A blast from the past

Decision to purchase water cannon divides police and evokes Franco era

A police water cannon is deployed against students protesting against the Socialist government's education policies in 1987.
A police water cannon is deployed against students protesting against the Socialist government's education policies in 1987.

For the last three decades, the national police has kept its five rusty water cannons in storage, never once bringing them out to clear people from the streets. During that time Spain has witnessed thousands of demonstrations and marches and street protests of all kinds that never required their use. The water cannons are no longer serviceable, but the police force says that it now needs such methods, so it has put out a tender to buy a new one, which will cost around half a million euros.

"Water cannons constitute a disuasory element that is less damaging than others when it comes to dealing with major public disorders," says a report by the National Police Force, which argues that in recent months there has been a sharp increase in violence, the use of barricades and setting fire to garbage containers during protests. Socialist Party deputy Antonio Trevín replied in a letter to Congress that less than one percent of demonstrations produce any kind of incident.

"The water cannon marks a return to times that we would rather forget," he said.

"A vehicle of this type is necessary. It is not some kind of whim," stated Florentino Villabona, the head of the country's anti-disturbance police units. Villabona admits that violence is far from widespread, but points to incidents such as the miners' strike in León, or the protests staged by shipworkers in Cádiz, where barricades were set up and even homemade bazookas used on police.

I don't think that anybody has ever been killed by one of these things"

"The new water cannon will be used mainly against barricades, particularly barricades that have been set alight and that are a risk to firefighters. In this way we can dismantle them very quickly," says Villabona.

The new water cannon will be used throughout Spain, with a three-person crew. It will carry 7,000 liters and launch a jet of water at a minimum of 10 bars, up to a maximum of 16 bars.

The old water cannons, which only had a 4,000-liter capacity, could launch water at four bars, and that had to be directed manually. The new model is controlled electronically.

The increased capacity and potency of the new generation of water cannons has raised concerns among civil liberty groups. "If it hits you at close range it will send you flying and can really hurt," says one member of the police's anti-disturbance unit, comparing it to the use of rubber bullets.

"If you get hit by the water spray, you're not going to be hurt. This is less harmful that other things. I don't think that anybody has ever been killed by one of these things. They use them throughout Europe, in France, Germany, Poland..." says Villabona. The only European countries not to use them are the United Kingdom, Ireland, Finland, Malta, and Andorra.

Water cannons "allow for just a few short bursts of water, and they have to be refilled frequently," says another anti-disturbance officer. Another problem with them, say the experts, is that they are difficult to maneuver in narrow streets, and are most effective in large squares or open spaces.

Police sources say that water cannons can become very vulnerable in large, crowded protests in built-up areas, and that their tires can easily be punctured. One anti-disturbance officer says that when brought into use on the streets, they are usually protected by a special unit of up to 20 agents.

"We have around 200 vans [around 60 percent of the police's vehicle pool] that have already done 300,000 kilometers and that are more than eight years old. For the price of the water cannon we could buy 20 new vans, which would be of much more use," says one police officer, adding: "This year there were 3,800 demonstrations in Madrid, and only in two were there serious public order issues."

"Totally unacceptable"

EL PAÍS, Madrid

The Socialist Party's spokeswoman in Congress, Soraya Rodríguez, launched a stinging attack on the government last week over its plans to buy a water cannon, accusing the adminstration of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy of using the kind of repressive measures associated in most people's minds with the Franco regime. "This is totally unacceptable," she said.

In fact, water cannon have been used in Spain since the death of Franco; on January 23, 1987, in Madrid, to be precise. On that day, there was a huge demonstration against the education policies of the Socialist Party government of Felipe González.

The protest is also remembered because a 14-year-old girl, María Luisa Prada, was shot by a police officer. It also produced the iconic image of a young physically disabled man beating a poster with his crutch. EL PAÍS published an editorial that day protesting against the return of the water cannon to Spain's streets, highlighting the "brutality of the demonstrators, and the brutality of the police." Water cannon were withdrawn from use from that point on.

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