BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — Spain's Catalonia region has its own police force, known locally as the Mossos d'Esquadra, and it has grown from its 18th-century roots into a modern European security agency with about 17,000 members.
The force came into the spotlight last month, with some people praising how quickly they captured or killed members of a local cell of jihadi-inspired extremists who carried out deadly attacks. The attacks, claimed by the Islamic State group, killed 16 people in Barcelona's famed Las Ramblas district and the nearby seaside town of Cambrils.
The mood has changed this month, however. A referendum is planned Sunday in Catalonia over whether the region should declare independence from Spain, and the Mossos are feeling torn.
They pledged to obey the Spanish Constitution, which says the country cannot be broken up, and also vowed loyalty to local government leaders who now aim to establish a separate republic.
The Mossos, in their dark blue uniforms, patrol the streets of Catalonia, one of Spain's 17 autonomous regions with broad rights of self-government, and also operate special forces units.
During major public events, such as soccer games or large street demonstrations, they watch from the sky with a helicopter that has powerful cameras capable of identifying people from 1,500 meters (5,000 feet) up. On those occasions, sharpshooters from the special forces unit known by its acronym GEI take up positions on rooftops. Those officers can be recognized by their red berets.
The Mossos also have a bomb disposal unit. Its officers go under city streets to check sewers for bombs and seal manhole covers. The unit receives training in defusing the type of explosive belts that can be used by suicide bombers. It was deployed during last month's attacks to Alcanar, where the extremist cell's bomb workshop exploded.
Their patron saint is St. Barbara, and a statuette sits in a disused artillery shell at the unit's makeshift museum.