FEW matters are more confusing initially to someone coming to Spain than the array of police forces encountered around the country.
It can be difficult to know who to go to when you are in trouble and why one police force will attend a crime in one place and another elsewhere.
In fact, essentially, Spain has three police forces: the Guardia Civil, the Policia Nacional and the Policia Local – each of which has its own specific area of operation and clearly defined working parameters.
However, in reality, only the Guardia Civil and Policia Nacional have the extensive powers and resources that would be recognised of a police force in the UK.
The common misconception amongst many foreigners is that the Guardia Civil is some kind of arbitrary para-military force with extraordinary powers – that roams around Spain like some brutal phantom, there to terrorise all and sundry.
In fact, the truth is far more mundane. The Policia Nacional and Guardia Civil are both ‘conventional’ police forces and perform almost identical tasks, albeit with remits that are essentially demographic.
Crudely, the Guardia Civil is a police force that operates only in the countryside and in towns with a population of under around 20,000 people.
By contrast the Policia Nacional is responsible for urban areas over approximately 20,000 people.
So, if you are the victim of a crime and you live in a small town or in the countryside then you will be attended to by the Guardia Civil, who will protect you or investigate any crime – just like any professional police force.
However, if you live in a town of over some 20,000 people then it will be the PoliciaNacional that will perform all these functions.
The investigatory functions, powers and resources of both the Policia Nacional and Guardia Civil are, more or less, identical.
Under normal circumstances some 40% of the Spanish population live under the protection of the Guardia Civil, although this percentage rises to around 65 during the summer holiday season – when many urbanites leave the towns and cities.
The Policia Local, meanwhile, is a force recruited, funded and controlled by local town halls and that is responsible to the elected Mayor (Alcalde) of the relevant area.
The Policia Local respond to minor crimes and mostly deal with local authority enforcement matters, together with urban traffic control and any associated violations.
Crimes are not investigated and any serious matter is immediately handed over to either the Guardia Civil or Policia Nacional, as appropriate.
Of course, typically, there are exceptions to the rules above. The Basque country, Catalonia and Navarra all have their own regional police forces, in place of the Policia Nacional.
Furthermore, Spain has an intelligence service (with whom, hopefully, you are unlikely to come into contact!) called the Centro Nacional de Inteligencia (CNI) which, unusually, deals with both inland and external intelligence matters.
For all emergencies call: 112
To report a crime: 902 102 112
Guardia Civil: 062
Policia Nacional: 091
Policia Local: 092
Medical Service: 061
Spanish Fire Service: 0801
Nick Snelling is the author of ‘How to Buy Spanish Property and Move to Spain – Safely’ and ‘The Laptop Entrepreneur’ and runs www.culturespain.com