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Two guards wearing tricornios stand to attention at the gates of Spain’s Guardia Civil central command in Madrid. The three-cornered design of their headwear has always made this 175-year-old police force stand out. “It’s uncomfortable, perhaps a little unattractive, probably impractical, but it symbolises who we are,” says one officer.

Exactly what the tricornio represents is an increasingly loaded question. Nationalism is on the rise in Spain and prominent symbols of state – including the Guardia Civil – are being dragged into an emotional election debate. Said debate is being played out in the high-court trial of 12 Catalan separatists who are facing charges of rebellion and sedition for staging an illegal independence referendum, and subsequent proclamation of a republic, in October 2017. The trial drives daily news bulletins but the secessionist challenge – and Spain’s response to it – is framing a much larger discussion about the character of the Spanish state.

This is where the role of Spain’s oldest police force becomes contentious. Secessionists paint it as the perpetrator of state-sponsored oppression. Yet around Spain, opinion polls consistently place the Guardia Civil as the country’s most valued institution. It’s not uncommon to hear Spaniards venerate the force as the vertebrae of the country’s constitutional order.

International opinion is less forgiving, influenced by the heavy-handed response to the referendum by both Guardia Civil and National Police agents, which saw scenes of violence broadcast around the world. Underlying those scenes was an unprecedented failure of politics: a national government that had urged Catalonians to stay home just as a regional government encouraged them to flout a high-court ban and vote anyway. As protestors surrounded polling stations to garrison against police intervention, the situation was primed for conflict.

On the morning of 1 October 2017, the national government sent in a pre-deployed reserve force of 6,000 National Police and Guardia Civil agents to shut down more than 2,300 polling stations where over two million people were determined to cast their vote. The ensuing violence was a nadir for Spain. This year, as it is relived in court, there is a distinct sense that Spain’s democracy is on trial, too.

This has thrust the Guardia Civil into an uncomfortable spotlight. As the case’s principal investigator, agents have been called before judges to defend the veracity of their evidence, which alleges Catalonia’s regional authorities planned to unilaterally break away from Spain. Meanwhile, others face charges of disproportionate force. Amid all the investigations, a question lingers: how has the fallout changed Spain’s oldest police force?

But first, what is the Guardia Civil and what will the trials and tribulations mean for its reputation? monocle gained access to the officers and training centres to find out how it sees its role in modern Spain.

Established in 1844 to tackle banditry in the countryside, the evolution of the Guardia Civil has been key to its survival. It has served and outlasted a monarchy, a republic, a dictatorship, another republic, an even longer dictatorship and then massive structural reform under democracy.

This ability to evolve had already allowed the force to reignite the people’s faith once before when it shook off the stigma of policing the regime of General Franco. “It’s a common misunderstanding but we’re not a military force,” says Luis Peláez, head of criminal analysis for the Judicial Police Authority, a 5,000-strong contingent that’s a key part of the Guardia Civil. We meet at the judicial-police headquarters in east Madrid. “We are organised like a military but operate like a police force whose main purview is security and investigation,” adds Peláez, who is dressed in dark green and whose father and grandfathers were in the Guardia Civil. While Spain’s National Police force normally takes care of the cities, the rest of the country is patrolled by the Guardia Civil, explaining why some of Spain’s most complex cases land in its lap.

For example, when Spaniards tune in to TV news to see the latest fall from grace of a public figure, the green-vested agents of the Guardia Civil’s elite Criminal Investigative Unit (uco) usually lead the raids. And inside the fortress-like hull of uco’s HQ on the outskirts of Madrid, an array of trophies – from counterfeit drugs to the wig and fake beard belonging to Spain’s infamous bank-robber El Solitario – are displayed like the spoils of battle. This knack for taking down traffickers, criminal gangs and even archaeological thieves has bolstered the modern force’s image.

While historically known as the benemérita (“reputable”), under Franco these words rang hollow. However, as Spain revved its newly installed democratic motor in the 1980s, the Guardia Civil modernised too. Women were inducted into the ranks and new departments were created, such as Seprona (specialising in environmental protection) and Servicio de Criminalística (an expert forensic investigation unit).

Helicopter pilot Rebeca Maestre Estebán’s job reveals that evolution. She shows us the Servicio Aeréo’s (air service) hangar at the Guardia Civil’s Torrejón de Ardoz air base, 32km from Madrid. “We’re on 24-hour alert, which makes us flexible but also expeditionary,” she says. Air Commander Sergio José Marín López explains how the compact air force, with 330 people spread across 14 bases around Spain, has a scope of operations stretching from Senegal to Greece. “I’ve flown to Nouadhibou to sign a migration memorandum and to anti-narcotics operations with Frontex on Europe’s southern border.”

