Image of Catalan police force transformed by recent events

They ignored instructions from Madrid, now independence supporters see them as heroes

Josep Luis Trapero, chief of the Catalan police Mossos d’Esquadra. Photograph:  AFP/Getty Images

Josep Luis Trapero, chief of the Catalan police Mossos d’Esquadra. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

 

On the morning of October 3rd, the day of a Catalan general strike, crowds gathered outside the Barcelona headquarters of the Spanish national police. The strike had been called by the Catalan government to protest against the Spanish police’s use of violence in trying to stop an independence referendum two days earlier.

Demonstrators chanted in favour of secession and against the Spanish police, who remained inside the building. One of the slogans also heard was “Aquesta és la nostra policia!” (“These are our police!”), which they shouted in a gesture of support at the Catalan regional police officers standing guard outside.  

On Friday, the head of the Catalan police, Josep Lluís Trapero, appeared in court in Madrid, accused of sedition for his role in failing to stop the October 1st referendum. 

As the simmering Catalan situation has spilled over to become Spain’s deepest crisis of the modern era, the Catalan police force, or Mossos d’Esquadra, has been in the eye of the storm. Spanish unionists have questioned their professionalism and constitutional loyalty, but in the eyes of independence supporters they have gone from being unloved civil servants to the heroes of a budding nation.

“You can be proud of your work and we, as senior officers, are proud of you,” read an internal memo from the Mossos hierarchy to its officers shortly after the referendum.

The Mossos had been put under the orders of Spain’s civil guard for that day and ordered to close down schools where voting was due to take place. But as members of the force arrived in pairs at schools early that morning, it soon became clear that they intended to do no such thing and they allowed voting to take place in the vast majority of voting stations.

Later, Spanish national police and civil guards were deployed to shut down several schools and their violent actions became the enduring image of the day.

“He [Trapero] deceived everyone – the Spanish government, the other police forces, the judges, the attorneys,” one senior Spanish police officer told El Confidencial newspaper. “He promised he was going to obey orders and he didn’t, for political reasons.”

The Mossos haven’t always been so controversial. They have existed in their current incarnation since 1983, as the result of substantial devolution of power to Catalonia from Madrid following the end of the Franco dictatorship. Apart from their distinctive beret, little set them apart from their counterparts in the national police and civil guard.

“Before, when someone mentioned the Mossos to me, my hackles would rise because of the arrogant way they behaved, the way they went around handing out fines,” says Víctor Colomer, a Catalan journalist. “There were documentaries on TV about cases of brutality – the Mossos had a pretty bad image.”

Residents of Barcelona’s Raval district complained about allegedly systematic police brutality by the Mossos in 2013 and a total of 141 such cases were registered in the previous year in Catalonia. Also in 2013, a businessman, Juan Andrés Benítez, died after a fracas with several Mossos who were arresting him. Six officers avoided jail after admitting manslaughter.

But that image changed dramatically after the terrorist attacks of August 17th-18th in Barcelona and Cambrils. Catalans widely applauded the Mossos’s handling of the fallout, which saw them shoot dead the five Cambrils terrorists, before killing Younes Abouyaaquob, who carried out the van attack on Barcelona’s Ramblas.

Applause would spontaneously break out when Mossos appeared in the streets in the attack’s aftermath and Catalans started putting flowers on the force’s patrol cars as a mark of gratitude.

“Everyone was saying, ‘Wow what a police force we’ve got’,” says Colomer, who was impressed by the Mossos’s policy of constantly communicating with the public via Twitter.

Folk hero status

During those days the force’s senior officer, Trapero, gained folk hero status, becoming the figurehead of the Catalan investigation into the terrorist attacks and making regular media appearances.

Miguel-Anxo Murado, a political analyst, said it was highly unusual for a police chief to be given such a prominent role.

“Making Trapero the protagonist was an intentional move,” he said. “It was a political strategy intended to tell people that Catalonia had a police force that could protect them and say: ‘We’re out of Spain and we can protect you from terrorism’.”

But there was criticism of the force’s handling of the situation from other parts of the country. That and reports of a communications breakdown between the Mossos and other Spanish police helped fuel an us-and-them mentality among Catalan nationalists as the referendum date neared.

The force’s status as defenders of the Catalan nation has been bolstered by their actions during that vote. But there are reports of a split in the force between those supporting the separatist Catalan government and those still loyal to the Spanish constitution and its institutions.

With the former considering issuing a unilateral declaration of independence in the coming days, the Mossos, whose image has been so dramatically transformed recently, will almost certainly remain in the spotlight.

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