Ousted Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont, center, stands with elected Catalan lawmakers of his Together for Catalonia party at a park in Brussels on Friday, Jan. 12, 2018. (AP Photo/Virginia Mayo) Image Credit: AP

Easter is the second-biggest holiday break on the Spanish calendar, one when families make long road trips across the Iberian Peninsula to get together with family and friends. And part of any road trip on the continent are the cost of tolls, handed over at booths every 70 to 100 kilometres or so to pay for the cost of maintaining the European motorway network.

But motorists travelling through north eastern Spain on Monday didn’t have to pay any. It wasn’t as if suddenly the toll operators were in a generous mood, or that the Spanish government in Madrid had suddenly lavished a largesse on drivers. No, something far more sinister and dangerous was at work.

Groups calling themselves the Committees for the Defence of the Republic (CDR) simply donned bright reflective vests, put masks and hoods over their faces, and proceeded to take over the toll booths. Two toll-road operators in Catalonia have confirmed for at least three hours on Easter Monday — one of the busiest days on the roads for family travel across Europe — people covered up security cameras, dismantled toll barriers and allowed drivers to pass for free.

No estimate has been given on the economic cost of the CDRs’ protest over the jailing of Catalonian independence leaders both in Spain and now in Germany. The political cost of the protests is also unknown by the illegal and subversive action that undermined the authority of the national Spanish government in Madrid, but the CDRs will exact a heavy toll unless they are dealt with.

Over the Easter weekend, Carles Puigdemont, the former president of the Catalan regional assembly and leader of the movement that declared the region around Barcelona to be independent from Spain in late October, was cooling his jets in a German detention centre in Neumuenster, following his arrest on March 25.

Puigdemont had been trailed for days by at least a dozen members of Spain’s secret service, the Centre for National Intelligence (CNI). Although Puigdemont is supposed to have taken steps to prevent electronic trailing by removing the battery and SIM card from his mobile phone, one of his colleagues who accompanied him on a road trip from Waterloo, near Brussels, where the Catalan leader had set up a base in exile, to a speaking engagement in Helsinki, hadn’t been so judicious. The CNI officers followed Puigdemont’s car using both that mobile phone and they had also reportedly placed a GPS tracker on the separatists’ vehicle.

Spain has initially issued an international arrest warrant against Puigdemont when he fled to Belgium after the declaration of independence for Catalonia — an act that Madrid viewed as seditious and illegal, with Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s government then invoking Article 155 of the Spanish constitution, suspending the Catalan regional assembly and calling for new elections on December 21, last year.

That international arrest warrant was then suspended allowing for the election and political dialogue to take place. In a severe setback to Rajoy, the Catalan separatists won those elections and insisted on putting Puigdemont’s name forward again to be the regional president once more. Rajoy and Madrid are having none of that, and the arrest warrant was re-activated by the top court in Spain. With that back in place, the CNI could tip off German police with the exact location of Puigdemont when the vehicle stopped for petrol. (Two off-duty police officers from the Catalan police force, the Mossos d’Esquadra, were also in the vehicle, making for an uncomfortable conundrum that needs to be resolved by Spanish police authorities too.)

For extradition between nations to take place, charges in one nation must generally be the same as another — a murder charge in Italy is the same as a murder charge in the Netherlands — and is called the principle of legal reciprocity. Sentences too must generally align.

Spain wants Puigdemont back to face charges of rebellion, sedition and expropriation of public funds — the latter refers to his government’s use of tax revenues to pay for the October 1 referendum, a vote that was declared illegal well in advance by both Spain’s Constitutional Court and the High Court in Catalonia.

Germany has no charges of rebellion or sedition — and its nearest similar charge is one of treason which usually applies to those involved in espionage, not popular politics.

If there is a weakness in Puigdemont’s efforts to fight extradition, it is on the third charge, that of the misuse of public funds, and reciprocity applies in Germany. What’s interesting though is that in court last Tuesday, German state prosecutors indicated that the Catalan leader might have a case to extradition case to answer on the charge of sedition because there was a likelihood of violence inherent in staging an illegal anti-constitutional referendum.

There will be a smile on the faces of some CNI officers now, not least because they were thwarted by the separatists in the hours before that referendum when the Catalans managed to smuggle ballot boxes and ballot papers into polling places despite the best efforts of the intelligence officers. If there’s a moral to the story, it’s not to outsmart intelligence operatives.

But back to those hooded men in high-visibility vests — the CDRs — who took over the toll booths.

Worryingly for Rajoy’s government, there are reportedly some 300 such groups now operating across Catalonia. According to Spanish media, the CDRs are behind a threat issued against Supreme Court Judge Pablo Llarena, the man in charge of investigating the events surrounding the illegal referendum and subsequent declaration of Catalonian independence, and are behind the intimidation of officials who worked to impose Madrid’s imposition of direct rule under Article 155.

Mostly from the far-Left, the CDRs’ activities are one of the main reasons why Madrid has stepped up security on all judges and politicians in recent months. Even Jose Luiz Zapatero, a former two-term socialist prime minister of Spain who was not unfriendly to Catalonia but has been out of the public eye since his resignation in December 2011, has had his security detail enhanced on his new holiday home in Famara on the Canary Island of Lanzarote.

The CDRs include students, workers and retirees in its ranks and demand the release of Puigdemont and all other jailed separatists. It is these groups now that Rajoy must face down — and quickly — lest sedition take a firmer root within his nation’s border.