UPDATED: This safety advisory was updated on February 15, 2019.
In October 2018, thousands of migrants travelled as part of a caravan that departed San Pedro Sula in Honduras for the U.S. As the caravan attempted to cross Mexico, the risk increased for any journalists accompanying it.
Based on previous caravans, numbers may dwindle and individuals may take different routes to get to the U.S. However, migrants can be vulnerable to criminals and cartels–who kidnap, extort, and force vulnerable groups into prostitution and illegal activities–as well as law enforcement and migration officials. Human traffickers known as “Coyotes” are likely to be in close proximity to the caravan. The risk of physical violence and rape is high for migrants. Journalists accompanying them, particularly the local press, are potentially also exposed.
Journalists who have covered the migrant caravan and continue to cover border issues are being targeted by police and immigration officials in the United States and Mexico, according to a February 8 report by The Intercept. Photographers are particularly at risk, and many have had their passports and travel documents photographed while working on the Mexican side of the U.S.-Mexico border, The Intercept reported. Photographers have also told CPJ that they were photographed by officials while working near the border.
In addition to general harassment at the border, CPJ has documented cases of journalists being taken for secondary, and in many cases, invasive screening by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) at immigration checkpoints in the U.S. and other countries. Journalists who have reported on the migrant caravan have been refused entry back into Mexico. The Tijuana and San Diego border crossings have been particularly difficult for journalists.
CPJ has documented cases of journalists being asked to hand over their devices to CBP; some have had their notebooks searched. CBP has questioned journalists about the mood among migrants participating in the caravan, and what American activists are doing to assist them. Journalists have been shown photos of activists who work on border issues by U.S. authorities and asked to identify individuals they know, or have been asked to identify “leaders” of the caravan.
Journalists who plan on following a migratory route should research the groups controlling the route and conduct risk assessments accordingly.
The Zetas criminal network is one of the most active in terms of targeting migrants and represents a significant threat to anyone operating in areas under its control. Cartel control can be fluid and areas that are contested by different groups will be particularly prone to violence. As a general indicator of cartel areas of dominance, journalists should consult this BBC map or InsightCrime, which provides updates about organized crime in Mexico and Latin America.
Journalists could also be impacted by migration police and authorities involved in Mexico’s Southern Border plan to restrict migration. Numerous checkpoints along major routes have been set up and journalists are likely to be stopped and identification requested. Migrants are vulnerable to corruption from local law enforcement, according to reports. Journalists could also be at risk from corrupt officials.
Journalists should be aware of the potential for clashes.Journalists should weigh the benefit of bringing personal protective equipment, which can be bulky to transport. Journalists without protective equipment who are covering civil disorder should carefully consider their positioning. For more information about covering protests, consult CPJ’s guides.
Mexican authorities have attempted to prevent migrants from using a freight train known as La Bestia. Mexican police have strictly enforced a ban on climbing on trains, and there is increased police presence near railway stations or where trains traditionally slow down, according to reports. Any journalist attempting to ride a train should be aware that this is a high risk activity with the potential of injury or even death. Riding the train for long periods increases the risk of being preyed on by criminals who target migrants. In recent years, freight trains have derailed in areas where mudslides are common, resulting in injuries and a number of deaths.
An increasing number of journalists have been asked by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and Mexican customs officials to hand over their devices for inspection. According to The Intercept, some Mexican officials have told journalists that their detentions and device confiscation is being done on behalf of the American government, or Interpol.
CBP officials can search electronic devices without warrant, and question journalists about past and current work. Several journalists told CPJ that border agents took their devices out of sight for extended periods of time. For more information on the risks journalists face at border stops, please consult CPJ’s report on border stops.
When reporting, and knowing you have to cross a border, consider bringing electronic and digital devices that are used only for travel. These devices should not hold information that could put you or your sources at risk. If your device is taken away from you at the border you should be aware that information could have been copied from the device or malware put onto it. As best practice, journalists should regularly remove content from devices and store this information elsewhere, either on an external hard drive or in the cloud.
Phone signal will be patchy in certain areas. Journalists should consider having a portable Wi-Fi router.
A number of U.S. journalists covering the caravan have reported receiving online harassment over their coverage, particularly on Twitter or via email. Information on digital security can be found in the Technology Security chapter of CPJ’s Journalist Security Guide, and in a list of digital security resources in our Resource Center.
Logistical and environmental challenges to consider
ATM machines are scarce in rural Mexico, and journalists should ensure that they have an adequate supply of money in small denominations.
Journalists traveling with the migrants should ensure they have the correct vaccinations and a first aid or medical kit. Water purification tablets or a clean supply of water should be sourced and journalists should carry anti-diarrhea medication and mosquito repellent.
Driving and accommodation
Driving standards are low and road traffic accidents are common in southern Mexico. Driving at night is more dangerous. It is difficult to find taxis or drivers and vehicles are poorly maintained and frequently do not have seatbelts. Where possible, journalists should organize vehicles in advance. Many migrants are jumping on trucks, but that increases the risk of injury.
Journalists should book hotels in advance as rooms are limited. Where possible, they should look for reputable hotel chains, rather than small independent accommodation that could be targeted by criminals.
Journalists traveling in a private vehicle should be aware that it can take a long time for road breakdown support to arrive in rural Mexico. Ambulances also take significantly longer to arrive at the location of an accident.
Journalists requiring assistance can contact CPJ via [email protected]. Please also contact CPJ’s North America team with any information about border stops or issues you have encountered at the border.
CPJ’s Journalist Security Guide has additional information on basic preparedness and assessing and responding to risk. CPJ’s resource center has additional information and tools for pre-assignment preparation and post-incident assistance.