As a crew does maintenance work on several helicopters nearby, a conversation with two high-ranking pilots turns to the force’s attempts to update its image. “Traditionally we’ve been quite a taciturn institution,” says one. We need to do a better job 0f explaining to outsiders why we are so passionate about our values and the power of what we do.”

He adds that, every once in a while, a politician comes along pledging to remodel or even disband the Guardia Civil but they always reach the same conclusion. “We do a lot for very little money but above all, our duty is to the people,” he says, pointing to the slogan Honor es mi Divisa (“honour is my currency”), which is emblazoned on every building we visit.

It’s 04.46 on the Valdemoro base, a complex of burly buildings, training facilities and housing units some 28km outside of Madrid. Sitting inside a purring convoy of armoured vans and four-wheel-drives, 40 fully kitted-out members of the Reserve and Security Group (grs) await their first command. monocle rides with Second Lieutenant Navas, a raspy-voiced veteran who is about to lead a hostage-taking training manoeuvre at a nearby abandoned hospital. “But first, a little coffee,” he says. “We’re not at war after all.”

As his men pour into a roadside café, Navas talks up their credentials. The grs was created in 1988 as a crowd-control unit; today seven operating groups are dotted around Spain. The elite squad is now a tactical force called upon for anti-drug raids, highway roadblocks and in-flight vehicle interception, as well as providing protection for foreign dignitaries and political leaders. There’s even a specialised subsoil unit trained for nuclear incidents.

Later, back at the base’s cabin-styled cafeteria, Commander Rendón talks up the importance of character. “We have no shortage of aspiring recruits but we look for up to 20 specific personality traits,” he says. “Self-restraint, emotional control, a calm demeanour and high self-esteem: the same qualities that were put to the test during the situation in Catalonia.”

At the height of the secessionist tensions about 1,000 grs were deployed. Raising the topic quickly sobers expressions. Rendón, who helped co-ordinate the Guardia Civil’s biggest (and arguably most controversial) police operation, recalls the tense atmosphere. “We were reminding our men of our founding principles every day,” he says, before reiterating them. “The Guardia Civil must obey the laws of the land. We are representatives of the state, not the government. Our opinions or emotions are irrelevant.”

“Were mistakes made? Sure,” says Rendón. “But we always allow room for self-criticism to learn and adapt. We may have resisted media pressure to defend our actions publicly but there was an internal review on our tactical response to peaceful protest,” he says. The takeaway? He cites improved training, technological support and the need for larger squadrons as areas earmarked for improvement.

“The Guardia Civil tends to trust in its past but often seems less willing to take new risks,” says Rendón of the demands for more communication and accountability. “This can be both positive and negative but it’s also one of the institution’s idiosyncrasies.”

There is a belief that the Guardia Civil is the glue that keeps the Spanish state together. But, caught in the crossfire of politicians’ hubris and at the centre of a landmark trial, it needs to reassure a new generation of Spaniards that it has again evolved and its values have moved into the modern era. Faith in the force may be strong but retaining that trust will always hinge on the Guardia Civil’s willingness to respond to and reckon with the country’s challenges. The tricornio, and its legacy, depends on it.


More Spanish forces:

Policia Nacional
(National Police)
Formed in 1986 to replace Spain’s much-vaunted Policía Armada, the National Police Force (cnp) boasts about 64,500 agents nationwide, of whom 12 per cent are female. Their beat is largely confined to Spain’s bigger urban centres with more than 20,000 inhabitants.

Mossos d’Esquadra
(Catalonia)
Literally translated as “Squad Lads”, Catalonia’s police force started standing in for most cnp and Guardia Civil duties in 1994 – a process that was completed in 2008. Their alleged role and relative inaction during 2017’s illegal referendum prompted tense moments of confrontation with their national counterparts.

Ertzaintza
(Basque Police Force)
With origins that trace back to old municipal militias, the Ertzaintza is another autonomous force that replaced the presence of officers of the State and helped play a major role in the defeat of terrorist group eta. With more than 8,000 agents, the Basque Country has one of the highest ratios of police agents to population.

Policia Local
(Municipal Police)
Recruited, funded and controlled by city hall, local police forces deal with law enforcement issues, including minor crimes and traffic infractions, and aren’t always armed. Madrid has the largest force with 6,200 officers, followed by Barcelona’s Guardia Urbana with about 3,000.

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