The Day I Left The Spanish Intelligence Service

Jesus Pena Garcia worked as a Spanish intelligence officer before moving to Luxembourg (© Stephanie Jabardo)

After a decade in the Spanish Intelligence Service, Jesus Pena Garcia pivoted to the Luxembourg startup ecosystem. He talks about the difficult switch and why he has no regrets.

When Jesus Pena Garcia graduated from university in Spain in 2005, he applied for an unknown position at the Spanish Defence Ministry. It was a natural step: his father was in the Spanish Guardia Civil and his brothers joined the Spanish police. But, when he arrived in Madrid for the assessments, the assessors revealed nothing about the job. “Many people wanted to know what the job was and the salary so they left,” recalls Garcia, who stuck around to complete and pass the psychological test. A month later, they called him back and he was given two days to file a report on a given address and its occupants. “By that point, I realised who was recruiting us,” he recalls. 

Thus began a year-long recruitment process and the transformation of a smart young man from a small town in Spain into an intelligence officer who was known to his colleagues by a different name. 

“It was exciting being part of the intelligence service,” he recalls. And yet it was a job that consumed his entire life. “There is a lot of brainwashing: you believe that this is the best job in the world or the only one. They do this so that when you receive a difficult mission, you cannot say no.” 

No secrets

There were no secrets between him and his employer, who closely monitored him. Romantic relationships had to be reported, as did any family or personal issues that could potentially be used to turn him. He was expected to remain “grey”, which meant no social media presence. Friends or acquaintances believed he worked for IBM.

There were office hours but when the work phone rang, Pena was at his employer’s beck and call. Within a few years, he participated as an electronics and IT communication expert in critical missions. 

One of Pena’s first missions was in Lebanon to install electronic jammers to prevent Hezbollah from using high frequency signals to carry out bombing attacks. The risks, he says, were low to medium in terms of human safety. “It’s nothing like being an entrepreneur when you take risks all of the time.” Nevertheless, he says it was exhilarating to be part of such important work.

The switch

Almost ten years into the job, the social isolation, rigid hierarchy and lack of career progression opportunities began to wear away at Garcia’s initial enthusiasm. “It felt like a golden cage. A good position, a good reputation but you’re stuck,” he recalls. 

What was worse was that he found it hard to trust people, since the agency encouraged distrust. “Now it’s the opposite,” he says of life as an entrepreneur. “You need to trust people and be open to speaking with everyone. The mindset is totally different.” What is more, he began to see flaws with the way the service operated but was powerless to change it. 

Sabbatical to Luxembourg

In a bid to improve his English, Garcia took a one-year sabbatical and moved to Luxembourg. Here he encountered a major challenge: he was not allowed to disclose who he had been working for the last decade. Garcia applied to McDonald’s and anyone who would have him, before eventually convincing the intelligence service to allow him to speak openly about his career. 

He rapidly found like-minded creative problem-solvers in the Luxembourg startup ecosystem. He established Bit Valley, a startup that was accepted for the first Fit 4 Start accelerator programme just as his one-year leave reached an end. Garcia was conflicted. “I didn’t want to go back,” he says. And yet, his colleagues at the intelligence service had become as close as family. Garcia’s actual family was deeply proud of his work. And he was entering an unknown world. 

New life in Luxembourg

“The day I quit, I cried,” he said. “I remember I had to sign a document and my tears fell onto the page.” Almost a decade on from that life-changing moment, Garcia is a married father of two, working as vice president of Europe for IT services company Damco. He is also leading the charge on blockchain applications as a founding member of the House of Web 3. 

Adapting to civilian life has been a long process. “It’s like being Ronaldo today and then the next day playing third division,” he jokes. “In the beginning, your ego is huge because you’re saving lives and you feel really important. Then you have to start from scratch, with no ego.” 

Learning to trust others

Garcia says the hardest thing was learning to trust people again. Today he is a regular at networking events and strives to communicate about Web 3 and other innovations. He says that he is still learning though he has learned a lot. 

“Of course, given the choice, I’d do it all over again. If I’m here today, it’s because of that job,” he says, adding: “But, I wouldn’t go back.” Today, Garcia’s salary is better, his friends say he looks younger and he is passionately pursuing collaborations in the field of Web 3. He jokes that his family still don’t fully understand what he does but he is never bored with his new life.

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