Gas prices in Mexico have jumped since January 1. Coupled with the decline of the peso, the situation has caused a great deal of unrest throughout Baja California.
On the morning of Saturday, January 7, federal police attempted to remove a large crowd of protesters from the street they blocked near the Rosarito Pemex refinery.
Videos posted online show protesters taunting and singing songs as police stand nearby in riot gear. Police march in formation to corral the protesters. Protesters can be seen throwing rocks at police. Police beat protesters with batons and use tasers.
El Universal journalist Laura Sanchez and her husband, freelance photojournalist Luis Alonso Pérez, arrived at the blockade around 9:30 a.m. “The crowd was a bit anxious, and mad, because three or four elderly ladies in their late 70s were arrested by federal police,” Alonso recalled.
Just before 10:30 a.m., as some protesters threw rocks, police clad in tactical uniforms with shields and batons formed a barrier to remove cars blocking the Pemex plant. These actions led to arrests.
Alonso, 36, had noted authorities were arresting minors. He said 17-year-old kids were being subdued by six officers. “I got as close as I could and asked their names,” Alonso explained. “The federal police told me to get away. One particular agent tried twice to snatch my phone away. I put it inside my pocket. This infuriated him. He ordered my arrest.” When Sanchez tried to stop the arrest, she said two female federal agents grabbed her by the arm and pushed her back.
“I was thrown to the ground,” Alonso recalls. “They threw me on my back and flipped me face down and pushed down. One officer grabbed the back of my head and pushed it twice into the sandy soil. Another police officer pushed his knees into my back and into my right arm. A third officer grabbed my left arm and two other agents were subduing me with boots. I know this because I saw the bootprints on my T-shirt later.”
Alonso can be seen in a Facebook live video being thrown into a white van marked with "D.A.R.E" decals, harkening back to the U.S. anti-drug campaign initiated in the '80s (though some of the verbiage on the van suggests it was at one time being used for addiction outreach in Mexico). One comment on the Facebook video simply read, “Es un secuestro,” referring to the incident as a kidnapping.
“They pushed me into this big white van which only has a D.A.R.E. logo on it, the anti-drug program in the U.S.,” said Alonso. “But we didn’t know if it was local, state, or federal police. It was a D.A.R.E. logo. I had no idea what was going on.”
Sanchez estimates six to eight federal police agents were involved in her husband’s arrest. He was taken with two minors and one other adult. One minor had been pepper-sprayed, and he was in a great deal of pain. He had a cut on his arm. All were zip-tied.
“We learned they were Rosarito police and that put us at ease,” said Alonso. “We asked them where they were taking us, and they told us, ‘Cállate.’
The trip to the police station took approximately 20 minutes. All were worried about what was going to happen.
“When we finally arrived to the police station, we got out of the van and realized where we were — since we couldn’t see outside the van,” Alonso said. “We had no idea where they were taking us. It was a relief when we were taken to the local police station, at least there our families might find us. We were put in a small cell with at least 30 other male adults.”
In the next cell were at least ten male minors; outside the cells were three or four grandmothers; 40 to 45 protesters altogether were in the Rosarito police station. Alonso was there for only 45 minutes.
“The commander from federal police arrived with my colleague Yolanda Guerrero,” he said. “The local cops took me out of the cell and one of the federal police agents in charge apologized. He admitted there was some wrongdoing by those under his command, and he took me back to where I was arrested. Everything took an hour and a half.”
Sanchez had contacted her newspaper in Mexico City, and they contacted the federal police command center in Mexico City. They said her husband was with local police.
Upon returning to the protest site, Alonso learned he was not the only journalist who had been beaten up by police. “A colleague from the local newspaper Frontera was pepper-sprayed in the eyes by state police agents,” he said. “Another freelance journalist was batoned in his stomach, which dropped him to the floor.”
Alonso, Sanchez, and Guerrero went the same day to the federal attorney general's office to file a complaint. Personnel from the Comisión Nacional de los Derechos Humanos (National Human Rights Commission) eventually helped the journalists file the complaint and on Monday, January 9, they went to give their version of events.
Three days later, Alonso learned from a doctor that he had suffered a splintered rib, sprained neck, along with a black eye. He covered his first medical bills, but now the public federal health institution is dispensing the medical care free of charge “as instructed by federal police.”
Alonso assures: “I’m still pressing charges against the police officers who arrested me, but I guess the investigation will take a long time.”