MADRID, Spain -- Alvaro Gil-Robles was weaned on the abuse of power. He is a Spaniard, born in Portugal, where his father, a prominent monarchist politician, lived in political exile from dictator Francisco Franco. As a boy, Mr. Gil-Robles sometimes played sandlot soccer with another child of exile who is now Spain's King Juan Carlos I.
The king is back at the head of a constitutional monarchy in a democratic Spain. Mr. Gil-Robles is in Madrid as well, as the independent, apolitical guarantor of the Spanish people's right to decent rule.
He has a nose for trouble and wide powers with which to track its source. Entirely outside political and administrative lines of authority, protected by the constitution, Mr. Gil-Robles answers only to the Parliament that elected him.
Nobody in official Spain, no big-shot politician, no hot-tempered police officer, embezzling mayor or lazy bureaucrat, can easily -- or legally -- ignore scrutiny by the defender of the people.
"I am untouchable," Spain's national ombudsman said proudly during a recent interview.
Mr. Gil-Robles, 46, should know. A lawyer, professor and bullfight fanatic, he wrote the portion of the Spanish Constitution -- Article 54 -- that created the office he now holds, borrowing the basic idea from Scandinavia. He is in the third year of a five-year term and expects that about 30,000 Spaniards will complain to his office about their government this year.
"We protect the weak," Mr. Gil-Robles said. "We complain. We attract attention to help correct things that are wrong. It's in everybody's interest in any modern society that citizens who have a conflict with their government not only avoid going to court, but also find remedy."
The very existence of an ombudsman is a rite of passage for Spain. It is the first formal attempt by a vigorous but still fledgling democratic system to police itself, and thereby win confidence among a people trained by dictatorship to be distrustful of all public institutions.
"The ombudsman is not only necessary but also exceptional in the history of this country," said Migual Gil, one of Prime Minister Felipe Gonzalez's spokesmen. "Don't forget that these last 15 years [since Franco's death] have been the longest period of democratic rule in Spanish history. We have lived too long as a society with its back to its institutions."
Anything that does -- or should -- involve the Spanish government is fair game for Mr. Gil-Robles and a 100-member staff that answers its phones 24 hours a day: fouled-up pensions, poor telephone, electric or train service, illegal detention or the abuse of prisoners.
Mr. Gil-Robles and his investigators -- who include economists, sociologists, lawyers and a medical doctor -- have carte blanche to carry out their investigations. They may enter any Spanish government institution at any time and without warning. They routinely file writs of habeas corpus, order documentation and demand detailed responses to specific complaints.
In 1989, the ombudsman's office fielded 21,023 complaints, up from 13,797 the year before. In the first nine months of this year, nearly 26,000 complaints were logged. Mr. Gil-Robles takes that not as a sign that the government is getting less competent but as evidence that Spaniards are increasingly confident that their legitimate complaints may make a difference.
"Functionaries realize that they can be disturbed: Some have been sanctioned, others fired," Mr. Gil-Robles said.
Observed a senior official at a Foreign Ministry vexed by inquiries from the ombudsman's office: "They are a practical and necessary nuisance in helping awaken the government's conscience."
Other reactions are less sanguine. The Health Ministry ostensibly accepted with grace the ombudsman's recommendations for improvement of deplorable conditions at Spain's government hospitals. But Spanish journalists say that it was a long time thereafter before the health minister would take a phone call from Mr. Gil-Robles.
Lacking any executive authority of its own, the ombudsman's office relies on moral suasion, reinforced with the prospect of public disclosure in the activist Spanish press, to right public wrongs. Often it works. Sometimes it doesn't.
Problems, usually presented by letter, may be as straightforward as a foul-up in a widow's pension or as complex as the pollution of a bay.
When a pattern of failure is apparent, as with the hospitals, Mr. Gil-Robles makes recommendations that a government body may accept or ignore. The whole story is told in a bulky, public report -- 597 pages last year -- submitted annually by the ombudsman to Parliament.
What is particularly warming to Mr. Gil-Robles is that hardly any of the complaints that flood his office cite abuses of basic liberties, such as the right of assembly or freedom of speech. He notes with pleasure that those liberties are an accepted feature of democratic life in Spain.