"The police are out to get us": Spain’s border journalists face growing hazards

Spanish military police use a fire extinguisher to stop migrants as they climb the border fence between Morocco and Spain. Photos like these have led to a backlash against Spain's border police among the Spanish public. (Credit: Ángela Ríos)

Ángela Ríos often wakes to the sound of military helicopters circling: It’s five in the morning and the sirens on the border fence are screaming to announce another wave of migrants, as they attempt to climb into Melilla, one of Spain’s two enclave cities on the Moroccan coast. More than 20,000 people tried to make it over this border last year, storming the three 20-foot fences that separate Spain from Morocco and Europe from Africa.

“Strikes” are what the migrants here call their attempts at the border. Mostly young men from countries in West Africa, they climb the consecutive barbed-wire fences in groups numbering in the hundreds or thousands. If they make it over, they’ll get a lawyer, a hot meal, and a chance at life in Europe. If they’re caught near the border and if nobody is filming, Spanish or Moroccan military police will return them to Morocco through locked doors in the fences, often violently. Ríos grabs her camera.

Melilla is one of only two land borders between the European Union and Africa. In the last decade, the otherwise sleepy Spanish border town has become one of the major gates for people seeking to enter Europe illegally. More recently, Melilla has also become one of the principal faces of the continent’s heavy-handed immigration policing; last year, as thousand-person strikes garnered intense media attention, so did the journalists’ photos and video of police abuses on the border.

This has led to court cases, in which photos and video shot by journalists in Melilla are increasingly being used as evidence. Now, as eight members of the Guardia Civil, Spain’s military police, stand charged with beating a young Cameroonian man and illegally returning him, unconscious, through the gate to Morocco late last year, Melilla’s police are cracking down on the journalists who cover the border, with threats, harassment, fines, and arrests.

Ángela Ríos was arrested by the Guardia Civil while covering a small strike in March. After a few quiet weeks without any crossings, a group of 70 made an attempt at the fences; five made it in. Ríos says she first saw the men running past her in the opposite direction of Melilla’s temporary immigrant center, called the CETI for its acronym in Spanish. She pointed them in the right direction and sped off ahead in her car, hoping to get a clear shot of them running.

The five men were running because they weren’t out of danger yet. They knew that if the Guardia Civil caught them before they made it to the CETI and could register as potential asylum seekers, they would likely be returned through the fence to the other side of the border, or worse. Photos and video shot on the border and the testimonies of migrants and aid workers have made the Guardia Civil in Melilla notorious for their violent treatment of migrants. If these men made it to the CETI, they would be safe.

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Ríos got to the area just before the CETI in time to shoot photos and video of the five men running towards the center. Then, Ríos recounts, the Guardia Civil arrived in a military jeep, screaming around the corner. From the CETI door, Ríos watched the men disperse: one had already made it inside the center, another ran to a private residence to hide, and the other three hid under a small nearby bridge.

The Guardia Civil began searching for the men hiding under the bridge, Ríos remembers. One officer asked for her ID. She identified herself as a journalist, and when the Guardia Civil left, she thought nothing of it. One of the CETI employees, who had watched the entire episode unfold, joked with Ríos: “What, now the Guardia Civil asking for your ID has become routine?”

An hour later, Ríos was still at the CETI when a different Guardia Civil patrol came for her, demanding that she follow them back to their headquarters. At first she said no. Four of the men who had climbed the fences into Melilla were still hiding under the bridge, no other press was around, and she didn’t want to miss the shot.

“I was working,” Ríos says. “I wasn’t doing anything wrong.”

But in Melilla, “disobeying authority” is a crime that can carry a fine of more than €200 ($225). Ríos ultimately decided to go with the Guardia Civil—better that than getting arrested and fined. One officer got in Ríos’s car, and they followed the jeep in silence. It was only when she arrived at the Guardia Civil’s headquarters that Ríos learned that she was being charged with human trafficking.

