A state police truck patrols in Coatzacoalcos, Veracruz state, Mexico, on August 30, 2019. Mexican police attacked reporters during a protest in Ciudad Isla, Veracruz, on February 11, 2020. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)
A state police truck patrols in Coatzacoalcos, Veracruz state, Mexico, on August 30, 2019. Mexican police attacked reporters during a protest in Ciudad Isla, Veracruz, on February 11, 2020. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)

Mexican police attack reporters during protest in Veracruz

Mexico City, February 14, 2020 – Mexican authorities must immediately and transparently investigate attacks by police on reporters covering a protest in Ciudad Isla, Veracruz state, on February 11, and guarantee the journalists’ safety, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.

According to news reports and journalists CPJ spoke with on February 12 and 13, members of the Fuerza Civil, a Veracruz state police force, hurled death threats at Julia Santín and Brígido López, founders and reporters of news website Los Llanos del Sotaviento, as well as Edna López of news website A Título Personal.

Policemen also subjected Alberto Carmona, a reporter for daily newspaper El Piñero de la Cuenca, to beatings, while Sergio Herrera of Radio Mezkla 104.7 FM and news website Valor Noticias and César Estrada of daily newspaper Noreste were briefly detained, according to the journalists and news reports.

“The use of disproportionate and indiscriminate force by police against reporters covering protests in Veracruz is unacceptable if Mexico wants to guarantee freedom of the press,” said Jan-Albert Hootsen, CPJ’s Mexico representative. “Both federal and Veracruz state authorities must ensure that reporters can do their job without fear of falling victim to violence.”

According to the reporters CPJ spoke with, the events occurred shortly after a group of several dozen protesters gathered outside a Federal Police compound near Ciudad Isla, where a local contingent of the Fuerza Civil is also stationed. The protesters demanded answers from the Fuerza Civil to accusations that members of the police force were involved in the recent sexual abuse of a local youth, as well as the alleged forced disappearance of a local youth, the reporters said.

The reporters told CPJ that although the commanding officer of the Federal Police at the compound attempted to establish a dialogue between the protesters and the Fuerza Civil, members of the latter group opened fire at the crowd after several people attempted to enter the compound, after which panic ensued and the crowd dispersed.

The attacks on the reporters occurred at approximately 4:00 pm, shortly after Fuerza Civil members opened fire with live ammunition on the crowd, according to the news reports and the journalists CPJ spoke with.

“The attacks started when a patrol car of the Fuerza Civil arrived. The policemen first fired into the air, but later opened fire on the crowd,” Brígido López, of Los Llanos del Sotaviento, told CPJ. “We started running. One policeman caught up with me and kicked me in the legs.”

Carmona, of El Piñero de la Cuenca, told CPJ that he was threatened and beaten by police officers after he tried to flee when the gunfire broke out. “An elderly gentleman opened the door to his home when we were running and allowed us to hide in his home,” he said. “But Fuerza Civil policemen were scouring the area for protesters, and kicked in the door of the residence. I was kicked to the ground and handcuffed. They later dragged me outside and covered my face with my t-shirt so I couldn’t see the bodies of protesters who were hit by gunfire.”

“Outside, a few meters from the house I was hiding in, they pushed me to my knees and started beating me,” he said, adding. “They said they were going to kill me.”

According to the reporters CPJ spoke with, all journalists present at the protest clearly identified themselves as members of the press. “I was wearing a jacket with the word ‘Prensa’ on it and had my credentials with me,” Edna López of A Título Personal told CPJ. “There was no way they could have mistaken us for protesters.”

López told CPJ a Fuerza Civil policeman held a gun to her head and threatened her, while she was documenting the protest and the violence in a live broadcast on Facebook.

During the attacks, several reporters, including Alberto Carmona, managed to reach the Veracruz State Commission for Attention to and Protection of Journalists (CEAPP), an autonomous state government agency, by telephone. After a lawyer of the CEAPP arrived at the scene, the Fuerza Civil released Carmona. Another journalist, César Estrada of newspaper Noreste, who CPJ was unable to locate, was released several hours later.

Israel Hernández, an official of the CEAPP, told CPJ on February 14 that his institution is providing legal support to the journalists. Both Hernández and the reporters confirmed that the reporters will likely report the events next week to the office of the Federal Special Prosecutor for Attention to Crimes Committed against Freedom of Expression (FEADLE), which operates under the auspices of the federal Attorney General’s office.

In an initial response to the events to news website AVC Noticias, Veracruz state Secretary of Government Eric Cisneros accused the reporters, who have all covered events in the region for years, of having been “recruited” by the crowd to document the protest.

Conversely, Hugo Gutiérrez Maldonado, the Veracruz state secretary of public security, released a short video statement published on his Twitter account on February 13 in which he acknowledged the events and the attacks on the reporters. He added that state authorities are investigating the Fuerza Civil to determine which members of the police force were involved in the attacks.

No one picked up phone calls made by CPJ on February 12 and 13 to reach a spokesperson for the Veracruz Public Security Secretariat and for the office of Eric Cisneros.

Mexico is the deadliest country in the Western Hemisphere for journalists. According to CPJ research, at least five reporters were murdered in 2019 in direct retaliation for their work. CPJ is investigating another six killings to determine the motive. On January 7, the body of radio station manager Fidel Ávila was found in Michoacán state.