When Spain’s national anthem blared from a hotel balcony during Catalonia’s National Day ceremonies last week, regional police cut electricity to the building and searched it for Spanish unionists suspected of placing the loudspeakers.
But when a few thousand radical separatists tried to rush the regional parliament building the same day, overturning police barriers, hurling sharp objects and attacking a Spanish television news crew, no arrests were made.
“Catalonia is caught in a dichotomy,” says Erik Encinas, publisher of the Barcelona digital magazine Mediterraneo. “Although public enthusiasm for independence shows signs of waning, the bureaucracy and police are increasingly controlled by hardliners.”
Catalan regional president Quim Torra has called for “general civil disobedience” next month to protest the expected convictions of regional officials tried by Spain for organizing an independence referendum and subsequent declaration of secession two years ago.
But there are doubts that he will get the mass turnout he wants. Organizers had hoped for a huge show of force at this year's Catalan National Day parade, but the turnout of more than half a million people was only about half as large as in past years.
Many would-be participants may have been put off by calls for a “war” against the Spanish state that circulated on social media beforehand. Recent opinion surveys meanwhile indicate a general decline in support for independence.
A poll taken in July by Catalonia's government-run Center for Opinion Studies showed that support for independence had dropped to 42%, while support for remaining as part of Spain had risen slightly to 48%. Both sides had been tied at about 45% in previous surveys.
Barcelona city councilor Raymond Blass says infighting among the nationalists has undermined support for independence and that “fatigue” could be setting in among the "less committed.”
But even some of the militant groups show signs of frustration. Members of the Committees for the Defense of the Republic (CDRs), which organize at the grassroots level, recently complained that they could not mobilize enough people to block the main highway into Barcelona.
If public support for independence is softening, the dream of an independent Catalonia appears to be holding firm in key governing agencies. These include the regional police force, the Mossos d’Esquadra.
The Guardia Civil, a national law enforcement agency, says it has intercepted communications between Mossos members discussing a revival of Land and Liberty — a terrorist movement modeled on the Basque ETA, which conducted bombings 30 years ago. The Guardia Civil also accuses Mossos members of passing sensitive information on to extremist organizations.
But Barcelona city councilor Raymond Blas rejects the charge that local authorities have politicized the Mossos. “If politicizing means asserting the powers of the Catalan government, then the Spanish government politicized its National Police when they sent them here to interfere without independence movement,” he says.
Catalan Security Minister Miquel Buch has said that he wants to keep the police “outside the political and partisan debate." But Buch recently promoted a detective sergeant who had helped ex-Catalan president Carles Puigdemont to escape from Spain to avoid arrest after declaring independence in 2017.
The sergeant had been expelled from the police by Spanish officials who took over management of the force during a period of direct rule imposed in 2018. He is now serving as an “adviser” to the regional government at three times his previous pay.
Catalan policewoman Inma Alcolea tells VOA that she recently had her badge pulled and was transferred to a remote administrative posting for complaining about separatist political influence on key units like the Department of Internal Affairs. “It’s like a Mafia,” she says.
“Political priorities are draining resources away from regular police work,” says Eugenio Zambrano, a former Barcelona municipal policeman who now heads a union of government workers that led a protest in Barcelona last weekend demanding more protection against a growing crime wave.
Spain’s interior ministry says there has been a 30% rise in street crime in Barcelona over the past year. “There are rapes, robberies and murders on a scale never seen before,” said shopkeeper Miquel Martinez, who joined the protesters.
Blas says a lack of patrolmen on the streets is caused by a diversion of resources to counterterrorism since a 2017 Islamic attack in Barcelona. Seven hundred more policemen are being hired, the city councilor said.