Francisco Javier y Girón y Ezpeleta, founder of the Guardia Civil. / SUR

13 May 1844: Royal decree sees the birth of the Guardia Civil

Spain's oldest law enforcement agency was founded under the reign of Queen Isabel II as a national police force

ALEKK M. SAANDERS

The Guardia Civil (Civil Guard) is the oldest law enforcement agency in the country. It was founded as a national police force during the reign of Queen Isabel II of Spain. A royal decree mandating the creation of the gendarmerie was reformed on 13 May 1844 by Francisco Javier Girón y Ezpeleta, 2nd Duke of Ahumada, who was first Director-General of the force. That date is therefore considered the birthday of the Guardia Civil.

Previously, law enforcement had been the responsibility of the Santa Hermandad (Holy Brotherhood), an organisation of municipal groups. However, corruption was pervasive in the Brotherhood: officials were constantly subject to local political influence, and the system was ineffective, particularly outside the cities and major towns.

The first recruitment campaign for the new force began in the summer of 1844. It appears more men applied for the positions than were available. Finally, 14 senior officers, 232 officers and 5,769 guards, divided in 14 Tercios, formed the first staff of the Guardia Civil. Incidentally, 'guardia' is etymologically derived from the Gothic word 'wardja', which comes from the Old German 'warten', meaning 'watch' or 'guard'. The word 'civil' in Latin means 'citizen'.

The initial goal of the Guardia Civil was putting an end to crime on the nation's highways. Andalucía particularly needed the most help. Banditry was quite endemic here. Numerous robberies and holdups of businessmen, travellers and peddlers, as well as foreign tourists, took place in the region.

Nevertheless, it was not easy even for the Guardia to eradicate banditry completely. For example, in 1884, one traveller reported the existence of brigandage in and around the city of Malaga: "The favourite and original method of the 'Malagueño' highwayman is to creep up quietly behind his victim, muffle his head and arms in a cloak, and then relieve him of his valuables. Should he resist, he is instantly disembowelled with the dexterous thrust of a knife." It was stressed that highwaymen's weapons were of "undoubted efficacy against the dagger of an adversary or the rifle of a Civil Guard".

Today, the Civil Guard is military in nature and is responsible for civil policing under the authority of both the Ministry of the Interior and the Ministry of Defence. It patrols and investigates crimes in rural areas, including highways and ports, while the National Police force deals with safety in urban situations.

Incidentally, originally members of the Guardia Civil stood out due to their peculiar head wear - the tricornio (three-cornered) hat. But nowadays, together with their original army-style tunic and trousers, the hat is reserved just for ceremonial parades and duty performed outside of public buildings. Other than that, today, a cap or a beret, and a modernised new style of working uniform are worn.