Members of the National Guard patrol the streets of Culiacan, Mexico, on January 5, 2023. Gunmen recently harassed journalists covering unrest in the city. (Marcos Vizcarra / AFP)

Journalists harassed, robbed by gunmen in Culiacán amid clashes between cartel and Mexican security forces

Mexico City, January 6, 2023 – Mexican authorities must immediately and thoroughly investigate the recent harassment of journalists in the northwestern city of Culiacán, and ensure that members of the press can do their jobs freely and safely, the Committee to Protect Journalists said Friday.

Starting on the morning of Thursday, January 5, members of the Sinaloa drug cartel have clashed with Mexican security forces in the city, and suspected cartel members have harassed and robbed reporters covering the unrest, according to news reports and reporters who spoke with CPJ.

Marcos Vizcarra, a freelance reporter, told CPJ by phone that an unidentified man, whom he suspected was a cartel member, stopped him at gunpoint and stole his car. Later, when he went to a local hotel, gunmen entered the building and also stole his phone, he said.

Separately, gunmen forced three journalists working for local and national outlets to exit a car they were traveling in together, and then stole their car, cell phones, and laptops, those journalists told CPJ on the condition of anonymity, citing concern for their safety.

None of the journalists were physically hurt and, as of Friday morning, were able to return home safely, they told CPJ.

“Mexican authorities must immediately step up their efforts to protect journalists covering unrest in Culiacán, which has become akin to reporting from a war zone,” said Jan-Albert Hootsen, CPJ’s Mexico representative. “Unless authorities finally protect the press and bring those who attack reporters to justice, the harassment and blatant robberies of journalists will likely continue.”

Aarón Ibarra, a reporter for local investigative weekly RíoDoce, told CPJ via messaging app, “There are no conditions to work, we can’t guarantee our safety.”

An official with the Federal Mechanism for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders and Journalists, which operates under the auspices of the federal Interior Ministry and provides protection to reporters, told CPJ that the agency had contacted the National Guard to coordinate reporters’ safety during the fighting.

The official declined to provide more details, citing the ongoing events, and asked to remain anonymous as they were not authorized to comment on the matter.

The fighting in Culiacán broke out in the early hours of Thursday when Mexican security forces arrested Ovidio Guzmán, an alleged leader of the Sinaloa cartel, according to comments by Secretary of Defense Luis Crescencio Sandoval.

CPJ called the Sinaloa state prosecutor’s office to inquire whether authorities were investigating the attacks on journalists, but did not receive any response.

Mexico is the deadliest country in the Western Hemisphere for reporters. At least three journalists were murdered in retaliation for their work in 2022, according to CPJ research. CPJ is investigating another 10 killings to determine the motive.