Madrid to send more than a thousand police officers to Catalonia as “support”

The Interior Ministry has taken the decision ahead of the ‘Diada,’ or Catalonia Day, on the basis of reports of possible civil disturbances being planned by a pro-independence group

Civil Guard officers on the streets of Catalonia.
Civil Guard officers on the streets of Catalonia.Toni Ferragut

Spain’s Interior Ministry is planning to send around 1,000 officers from the National Police and Civil Guard to Catalonia, in a bid to deal with potential incidents that could take place this month and the next in Barcelona and other major cities as the region prepares to observe Catalonia Day on September 11.

The Diada, or Catalonia Day, has been used in recent years as a showcase of pro-independence sentiment

Interior Minister Fernando Grande-Marlaska is due on Thursday to announce his plan to send the officers to the region – where they will support the regional Mossos d’Esquadra force – at a security meeting in which the Catalan premier, Quim Torra, a hardline supporter of independence, will also take part.

The aim will be to maintain public order during events such as the Diada, or Catalonia Day, which has been used in recent years as a showcase of pro-independence sentiment. Sources from the Interior Ministry said that the deployment is part of the “obligation that this ministry has to consider all scenarios and to guarantee citizen safety,” despite the fact that such tasks fall primarily to the Mossos.

Last year a total of 6,000 National Police and Civil Guard officers were sent to the region after the Catalan government pressed on with plans to hold a referendum on secession from Spain on October 1, despite the poll having been declared illegal by the country’s higher courts. Operation Copernicus, as it was dubbed, was launched by the government of former Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy of the conservative Popular Party (PP).

The ministry has begun looking for accommodation for these officers, but has ruled out the use of passenger ferries

The referendum went ahead and there were numerous cases of police violence against members of the public, as well as moments of tension and conflict between the National Police and Civil Guard officers on one hand, and officers from the Mossos force on the other.

Marlaska’s plan includes the mobilization of more than a thousand officers – mostly riot police – from other locations in Spain to Catalonia, according to police sources.

The Interior Ministry has begun looking for accommodation for these officers, but for now has ruled out the use of passenger ferries as it did last year. The use of such ships to house officers in 2017 drew widespread ridicule from the public and press alike, as one of the vessels was adorned with Looney Tunes cartoons on its hull.

The interior minister has also opted for these measures after receiving reports warning of the growing activity of the so-called Committees for the Defense of the Republic (CDR), pro-independence activist groups that have in the past carried out disruptive actions such as closing down highway toll booths. Police experts have warned that these groups could be planning to sabotage other major infrastructure, such as the Barcelona airport El Prat, ground connections with France, the region’s ports, or Sants train station.

The heightened police presence is likely to stay in place until October 15

The same reports expressed doubts as to how the Mossos d’Esquadra would react to such actions, given their passivity during the October 1 referendum despite orders to stop the vote from going ahead.

The heightened police presence is likely to stay in place until October 15, although authorities have not ruled out extending it until late November if the situation demands it, said police sources.

Tensions have been running high in recent weeks in Catalonia, mostly over the yellow ribbons and other symbols that have been appearing in public spaces in support of the pro-independence leaders who are currently in pre-trial custody for their role in last year’s secessionist drive. While many citizens have been placing the symbols in public spaces, others have been removing them, causing flashpoints of tension and, in some cases, violent incidents.

Dwindling numbers

Interior Ministry sources also noted out that during the economic and financial crisis, state security forces lost more than 20,000 officers due to budget cuts during the PP administration. “The shortage of officers in Catalonia is chronic,” they said.

The Socialist Party (PSOE) government of Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez, who came to power after winning a vote of no confidence against former PM Rajoy, is playing several cards simultaneously. On the one hand, Deputy Prime Minister Carmen Calvo and Territorial Policy Minister Meritxell Batet are holding discreet contacts with their Catalan counterparts and seeking common ground in a bid to rebuild the trust that was lost during the previous PP administration.

On the other, the central government believes there is an internal battle going on within the pro-independence movement, with the more pragmatic Catalan Republican Left (ERC) keen to get its leader, Oriol Junqueras, out of pre-trial custody, where he has been since November, and the more hardline Together for Catalonia (JxCat) opting for a secessionist plan.

That tug-of-war, the central government believes, may have led to Quim Torra’s speech on Tuesday night, which was less tough than expected and did not contain some of the threats that Madrid had predicted in relation to how the regional government would react to the outcome of the trial of the jailed politicians.

English version by Simon Hunter.

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