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Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue Congress, Bilbao-2005

Totalistic Groups Unit of Mossos d’Esquadra


Like many other countries, Catalonia is living a globalization process, especially during the late decade. Today, the immigrant population in Catalonia reaches eleven per cent of the global population, with 806.000 immigrants coming from 154 countries. Most of them are from South America (38%) and Africa (28%).

One of the effects of this migratory flow is a new social reality with a wide range of cultural and religious backgrounds. Nowadays, there are 252 religious denominations in Catalonia registered in the Spanish “Religious Entities Register” at the Ministry of Justice. But, the spirituality offer goes beyond it; many other religious alternatives are inscribed as civil associations or they are not even in any register.

Sometimes, these new ways of religiosity provoke distrust and alarm because their singularity contrasts with traditional forms of native religiousity and, these minorities can be labeled as “cults” or “sects” (depending on the language).

The Totalistic Groups Unit of Mossos d’Esquadra (Catalan Police) analyzes the phenomenon popularly called “cults” or “sects”, but from a completely different conceptualization of the issue.

Legal Framework

In democratic societies the main objective of police organizations is to protect citizens’ security and to guarantee their rights and freedoms. Every police action is subjected to the principle of legality. In other words, as police officers, we must act according to the law.

In this sense, let us look at what aspects of the Spanish Constitution, the Religious Liberty Law of Spain, the European Parliament and the Spanish Penal Code relate to totalitarian groups.

The Spanish Constitution establishes as an important Fundamental Right “The dignity of the person, the inviolable rights that are inherent, the free development of the personality, and the respect for the law and for the rights of others”. This Fundamental Right is also protected in the Spanish Penal Code in the article 515.3, in relation to the crimes against the fundamental rights and public freedoms:

Art. 515.3. Associations will be unlawful that, even with a legal purpose, use violent means or means that alter or control the personality to achieve their aims.

In the same way, the Freedom of worship, ideology and religion is guaranteed by the Spanish Constitution, in several articles of the Spanish Penal Code and in the Religious Liberty Law of Spain. The latter establishes only one limit to the religious liberty:

“The rights deriving from the freedom of worship and religion may not be exercised to the detriment of the rights of others to practice their public freedoms and fundamental rights…”.

We should remember that one of these fundamental rights is the “dignity of the person and the free development of the personality”.

Likewise, we have to consider what the European Parliament established about “cults” with its Resolution on cults in Europe (March, 1997):

  • 1. Reaffirms the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion, and to freedom of association, subject to the limits imposed by the need to respect the freedom and privacy of the individual and to provide protection from practices such as torture, inhuman and degrading treatment, slavery and so on…
  • 2. Calls on the member States to ensure that the legal and police authorities make effective use of existing legal provisions and instruments at the national level, and cooperate actively and more closely, particularly within Europol, to combat the attacks on the fundamental rights of individuals of which certain cults are culpable.

Police Responsibilities

The Totalistic Groups Unit of Mossos d’Esquadra (Catalan Police) began in 1992. However, before this date, the Catalan Police had been carrying out some investigations with regard to totalist groups.

The name Totalistic Groups, chosen for the unit, is not accidental; it responds to a double need. On the one hand, the name is appropriate in the context of the need to avoid the term sect (cult in English) because:

  • The meaning of the terms is ambiguous, and they have religious connotations.
  • The terms create difficulty for juridical application.
  • The terms carry a social stigmatisation load.

On the other hand, the name is relevant because:

  • The phenomenon of totalitarianism includes a wider range of groups with different characteristics than those that pertain strictly to cults and sects.
  • It places the focus on illegal group practices.
  • It was the term used in the First International Congress about Cults held in Barcelona in 1993.

The main goal of the Totalistic Groups Unit is the analysis of those groups that could be using mind-control techniques (to alter or control the personality), primarily in the Catalan territory. But because many of these groups spread and maintain connections across Europe, it also is important to know how this phenomenon is developing in the other European countries.

The tasks of this Unit are divided into two action fields: prevention and reaction (response).


Prevention strategies encompass a number of components:

  • Mass-media collaborations
    Members of our Unit have taken part in different radio and TV programs and have also collaborated in writing some press releases.
  • Legal-system collaborations

    We have taken part, from a police perspective, in the “Research about the Juridical Implications of the Psychological Manipulation Groups phenomenon.” Because it is a useful juridical guide, this research is very important to the continuous education of judges and the development of police tasks. We are participating in the Catalan governmental “Commission of study and analysis of the situation of ‘sects’ in Catalonia.” This Commission is an assessment and advising organ to the Catalan government in this matter.

  • Conferences

    We have given some talks to high-school students and to neighbourhood councils. The objective of these talks is to share with the population, in the most objective way and without criminalizing any group, the indicators and potential risks associated with those groups that are using techniques of mind control.

  • Education, training, and information

    Because of the complexity of this phenomenon, knowing the different perspectives of analysis—juridical, theological, psychological, sociological and anthropological—is very important. In this sense, we establish contacts with specialists in this matter and attend specific conferences and training courses.

    Regarding the “information task,” we have various sources of information. On one side, we have the information obtained from the citizens and from our attendance to different events or public meetings; on the other, we have the information obtained from newspapers, magazines, books, TV, and radio programs. There is also collaboration and cooperation among the various police units and organizations in Spain.

  • Citizens’ assistance

    Our unit receives quite a few telephone calls asking for advice on the matter. We try to obtain information about the dynamics of the group and determine whether it is conducting illegal practices or not. We also interview citizens who have faced any type of problematic situation with any group. If this trouble is typified as a crime or offence in our Penal Code, we invite the individual to make an official complaint.

    Reaction (Response)

    Reaction tasks are less diversified, focussing primarily on the investigative process:

  • Investigations

    The members of our unit give support and advice to the operative groups that are in charge of the investigation.

    The primary difficulties in the investigation process are the following:

    • The inherent difficulty in proving psychological manipulation (the means to alter or control the personality) because of the heterogeneous character of the groups and the varied techniques used by these groups.
    • Lack of specific knowledge about this matter in key institutional actors (Judges, the Public prosecutors, lawyers...).
    • The difficulty in attaining enough critical members of the same group to establish patterns of group dynamics and processes. Generally, the witnesses are relatives or friends of the victim, but getting direct witnesses is difficult.
    • With regard to the psychological injury crimes, the difficulty in establishing the causal relationship between group practices and psychological damage.
    • The difficulty of carrying out long-term investigations in groups that are, in general, hermetic.


    Spanish legal regulations are enough to combat the illegal practices of some groups that use techniques of psychological manipulation.

    Multidisciplinary work and investigation is necessary to improve valid and reliable instruments that demonstrate the relationship between the wide range of manipulation techniques used by some groups and the psychological damage or abuse that results from the respective techniques. Within the Spanish legal framework, freedom of religion and religious beliefs is assured, as well as the person’s dignity, moral integrity, and free development of the personality. Thus, public freedom of ideology and religion must coexist with the individual’s fundamental rights. We apply a transversal perspective to this phenomenon, sometimes linked to spiritual groups and sometimes not. In that sense, we analyze in what level these coercive persuasion techniques take part in other phenomena like “Suicide terrorism” and/or “Street Gang violence”.

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