Fallout from Spain’s terrorist attack stirs up old divisions

Madrid Letter: Performance of Catalan police under scrutiny as referendum looms

Catalan police chief Josep Lluís Trapero  has gained folk-hero status, particularly among Catalans of a nationalist persuasion. Photograph: Andreu Dalmau/EPA

Catalan police chief Josep Lluís Trapero has gained folk-hero status, particularly among Catalans of a nationalist persuasion. Photograph: Andreu Dalmau/EPA

 

Of all the repercussions of the terrorist attacks in Spain last month, this was perhaps the least expected: the creation of a T-shirt design bearing the bearded, grizzled face of the chief of the Catalan police force, Josep Lluís Trapero. Beneath his image a slogan, in a mixture of Spanish and Catalan, reads: “Bueno, pues molt bé, pues adios” (“Very well then, so goodbye”).

Those were Trapero’s laconic words to a Dutch journalist who had berated him for answering questions in Catalan, rather than the more widely spoken Spanish, during a press conference shortly after the attacks. The journalist stormed out of the room and Trapero immediately gained folk-hero status, particularly among Catalans of a nationalist persuasion.

The police chief has been the focus of media interest ever since Younes Abouyaaquob drove a van into pedestrians on Barcelona’s Las Ramblas boulevard on August 17th, killing 14 people, before five accomplices carried out a car attack that killed two more in Cambrils. All six terrorists were shot dead by members of Trapero’s regional police force, the Mossos d’Esquadra.

Much of the attention the Mossos have received has been favourable. In the streets of Barcelona, some Catalans spontaneously applauded members of the force in approval of their performance during those days of tragedy and uncertainty, while others placed flowers on patrol cars.

The Catalan regional parliament, meanwhile, has decided to decorate the force with a medal of honour, to be awarded on September 11th, Catalonia’s national day.

Strong criticism

But outside the northeastern region, the response to the Mossos’s handling of the terrorist attacks has been more sceptical, often critical and at times poisonous, ensuring that this issue feeds into Spain’s longstanding territorial crisis, which is due to reach a head on October 1st, when Catalonia plans to stage an unlawful independence referendum.

Critics say the Catalan police committed several mistakes before and after the attacks. Among them, they say, was their response to an explosion in the town of Alcanar, on August 16th, which destroyed a house and killed two people. The Mossos initially thought the house had been a drug laboratory, but instead it had been used by the terrorist cell to prepare a major bomb attack on Barcelona. After accidentally blowing the house up, its members had decided to carry out their van and car rampages.

There is also a question mark over why, when they had cornered the unarmed Abouyaacoub in a vineyard in the town of Subirats four days after his Ramblas attack, the Mossos shot him dead, thus failing to get any information from him.

But most controversial of all has been the claim that the Catalan police had received prior warnings from US intelligence services about a possible attack.

CIA warning

Last Thursday, El Periódico newspaper published what it said was a memo issued by the CIA in May warning the Mossos and Spanish authorities that Islamic State was planning a summer attack in Barcelona, “specifically, La Rambla Street.”

With the Catalan authorities having initially denied receiving such a warning, Trapero and the regional interior minister Joaquim Forn denounced the document as false. However, they said that a similar memo had been received, but not from the CIA.

Catalonia’s bid for independence, which is staunchly opposed by the central government of Mariano Rajoy, has been a constant subplot to the terrorist attack fallout. Many unionist commentators watched in disgust as the Catalan independence flag, the estelada, was brandished during an August 26th march in tribute to those killed while King Felipe and Rajoy were jeered. “Independence takes priority over the victims,” noted El Mundo newspaper.

Conspiracy theory

Meanwhile, in the wake of the controversy about the alleged CIA warning, Eloy Suárez Lamata, of Rajoy’s Popular Party (PP), sarcastically asked if the Mossos were going to receive a medal “for not doing anything to stop 16 deaths and 100 injured?”

Such comments fuel a conspiracy theory among Catalan nationalists. Pro-secession writer Iu Forn warned that “a parallel reality has been created to which those with vested interests cling and which presents us [Catalans] as a group who ... have allowed the killing of 16 people because we’re obsessed with independence.”

A visibly riled Trapero, meanwhile, accused El Periódico of “smearing the Mossos d’Esquadra and seeking an exclusive”. He posed the newspaper’s editor, Enric Hernández, a rhetorical question: “Who dictated all this to you?”

Previously, the regional police chief was a discreet, apolitical figure. But in the febrile atmosphere that is building ahead of October 1st, Trapero has become deeply divisive: for those who want to break away from Spain he is a symbol of Catalan victimhood and pride; and for the more fierce unionists, he, like those plotting the referendum, is merely a dishonest propagandist.

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