Mexico City, January 12, 2017--Mexican police should quickly and credibly investigate reports that police threatened and attacked journalists covering protests last week and should swiftly bring to justice officers found to have assaulted reporters, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.
State, municipal, and federal police harassed and assaulted journalists covering officers' forcible dispersal of protests against rising fuel prices in the northern Mexican states of Coahuila and Baja California from January 5 to 7, several journalists told CPJ.
"The Mexican government must ensure that journalists are able to cover protests and other events of significant public interest without fear of being beaten or harassed by police," CPJ Americas Program Coordinator Carlos Lauría said from Washington. "Authorities should investigate the attacks against reporters and bring those responsible to justice."
Mexican journalists told CPJ that they saw police assault at least five journalists at a protest in Coahuila on January 5, and that police beat, threatened, or briefly detained at least 11 reporters in Baja California. The press freedom group Article 19 reported that police assaulted at least eight reporters in Coahuila and at least 12 journalists in Baja California. At least two reporters in Baja California told CPJ they had sustained lasting physical injuries.
On the morning of January 5, a group of protesters organized a sit-in on one of the main boulevards of the city of Monclova, in Coahuila state, to protest a steep hike in gasoline prices announced by the federal government on January 1. The protesters blocked access to a storage facility of Petroleos Mexicanos (Pemex), the state-run oil company. Several hundred state police and members of the Group of Special Weapons Tactics of Monclova (GATEM), an elite police force, were ordered to remove the protesters, according to media reports.
"They were very aggressive," Norma Morín, a reporter for the local newspaper La Voz de Monclova, told CPJ. She was covering the demonstration when protesters resisted police attempts to disperse them. "They attacked both the protesters and the reporters who were there. I saw how at least four of my colleagues were injured."
Morín herself was injured. She told CPJ that policemen tried to take her camera and her mobile phone while she was broadcasting the events via Facebook Live. When she refused to hand over her equipment, officers handcuffed her, injuring her right shoulder. She was detained only briefly, but told CPJ she was unable to return to work because of her injured shoulder.
Morín said that state police attacked at least four other journalists. At least one of them, Erika González of local newspaper El Tiempo de Monclova, is also temporarily unable to return to work after she was beaten, Morín and Article 19 said. Police also briefly detained El Tiempo de Monclava reporter Guadalupe Pérez, and Ramón Garza, a reporter for the newspaper El Zócalo. CPJ was unable to reach Garza or Pérez.
Morín also said that, although not all reporters carried press identification at the time police cleared the protest, the reporters clearly told police that they were journalists, but were attacked nonetheless.
"A representative of the state attorney general's office took our statement afterwards, but with a very dismissive attitude," Morín told CPJ. "He basically placed the blame on us for being attacked by saying we should have worn press jackets to be more easily identified as reporters."
The office of Coahuila's attorney general, the state Public Security Secretariat (which oversees state police), the state Human Rights Commission, and Monclova municipal authorities did not respond to CPJ's repeated requests for comment.
Clashes between protesters and police similar to those in Coahuila took place two days later, in the beachside town of Rosarito, just south of Tijuana in the state of Baja California. At roughly 10:00 a.m. on January 7, several hundred federal, state, and municipal policemen in riot gear began trying to disperse a group of approximately 300 protesters blocking access to a Pemex facility, according to media reports.
Reporters present at the event told CPJ that, as in Coahuila, law enforcement officials moved aggressively against protesters and journalists alike.
"The atmosphere was very tense from the beginning," Hans-Máximo Musielik, a German freelance photojournalist, told CPJ. "There were at least three attempts to dislodge the protesters, starting in the morning and lasting until the evening. During the last attempt, policemen tried to block me from filming them arresting a protester they had pushed to the ground."
Musielik said a policeman pushed him and told him not to film, but that he suffered no further physical violence. He showed CPJ a video of the incident, in which at least one officer he identified as belonging to the state police force can be seen threatening to hit another reporter.
Earlier that day, federal, state, and municipal policemen beat, threatened, or briefly detained 11 other reporters, according to journalists interviewed by CPJ.
Among the victims were Laura Sánchez Ley and Luis Alonso Pérez, a married couple who are correspondents in Tijuana for national newspaper El Universal and news website Animal Político respectively, as well as photographer Jesús Bustamante of the local Frontera newspaper and Jordi Lebrija, a freelance video journalist who contributes to The Associated Press and the U.S. Spanish-language broadcaster Telemundo.
Lebrija told CPJ that police threatened him in the morning, and that a state police officer punched him in the stomach as they made a second attempt to disperse the protesters. Lebrija showed CPJ a photo of the bruises on his torso.
The injuries Sánchez and Alonso sustained were more serious. At around noon on January 7, federal police attacked the couple as they attempted to film a protester being detained. Two policemen beat Sánchez, who suffered head injuries, while at least eight others pushed her husband to the ground, kicking and beating him, El Universal reported. Sánchez told CPJ that her husband suffered a cracked rib and a dislocated vertebra, and is currently hospitalized. She said that she suffered head trauma and that doctors told her that she needs further medical examination.
Sánchez also said that she saw police spray pepper spray directly in Bustamante's eyes. CPJ was unable to reach Bustamante directly.
All the journalists CPJ interviewed said that reporters at the protests clearly identified themselves as journalists.
CPJ was unable to reach the federal police or Rosarito municipal authorities for comment, but Adrián García Estrada, a spokesman for the state Public Security Secretariat, which oversees the state police, yesterday told CPJ that a state trooper suspected of spraying pepper spray in the eyes of Jesús Bustamante is currently under internal investigation.
"If there was unwarranted use of force, the officer will be suspended," Garcia Estrada said. "We have not received any further complaints concerning state policemen, however."