Werner Franke, have openly referred to the so-called "Spanish connection." In March, a court in Magdeburg gave the eastern German track and field coach a 16-month suspended sentence for supplying drugs to minors. The investigation had revealed that Springstein was regularly in contact with Miguel Angel Peraita, a Madrid physician.
During a search of Springstein's home, the police seized a folder containing faxes and email printouts. In some emails, Springstein, whose screen name was "Top.speed," inquired about advances in genetic doping. In others, he asked Peraita (screen name "Top Doc") for his views on the respective advantages of testosterone creams and insulin injections.
Germany's National Anti-Doping Agency (NADA) in Bonn now has portions of this incriminating file at its disposal and is trying to uncover links between Fuentes and Peraita, whose medical practice is located on Madrid's Calle Fernández de la Hoz -- just a few steps from Fuentes's apartment and Merino Batres's blood laboratory. NADA Director Roland Augustin firmly believes that "we are dealing here with a complex system of fraud and deception."
According to the Guardia Civil investigation, at least one other German joins Ullrich among the ranks of suspect cyclists. On May 14, Jörg Jaksche, 29, a native of the southern German town of Ansbach, was captured on hidden camera when he met with Fuentes in Room 605 at Madrid's Hotel Puerta. During their search of Fuentes's apartment nine days later, the police discovered three bags of blood labeled with the date of the meeting and the code name "Bella (Jorg)." Investigators believe the code name refers to Jaksche, who came in 16th in the last Tour de France. They assume that the German cyclist gave blood at the meeting, so that the blood could be condensed in a centrifuge at Fuentes's lab and later re-injected.
Jaksche's name also appears on a document that lists precisely how the Spanish cycling team, Liberty Seguros, was supplied with performance-enhancing drugs in 2005. According to the investigators' document 24, during the course of the previous year Jaksche received EPO, anabolic steroids, growth hormones and IGF-1 -- "combined with blood donations, blood transfusions and analyses." When asked to comment on the claims, Jaksche referred SPIEGEL to his cycling team's spokesman who, however, had declined to comment by the newsmagazine's publication deadline.
The rise of blood doping
There are several reasons why transfusions of their own blood has apparently developed into a phenomenon among professional cyclists. In times of reduced advertising and sponsorship budgets, the competition for jobs in the cycling business is becoming tougher than ever. Most riders are given contracts for only one or two years. Winning a stage in a tour practically guarantees a cyclist an extension of his contract.
Young riders, like German first-time Tour competitor Markus Fothen, 24, can hardly believe how the field surges ahead as soon as the referee drops the start flag. Fothen says that no matter how rigorous their training, many riders are quickly left in the dust.
The stages are being completed at faster and faster speeds. Last year, Lance Armstrong slammed through the race at an average pace of 41.65 kilometers per hour (25.88 mph). At speeds like that, it seems only logical that some riders would be attracted to using drugs to better prepare themselves for the French race or help them regain their strength overnight during the three-week event. Recharging their energy with transfusions of their own blood seems an elegant solution to many any athlete.
"Top athletes simply lack a sense of this practice being wrong," complains NADA director Augustin. Athletes, he says, reason that, after all, they aren't adding any foreign substances to their bodies.
According to Augustin, many see the use of transfusions of one's own banked blood as no different from the autohemotherapy practiced by alternative medicine practitioners.
But that belief is wholly incorrect. In autohemotherapy, a small amount of blood previously drawn from a patient is injected into the same patient's muscles. Practitioners believe the method stimulates immune processes in the body. When athletes engage in blood doping, up to one liter of their own blood is drawn. When the concentrate of red blood cells, obtained through centrifugation, is re-introduced into the blood stream, the athlete faces the risk of thrombosis and embolism -- both deadly risks. According to Augustin, the practice is like "playing with fire."
DETLEF HACKE, UDO LUDWIG, GERHARD PFEIL, MICHAEL WULZINGER
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan