The Spanish police

Structure and organization

The Spanish police

Spain has a high ratio of police officers to inhabitants and three police forces, often with confusing and overlapping roles, although the government plans to amalgamate the three forces to improve co-ordination and make better use of skills and resources.

The main forces are the local municipal police ( policía municipal/local or guardia urbana), the national police ( policía nacional) and the civil guard ( guardia civil), all of whom are armed. Some autonomous regions have their own police forces, including the Basque Country (where they wear red boinas or berets) and Catalonia (the Mosses d’Esquadra).

Spain also has an elite special operations group ( Grupo Especial de Operaciones/GEO) responsible for combating terrorism and dealing with other extreme situations, in addition to guarding Spanish ambassadors and embassies abroad. Other ‘police’ forces include the port police ( policía de puerto) in sea ports, whose jurisdiction is limited to the property of the local junta del puerto, and armed guards ( vigilantes jurados) employed by banks and security companies.

Municipal Police

The municipal police are attached to local town halls in towns with a population of over 5,000. They wear blue uniforms with white-chequered bands on their hats and sleeves, and usually patrol in white or blue cars. Municipal police deal with minor crime such as traffic control, protection of property, civil disturbances and the enforcement of municipal laws. In large cities, municipal police often have multilingual offices and some towns have mounted police. They’re the most sympathetic Spanish police force. In resort areas, the local police often speak English and during the summer spend most of their time dealing with drunken (mostly British) tourists. On-the-spot fines are imposed for a range of offences. However, in some towns, local police are heavy-handed and can be a law unto themselves and aren’t averse to using illegal methods.

National Police

The national police ‘replaced’ the despised ‘armed’ police ( policía armada). The policía armada were much hated and feared, but the national police are now ‘quite popular’. They’re stationed in towns with a population of over 20,000 and deal with serious crime such as theft, rape and muggings, and are also used to control demonstrations and crowds. Other duties include guarding embassies, railway stations, post offices and army barracks in most towns and cities, when they’re armed with submachine guns. The national police are housed in a police station ( comisaría de policía), many of which have a foreigners ( extranjeros) department dealing with matters such as residence permits. There are also plain clothes policemen ( cuerpo superior de policía) in urban areas.

Civil Guard

The civil guard patrol Spain’s highways and rural areas, often on motorcycles (which operate in pairs), and deal with road accidents. They also act as immigration officers and frontier guards and use helicopters to combat crime. In villages, there are usually barracks ( cuartel) instead of a police station. The civil guard is a military force and was traditionally headed by a general, although this is no longer the case. They wear avocado green uniforms and olive-green caps, which have replaced the black, patent-leather, tricorn hats now worn only on ceremonial occasions. They’re one of the world’s most efficient police forces and have a reputation for honesty and courtesy.

Spanish police are generally extremely helpful and go out of their way to be of assistance. However, corrupt policemen dealing in drugs, prostitution and other organised crime aren’t uncommon, and a disturbing number of policemen have run amok with their guns. There have been reports of stolen goods disappearing into thin air after having been ‘recovered’ by the police (they’re supposed to be displayed at police departments, e.g. for 18 months, after which they’re sold at auction if not claimed). Spanish police are sometimes colour prejudiced, particularly with regard to Africans.

If you need to contact the police in an emergency, you can dial 091 for the national police or, in some towns, 062 for the civil guard. You must usually dial a local number for the municipal police, although dialling 092 may get you connected to the local police station or get your message relayed.

The telephone numbers of local police stations are listed at the front of telephone directories. If you lose anything or are the victim of a theft, you must report it in person to the local police and make a complaint ( denuncia). This must usually be done within 24 hours if you intend to make a claim on an insurance policy. The report form, of which you receive a copy with an official stamp for your insurance company, may be printed in English and Spanish.

If you don’t speak Spanish, you should have a fluent Spanish speaker with you, although in some tourist areas you can make a complaint in a number of foreign languages. You can also make a complaint by telephone (902-102 112) or online ( ). Once you’ve made the complaint, you’re given a number that you can take to the nearest police station after 10am the following day and within 72 hours. When you arrive you present the number to the official and you’re given a signed and stamped copy of the complaint.

Telephone and internet complaints are given priority and it saves you having to queue for hours at the police station waiting for your turn. However, you cannot make a complaint by telephone or internet if you’re reporting a violent crime or you can identify a criminal by name.

This article is an extract from Living and Working in Spain.
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Other comments

  • Ricardo, 02 December 2008 Reply

    How to discredit spanish police without data

    It would be nice if you give referenced data about your information, as spanish I am absolutely disgusted when you say "Spanish police are sometimes colour prejudiced, particularly with regard to Africans". Is like me saying that all english going to Spain are drunks who only came for cheap booze. Please be more serious when you give this kind of information as you don't give any data to back it up.