Does Spanish paramilitar have a different meaning than English paramilitary, or at least stronger negative connotations? This question has recently become the focus of reaction to a New Yorker article by Jon Lee Anderson, "The increasingly tense standoff over Catalonia's independence referendum", 10/4/2017.
The first paragraph of Anderson's article (emphasis added):
Voting rights have been under siege in the U.S. in recent years, with charges of attempted electoral interference, legislation that seeks to make access to the polls more difficult, and gerrymandering, in a case that reached the Supreme Court this week. But no citizens here or in any democracy expect that they may be attacked by the police if they try to vote. Yet that is what happened on Sunday in the Spanish region of Catalonia, where thousands of members of the Guardia Civil paramilitary force, and riot police, were deployed by the central government in Madrid to prevent the Catalans from holding an “illegal” referendum on independence from Spain.
In El País, Antonio Muñoz Molina accused Anderson of lying ("En Francoland: En Europa o América, les gusta tanto el pintoresquismo de nuestro atraso que se ofenden si les explicamos todo lo que hemos cambiado"):
Pocas cosas pueden dar más felicidad a un corresponsal extranjero en España que la oportunidad de confirmar con casi cualquier pretexto nuestro exotismo y nuestra barbarie. Hasta el reputado Jon Lee Anderson, que vive o ha vivido entre nosotros, miente a conciencia, sin ningún escrúpulo, sabiendo que miente, con perfecta deliberación, sabiendo cuál será el efecto de su mentira, cuando escribe en The New Yorker que la Guardia Civil es un cuerpo “paramilitar”.
("In Francoland: Both Europe and the US love what they see as Spain’s quaint backwardness so much that they feel insulted when we explain to them how much we have changed"):
Few things make a foreign correspondent in Spain happier than the opportunity to corroborate our exoticism and our brutality. Even the renowned Jon Lee Anderson, who lives or has lived among us, is deliberately lying, with no qualms he is aware that he is lying and aware of the effect his lies will have, when he writes in The New Yorker that the Civil Guard is a “paramilitary” force. [translation from the El País web site]
This has resulted in an energetic discussion on Twitter (Twitzkrieg?), in which Anderson's position is that many English-language sources call the Guardia Civil "a paramilitary police force" or something similar, e.g.
and that Antonio Muñoz Molina is using a meaning difference between English and Spanish in a disingenuous way, e.g.
Before looking into it, my understanding of the English word paramilitary aligned with Anderson's, namely that it means "organized along military lines", whether in reference to governmental organizations that are not part of the military, or to civilian militia-like entities. It's easy to find examples in English where paramilitary is applied to non-military governmental organizations, e.g. these examples from Google Books:
Correctional officers (C.O.s) were organized in accordance with a rigid paramilitary chain of command.
There is an obvious need to change the bureaucratic paramilitary structure of police organizations, so prevalent in the majority of police organizations around the world.
But on looking into it, I found that things are more complex. I was surprised to find that the OED's only relevant gloss would specifically NOT apply to a police organization like Spain's Guardia Civil:
Designating, of, or relating to a force or unit whose function and organization are analogous or ancillary to those of a professional military force, but which is not regarded as having professional or legitimate status.
The OED's earliest citation is from 1935, but seems to originate in the 1934 "Reply of the United Kingdom Government" at a League of Nations "Conference for the Reduction and Limitation of Armaments". The OED citation is the first sentence of the following:
A difficult problem has been raised in regard to the so-called " paramilitary training" — i.e., the military training outside the army of men of military age. His Majesty's Government suggested that such training outside the army should be prohibited, this prohibition being checked by a system of permanent and automatic supervision, in which the supervising organisation should be guided less by a strict definition of the term " military training" than by the military knowledge and experience of its experts. They are particularly glad to be informed that the German Government have freely promised to provide proof, through the medium of control, that the S.A. and the S.S. are not of a military character, and have added that similar proof will be furnished in respect of the Labour Corps. It is essential to a settlement that any doubts and suspicions in regard to these matters should be set and kept
The earliest use of the term in the New York Times is in a report about the same discussions —
"Simon to the Commons", 4/9/1935: (Following is the text of the account given to the House of Commons today by Foreign Secretary Sir John Simon of conversations recently held by him and Anthony Eden, Lord Privy Seal, with leading officials in Berlin, Moscow, Prague and Warsaw)
Regarding land armaments, Herr Hitler stated that Germany required thirty-six divisions, representing a maximum of 550,000 soldiers of all arms, including a division of Schutzstaffel and militarized police troops. He asserted that there were no paramilitary formations in Germany.
