With the Spanish government ready to take over the running of Catalonia on Friday, the loyalty of the local police to Madrid or to the Catalan cause will be tested if they are ordered to drag their former political masters from office.
Spanish police provoked international outcry by using batons and rubber bullets when they stepped in to try to stop an illegal independence referendum on October 1 after the local Catalan force refused to prevent voting in what has become the worst constitutional crisis in modern Spanish history.
Catalonia's secessionist government is intent on resisting Spain's plan to remove it from power, and there are doubts over how a divided and demoralised Mossos d'Esquadra, as the Catalan police are called, would respond if ordered to evict President Carles Puigdemont and his autonomous government by force.
National police could once again be on the front line. The local police force is riven by distrust between those for and against Catalan independence and is estranged from Spain's national police forces, according to interviews with Mossos officers and national police.
The Civil Guard gave evidence against the Mossos chief in a sedition inquiry after his force stood back and allowed voting to take place, court documents show. Five Mossos officers, speaking on condition of anonymity, said they believed the 17,000-strong force was split among those who wanted independence and those who opposed it, with three of those saying they would not use force to remove ministers and lawmakers from power.
"I'm not going to use force and beat people with my baton if they are passive," said a 15-year Mossos veteran and secessionist, who declined to be named. He said many others felt the same, but added: "I would have to obey it. My family has to eat."
A Mossos spokeswoman said the force was neutral and not subject to any "political or ideological criteria". Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy is intent on thwarting the latest bid for independence by Catalonia, which has 16 per cent of the Spanish population but generates 19 per cent of the country's economic output, to avoid what he believes will bring economic and social turmoil to the heart of the eurozone.
Officers told Reuters there was also an anti-independence faction in the Mossos d'Esquadra, "Lads' Squad" in Catalan, which uses an encrypted chat app to share views on independence versus allegiance to Madrid.
In a bid to impose its authority the Madrid government will replace the Mossos senior leadership, but the question is whether this will be enough to ensure the force's loyalty. The Mossos stance will have a powerful influence on the 7.5 million Catalans as the force has deep roots in Catalan society, having emerged from citizen militias in the 18th century.
The Mossos's reputation was enhanced by its handling of an August van attack in Barcelona which killed 14 people. Rajoy will seek Senate approval on Friday to take the unprecedented step of assuming central control of Catalonia, including its government and the running of Mossos. The strategy will replace the Mossos leadership, including its two senior officers and 23 commissioners, and route the chain of command to a national police commander, yet to be appointed, who will report to the interior ministry, officials in Madrid and a Catalan police union said.
Spain's foreign minister, Alfonso Dastis, said at the weekend, before calls for civil disobedience by the Catalan government, that "we are not going to arrest anyone".
But a senior government source said force may be necessary depending on the reaction in Catalonia. "If the parliament has to be emptied out and closed, if the councillors' offices have to be cleared out - if they obey there's no problem, but if they don't obey it will have to be enforced," the source said.
The months-long standoff between Madrid and pro-independence leaders progressively damaged morale inside Mossos, with hundreds of officers opposed to independence looking to quit the force, officers and union officials say. Some complain they are sidelined by their pro-independence colleagues.
Luis Miguel Lorente, head of the national ARP police union, said about 200 Mossos officers had contacted his union for information on how to join national police forces. Spain has sent about 4,000 police reinforcements to Catalonia, where protests on both sides of the independence debate have drawn hundreds of thousands of people onto the streets.
Extra police have been billeted in two cruise ships in Barcelona harbour. One of the ships is painted with cartoon characters of Tweety Pie and Sylvester the Cat, leading to Tweety Pie being adopted as the mascot of the independence movement by some campaigners.
Participants in the referendum opted overwhelmingly for independence, but turnout was only about 43 per cent as Catalans who favour remaining part of Spain mainly boycotted the ballot. Secessionists said the result gave them a mandate for statehood. Spain was only restored to democracy following the death in 1975 of dictator Francisco Franco, under whom the Catalan language and traditions were suppressed.
Protests have been peaceful, but the referendum showed how tensions can swiftly escalate when Madrid uses national police, despised by many secessionists, to enforce anti-independence measures. If Mossos stands back again, the senior government source said, national police would step in once more.
A defiant Catalan government, which remains in power until the Senate approves Rajoy's plan, said this week its civil servants, including the Mossos, would continue to obey its instructions and those of its legislature.
That raises fears that Puigdemont and regional lawmakers, will refuse to leave their offices, or that their supporters may try to help by occupying the offices. As well as replacing Mossos leaders, Madrid may also redeploy Mossos officers away from key government buildings and use national police instead, an interior ministry official said.
Relations between the regional and the national forces are at rock bottom and no new joint investigations are being launched, say officers from each force. - Reuters