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The origins of the current Ertzaintza, as a police force pertaining to the Basque Country, can be traced back to the old municipal militias, which were popular organizations at the service of local bodies, created to satisfy the need for public safety. But it was not until the 19th century when, setting aside the precedent willingness, the almost permanent police corps of a professional nature are created. It was a response to the banditry determined by the continuous social and political convulsions happening from the end of the 18th century and well into the 19th stirred banditry. The decisive argument for its configuration was the First Carlist War, when the "Miqueletes" of Biscay and Guipuzcoa and the "Miņones" of Alava commenced their activities.
Once the urgencies of the war were overcome, the Spanish Government attempted to recover the functions carried out by these regional forces and transfer the same to the Civil Guard, created in 1844. Nevertheless, the difficulty encountered when recruiting forces for this corps in the Basque provinces, added to the pressure posed by the Regional Governments, enabled the regional forces to carry on with their task. After the end of the Second Carlist War (1876), the Spanish government wanted to curtail the regional autonomy. The Basque police forces had to adapt to the new situation of centralism, materialised into an important reduction of competences and personnel.
When the Second Spanish Republic was proclaimed in 1931, political activity surged and so does the Basque claim to re-establish regional liberties that had been abolished in 1876. Thus, various projects for the Autonomy Statute were promoted, all of which vindicated developing competences in public security issues.
The 1st of October, 1936, already in the Spanish Civil War, the Basque Statute of Autonomy come into force, leading to the establishment of an autonomous government with actual authority on Biscay and Guipuzcoa. Reestablishing public order was one of the priorities of the new government.
The Basque minister for the Interior Telesforo Monzón set up several institutions, such as the International Police Force, the Maritime Police and the public Order Body. The main effort was the creation of a police force named Ertzaņa (a Basque neologism for "People care"), with on foot and motorised corps (Igiletua), totalling joint forces of around 1,500 agents. Its headquarters were in Bilbao, at the Ibaigane Palace (currently the see of Athletic Bilbao).
When the war in the Basque front concluded, the Ertzaņa was dissolved de facto, albeit such a measure is not reflected on any of the legal norms at the time, since the Franco regime pretended that this institution had never existed. Biscay and Guipuzcoa were considered "traitor provinces" and most of its autonomy cancelled. However, Alava and Navarre had been part of the Franco side since the beginning and its Miņones and Miqueletes continued on duty, with competences in traffic regulation and custody of the regional institutions.
After the Spanish transition to democracy , the autonomous Basque Government was restored. Its Home Office took up, once more, the spirit of the Ertzaņa of 1936 to design, in 1980, the new autonomous police force of the Basque Country, the Ertzaintza (a more grammatical form). Previously, a Royal Decree re-established the "Forales" and the "Miqueletes" in Biscay and Guipuzcoa and gave a new configuration to the "Miņones" corps in Alava. These institutions were incorporated into the new Basque Police Force. Since Navarre had refused to integrate in the Basque region, its police force remains independent.
The first promotions were enthusiast members of the Basque Nationalist Party. The law required that Ertzaintza officials had to be previous members of the Spanish army or the State police forces. However, this wasn't always respected. This new and young police force, made up by Basque citizens, develops in an organized manner as from 1982, and were progressively deployed starting from the countryside towards the capitals. During the coexistence, the Basque Country had one of the highest ratios of police agents to population. Ertzaintza has taken the range of roles of the National Police and the Civil Guard. As of 2004, up to seventeen promotions of agents, have graduated from the Police Academy of the Basque Country, in Arkaute (Alava).
The Ertzaintza is currently an full-range police force, but for border watch. The state polices have decreased their numbers in the Basque Country. Counter-terrorism is a shared competence among the polices. This has occasionally led to clashes and even shootings out of confusion.
Currently, the Ertzaintza counts on a staff of 7,500 agents, framed within four divisions, each of them specialized in a series of specific police tasks, and supported by the corresponding complementary services.
Ertzaintza is not accepted by leftist Basque nationalists, who deride it as zipaioak, ("Sepoys", an indigenous force serving the colonial power). As Ertzaintza took a more relevant role in the fight against ETA, it has become a target of terrorism. It was infiltrated by ETA members. In the areas where support for ETA is higher, ertzainas prefer to reside elsewhere and commute to work.
The Spanish governments have had contentions about Ertzaintza. Spanish parties have often accused the Basque Home Office (always held by the Basque Nationalist Party) of being soft on the fight against ETA and its supporting party Batasuna. Ertzaintza is not allowed to access the Interpol intelligence network.
Hertzainak ("Policemen") was a Basque-language pop group.
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