Lizbeth Hernández, a freelance journalist based in Mexico City, is documenting a rising women’s protest movement against gender-based violence in the country. According to federal data from the Secretariado Ejecutivo del Sistema Nacional de Seguridad Pública (SESNSP), deadly violence against women reached record heights in 2019; more than 1,000 women were murdered because of their gender, an increase of 10% over 2018, news reports said. Fueling the anger are reports of sexual harassment and assault by police officers in cities such as Mexico City and Guadalajara.
In recent months, covering such protests has become increasingly fraught with danger as police respond with overbearing force, intimidating, corralling, and harassing protesters. Women journalists covering the protests are often caught in the middle, even when they’re clearly identifiable as reporters, reports say. According to several female reporters CPJ spoke with this year, police officers often do not distinguish between them and protesters and sometimes harass, intimidate, and arbitrarily detain them.
Hernández recently experienced such excessive force herself, when she was detained by police while covering a feminist collective’s occupation of the offices of the Estado de México State Human Rights Commission in Ecatepec, just east of Mexico City.
CPJ spoke with Hernández, who freelances for various Latin America news sites and is co-founder of feminist outlet Kaja Negra, via phone in October. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What can you tell us about the recent protests against gender violence in Mexico and the authorities’ response?
It’s important to explain the context. What we’ve seen in recent months are direct actions by some feminist collectives in response to violence against women in Mexico. Mind you, we’re talking not about everyone involved in the protests, but some of them. They have undertaken actions such as spray painting and damaging government buildings and monuments or occupying them. This largely started in August of last year after there were three cases in which was revealed that women had suffered sexual violence perpetrated by policemen in Mexico City. In response, a protest movement with the title, “They don’t look after me, they rape me” was organized. During that same month, protesters threw glitter at the then head of the state ministry of public security, while other protesters broke the doors of the offices of the state public prosecutor. From that moment on, we started to see a lot more police during women’s marches, which hadn’t happened before.
These actions set the tone for subsequent events. For example, in July this year during a protest march after Veracruz’s state congress blocked the legalization of abortion, we saw for the first time that police were corralling protesters and reporters alike. It’s important to point out that there was a heavy presence of riot police, a corps that, according to Mexico City’s head of government Claudia Sheinbaum, had been abolished.
What kind of risks do female journalists face during these protests?
With a bigger police presence, the conditions for journalists, particularly video reporters, has changed. We started to see that we ended up in the middle, between protesters and the police. The majority of these feminist collectives are what we call “separatists,” they reject the presence of male journalists, so the only journalists present are women. Whenever there are police at a protest, there’s always tension. Sometimes the police fail to distinguish between protesters and journalists, but often they just don’t care.
One example I saw up close was on September 11 in Ecatepec, in Estado de México, just outside Mexico City. During the evening, protesters had occupied a building of the State Commission for Human Rights (CODEM). The protest was peaceful; personnel of the CODEM had visited the occupied building and issued a press release that the protest had been respectful. When I was there to write a story about the occupation, however, I saw how a completely disproportionate number of police officers had arrived to violently throw the protesters out. It was completely out of hand; there were children and a pregnant woman.
Even though I was clearly identifiable as a journalist, I was detained, my cell phone was taken from me, I was pushed and the police prevented me from doing my job. They didn’t care that I was reporting. I was pushed into a police vehicle and driven off and they wouldn’t tell me where we were going. I was kept incommunicado and they wouldn’t tell me what was happening. We were driven to a police station in Azitapán, where male police insulted me and several other women. They told us we were “bitches” and that we were “fucked now,” speaking very angrily.
When a group of women arrived to ask for our release, the police attacked them in the parking lot with tear gas. After I was released, I tried to leave with a group of women journalists, all visibly identified as reporters. They tried to asphyxiate one of my colleagues; they were hitting the car we were in and they broke one of its windows.
Editor’s note: CPJ phoned police authorities in Ecatepec and Azitapán but no one picked up.
And this wasn’t the only incident.
No, it’s part of a pattern. Just two weeks after the events in Ecatepec, on September 28, something similar happened during a protest march in Mexico City. The state government said that a group of approximately 30 women were allegedly committing acts of vandalism, but when the police showed up, they surrounded hundreds of women, with journalists among them. There have been similar situations in Tijuana and Guanajuato.
Why do you think the authorities act this way?
In Mexico City, the authorities said that they tried to contain the situation, but they’re really looking for a confrontation. There is never an attempt to establish a dialogue or conciliation. What kind of alternatives are the authorities thinking of, when the such situations are so tense? The COVID-19 pandemic hasn’t slowed down gender violence, on the contrary. Anger remains on the agenda, women feel defenseless, including those who are protesting. The response from the police is one of violence, which makes the conditions tenser, and which can be interpreted as provocation. We, as journalists, are caught in the middle as we’re trying to report.
Editor’s note: CPJ called police authorities in Mexico City but no one picked up.
What should the authorities do to improve the situation?
I’m not a security expert, but as a journalist and from what I’ve seen, I would say that the manifestations are the result of police violence. If you send a lot of police, you can’t expect people to feel that everything is alright. I don’t think there’s been an attempt for open dialogue, other than a few statements by the authorities. They should try to understand why people are protesting. They should look for alternatives to the use of police. Trying to corral protesters is a really bad strategy. If that keeps happening, there will be more confrontations.