The next example has the same negative connotations and the same association with fascist groups — "France suspects Klan counterpart", NYT 11/17/1937:
The question or whether a French counterpart to the Ku Klux Klan really exists was again raised today through the arrest of a wealthy Lille contractor, Rene Anceaux, M. Vosselm, one of his employes, and Gerard de ia Motte-Saint Pierre on charges which remain unspecified, but are in the case of M. Anceaux plotting against the security of the State and for the others possessing weapons of war and "association with wrongdoers." […]
M. Anceaux served as an officer during the World War and was wounded. He was the president of the Lille branch of the dissolved Rightist "Paramilitary League."
The 1939 New Jersey statutes contain a law using the term in a similar way:
Any 2 or more persons who assemble as a paramilitary organization for the purpose of practicing with weapons are disorderly persons.
As used in this act, “paramilitary organization” means an organization which is not an agency of the United States Government or of the State of New Jersey, or which is not a private school […]
So in English as well as in Spanish (and French and presumably other languages), the term paramilitary and its cognates seem to have originated in the 1930s in reference to fascist groups "whose function and organization are analogous or ancillary to those of a professional military force, but which [are] not regarded as having professional or legitimate status", as the OED put it.
At some point, the "not regarded as having professional or legitimate status" clause seems to have faded away — though perhaps without being totally lost, since the term continues to be used to refer to non-governmental as well as governmental but non-military organizations. Thus "Charlottesville Joins Suit Against Paramilitary Groups Connected to August 12", NBC News 10/12/2017:
Charlottesville is joining a suit to prevent what it calls unauthorized paramilitary groups from returning to the city.
Georgetown Law Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection filed a complain Thursday, October 12, asking Charlottesville Circuit Court to, "prohibit key Unite the Right organizers and an array of participating private paramilitary groups and their commanders from coming back to Virginia to conduct illegal paramilitary activity."
And my impression is that when someone uses the word "paramilitary" in connection with police forces, their attitude is often a critical one. Thus "Paramilitary police: Cops or soldiers?", The Economist 3/20/2014, begins with the subhed "America's police have become too militarised", and notes that
Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) teams (ie, paramilitary police units) were first formed to deal with violent civil unrest and life-threatening situations: shoot-outs, rescuing hostages, serving high-risk warrants and entering barricaded buildings, for instance. Their mission has crept. […]
Kara Dansky of the American Civil Liberties Union, who is overseeing a study into police militarisation, notices a more martial tone in recent years in the materials used to recruit and train new police officers. A recruiting video in Newport Beach, California, for instance, shows officers loading assault rifles, firing weapons, chasing suspects, putting people in headlocks and releasing snarling dogs.
This is no doubt sexier than showing them poring over paperwork or attending a neighbourhood-watch meeting. But does it attract the right sort of recruit, or foster the right attitude among serving officers? Mr Balko cites the T-shirts that some off-duty cops wear as evidence of a culture that celebrates violence (“We get up early to beat the crowds”; “You huff and you puff and we’ll blow your door down”).
Anyhow, there can be little question that Spain's Guardia Civil is a "paramilitary police force" in the current English-language sense of the word.
And it's not clear to me that the current Spanish usage is actually different. Thus the Real Academia's Diccionario de la lengua española defines paramilitar as
1. adj. Dicho de una organización civil: Dotada de estructura o disciplina de tipo militar.
without any stipulation of illegitimacy. And since the same dictionary defines civil in the relevant sense as "Que no es militar ni eclesiástico o religioso", and since the Guardia Civil is self-defined as "civil", it seems that paramilitar ought to apply to that organization without any untruthful intent or effect.
[h/t David Lobina]