By Isla Binnie
BARCELONA (Reuters) - Masked protesters cheer and wave cars through open toll road barriers in a small town south of Barcelona, flying a banner that reads "Welcome to the Catalan Republic".
Stunts of this kind have been carried out in the wealthy Spanish region by local groups calling themselves Committees for the Defence of the Republic (CDRs), as a political campaign to split from Spain has struggled under seven months of direct rule by the central government.
Madrid fired the regional government last October after it declared an independent republic and called an election in December hoping to stifle the secessionists. But this strategy backfired when voters returned a slim majority for pro-independence parties.
In a step towards breaking the deadlock, the regional parliament on Monday elected a new leader, hardline separatist Quim Torra, who was handpicked by exiled former Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont.
Torra has offered dialogue with Madrid but also warned he will take fresh steps towards independence, stirring uncertainty in a region that provides one fifth of Spain's economic output.
The same ambivalence applies among the roughly 300 CDRs.
Loosely organized, largely disconnected from political parties and employing sometimes divergent tactics, their spread highlights how a judicial crackdown emanating from Madrid has paralyzed the independence drive but also made it more unpredictable - and at times more radical.
Founded to help organize Catalonia's banned independence referendum on Oct. 1, 2017, and to hide thousands of ballot boxes from the Spanish authorities, the groups insist they are and will remain peaceful.
But the evolution of the movement has caused jitters in Madrid and analysts say it could take Spain's worst political crisis in decades further into uncharted waters.
"They think they have cut off our heads, but the people are still here," said 62 year-old retired bank manager Joan at a meeting of a Barcelona suburb's local CDR. "We are keeping the flame alive."
Despite discussing low-key initiatives such as giving information pamphlets about secession to tourists and joining a run to Madrid to show solidarity with independence leaders who have been jailed, all 26 people present refused to give their surnames and asked Reuters not to identify the suburb.
They cited the arrest of a young woman in nearby Viladecans on charges of terrorism relating to CDR protests in early April.
A Civil Guard military police spokesman declined to comment on whether there were other investigations open, saying the April arrest was "a police action based on suspected crimes".
The woman was later granted conditional release by a judge who softened the charge to one of public disorder.
Street-level mobilization of independence supporters was once the domain of highly-organized civil groups Omnium and the Catalan National Assembly (ANC), but their leaders were the first to be jailed over their role in organizing protests.
"There used to be visible leadership and the road map of the independence movement was clearer," said Lluis Orriols, a political science lecturer at Madrid's Carlos III University.
"This space is now occupied by the CDRs, which are much more decentralized organizations," Orriols said.
Politicians in Madrid, including members of the ruling People's Party (PP) and the opposition Socialists, have compared CDR activity to that of the violent Basque separatist group ETA, a parallel the groups roundly reject.
The issue has split Barcelona town hall, where the governing party of mayor Ada Colau and pro-independence parties demanded the public prosecutor withdraw all charges against CDR members.
At the CDR meeting, 29-year-old psychologist Maria said the goal was to resist in a subtle way, but that the disruptive stunts drew attention to the cause.
"We are very peaceful but if you don't make noise, nobody will listen to you," she said.
(Editing by Julien Toyer and Gareth Jones)