Three men sit atop Melilla’s border fence during a strike last October. The photographer was fined and threatened by the Guardia Civil as he took this photo. (Credit: Jesús Blasco de Avellaneda)

The Guardia Civil’s version of events differs slightly. They maintain that when the first patrol rounded the corner, officers saw four migrants exiting Ángela Ríos’s car. Ríos wasn’t covering news, they say; she was transporting migrants from the border fence to the CETI. The officers also claimed that money found in Ríos’s car had been taken from the migrants in return for safe passage. Ríos explained in front of the judge that the money was pay from a recent unrelated photo gig she had done in town.

“Favoring or facilitating illegal immigration” is a crime in Spain, under the same law that is used to prosecute those who routinely try to cross Melilla’s land border from neighboring Morocco with people hidden in their cars’ trunks, bumpers, or in secret compartments built under the seats. Last year, nearly 250 people entered Melilla this way, according to the military police.

The Guardia Civil presented no proof of their accusation beyond the officers’ testimonies. Ríos says that the photos and video she shot of the migrants running past her to the CETI prove that they never entered her car. Either way, within hours of Ríos’s detention, a judge threw the case out; Ángela Ríos, the judge said, had committed no crime.

The real crime was her work. After the hearing, Ríos recounts, one officer told her in a surprisingly candid moment that she had been singled out because of the photos she published and the problems they caused the police. Ríos, who has covered the border mostly for AFP and El Mundo, a large Spanish daily, was detained not long after eight members of the Guardia Civil had passed through that same courtroom, charged for the beating and summary deportation of migrants on three separate occasions. These charges went up to the top of the Guardia Civil in Melilla, implicating the first- and second-in-command for authorizing the summary deportations, which are illegal under Spanish immigration law.

“You know what happened here?” Ríos remembers the Guardia Civil officer saying to her. “You are being made to pay for the crimes of others; you’re the scapegoat.”

Jesús Blasco de Avellaneda, a freelancer for Reuters and a handful of national Spanish newspapers, has won international recognition for his coverage of the Spanish/Moroccan border since the late 90’s. Blasco grew up in Melilla, and often speaks nostalgically about a time when the border was just a waist-high fence that Spanish kids would occasionally scale to go play in Morocco.

By 2005, that waist-high fence had been replaced with three 20-foot fences topped with barbed wire. In the last year, the Moroccan government added a six-foot-deep, water-filled moat and a fourth fence, 10 feet tall and covered from top to bottom in barbed wire. Migrants on the Moroccan side quip that if they want to make it into Europe before the Guardia Civil can throw them back out, they need to make it over the five barriers in a matter of minutes.

Blasco was one of the first journalists to document the Guardia Civil’s practice of summary deportation in Melilla, where people who are caught after crossing the border fences are directly expelled back to Morocco without a deportation hearing. The material he shot on the border, alongside that of a handful of other journalists and nonprofits, are what caused Melilla’s police to acknowledge the practice.

Blasco says he can count on two hands his run-ins with the Guardia Civil while covering the border. He has been detained three times, fined half a dozen times, and accused of crimes including disobeying authority, revealing state secrets, human trafficking, and organized crime. In every case but one, Blasco and his lawyer say, the charges have been thrown out as soon as they hit the judge’s desk.

“The Guardia Civil are on a mission to make sure people don’t see what’s happening on the border, because the images taken are being used as evidence of crimes,” explains Jose Alonso Sanchez, Blasco’s lawyer. The strategy, Sanchez adds, is to get certain journalists as far away from the fence as possible during a strike.

Migrants climbing the border fence into Melilla, is a small Spanish enclave city in Morocco and one of two land borders between Africa and the European Union. (Credit: José Palazón)

Blasco was arrested last year for filming the border from outside the designated press area during a particularly large strike. He says he was filming far from the border when the Guardia Civil came for him. In court, police testified that they had picked him up while filming up against the fence. This time, the judge found him guilty of filming outside a designated area: Blasco will have to pay €1,200 ($1,340) in fines or spend 10 days in jail.

“I’ll be the first journalist in Spain in a long time to go to jail for doing my job,” Blasco says.

The Guardia Civil maintain that they have a good relationship with the press, generally. During a strike, explains Arturo Ortega, head of operations and second in command in Melilla, a perimeter is created to keep journalists within sight of the events but out of the area where police are working. Ortega says that there are never arrests, fines, or other conflicts with journalists who don’t try to move out of that area. He repeatedly refers to these journalists as the “serious” ones: “the journalists that go, get information,” he says, “and don’t give us any problems.”

The “not-serious” journalists, Ortega explains, are those like Ángela Ríos and Jesús Blasco de Avellaneda, normally freelancers, who he says choose only to highlight police violence, summary deportations, and other abuses. Ortega wouldn’t qualify how the seriousness of a journalist was determined, nor who makes that decision, but he did offer up an example: “If I hit a migrant and then the migrant hits me, and the journalist only shows me hitting the migrant, they’re only telling half of the story,” he says, listing names of journalists in Melilla who he sees as biased.

The violence on the border does come from both sides, though not necessarily in equal measures. Photos and video shot on the border during strikes also show migrants attacking police and, in one dramatic case, lighting their clothing on fire and throwing it at the Guardia Civil.

Halfway through the interview in Ortega’s office in the Guardia Civil headquarters in Melilla, another uniformed man rushes in among a flurry of salutes and honorifics. Ambrosio Martín, head of the Guardia Civil in Melilla, bristles at the mention of Ríos and Blasco. He’s eager to discredit both, painting them as biased activists, not journalists.

“By just mentioning those names, I get the idea,” Martín says. “It’s easy then to think that here we all have horns, a tail, red skin, and a trident in our hand.”

Ambrosio Martín and Arturo Ortega have a personal stake in this, as well. As the two heads of the Guardia Civil in Melilla, they were also charged in the case related to the three migrant strikes in 2014, for authorizing summary deportations in each case. They would have stood trial alongside the eight border officers, but an attempt was made to legalize summary deportations as part of Spain’s new gag law and a judge subsequently threw out the charges against Martín and Ortega. The eight border officers will still stand trial.

The lawyer who brought the case against Martín, Ortega, and the eight members of the Guardia Civil relied heavily on material from local journalists as evidence: photos and video shot on the border documenting the Guardia Civil’s summary deportations and their harsh treatment of migrants. In one especially graphic video, the Guardia Civil are seen striking a young Cameroonian man hanging onto the border fence until he falls, and then carrying him, unconscious, through gates in the fence and back to Morocco.

The list of journalists who contributed material for the case is practically identical to Ortega’s list of problematic journalists.

Ángela Ríos and Jesús Blasco de Avellaneda both stand by their reporting. Both say that their job is to convey what happens on the border to an outside audience in the most honest and professional way possible, and that they’ve done just that.

“The police are out to get us,” says Ríos. “They don’t want us taking photos of what happens on the border.”

“When we shoot the fence, we shoot the good and the bad,” she adds. “Lately all that’s happened around the fences was bad: They hit each other, police to migrant and migrant to police. Groups of migrants lit clothing on fire and threw it at the police. That has been published. But it’s also been published how they’ve beat migrants, how they’ve let the Gendarme [Morocco’s military police] enter into Spanish territory to violently remove the migrants. That’s all been photographed.”

Ríos and Blasco both say the pressure from the Guardia Civil has not affected their work or caused them to self-censor. Both are Melilla natives and see it as part of their jobs to cover the border in a little-known corner of the European Union, where the rules are often bent or broken.

“If I see a Guardia Civil hitting somebody, I’m going to photograph it,” Ríos adds. “And if I see them giving a migrant a sandwich or some water, I’m going to photograph that too.”

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Zach Campbell is a reporter based in Barcelona. Follow him on Twitter @notzachcampbell