Sunday, December 19, 2010
Journalist Seeks Asylum in U.S.
By Rene Romo
Copyright © 2010 Albuquerque Journal
Journal Southern Bureau
LAS CRUCES — Mexican journalist Emilio Gutierrez Soto says he has no backup plan if his request for political asylum in the U.S. is rejected when he goes before an immigration judge in El Paso in late January.
His El Paso lawyer, Carlos Spector, says one thing is clear: No place in Mexico is safe for Gutierrez Soto since he was threatened by Mexican soldiers in two harrowing encounters in 2005 and again in 2008 for several articles he wrote.
"He'd be a dead man within a couple of months," Spector said, "and they'd probably make it look like an accident."
Gutierrez Soto, a former reporter for the Ciudad Juárez-based newspaper El Diario de Juárez, and his then-14-year-old son fled from their home in Ascension, a farming community southwest of Columbus, on June 16, 2008. With a few personal effects and some changes of clothing, Gutierrez Soto drove to the Antelope Wells port of entry in the state's Boot Heel, gambling that no Mexican soldiers would be present on the northbound approach, and declared his intent to seek asylum.
Father and son were promptly separated and sent to Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention centers in the El Paso area. Gutierrez Soto was held for eight months before his release in January 2009. His son had been released after about two months and was living with family friends in Las Cruces, where Gutierrez Soto joined him.
These days, Gutierrez Soto supports himself by doing odd jobs around Las Cruces, aided by a small network of sympathizers who provide day jobs gardening, painting or cooking. His son is struggling to adapt while attending high school, and Gutierrez Soto receives tutoring in English.
"There are two lives at stake," Gutierrez Soto said in a recent interview from a simple apartment in Las Cruces. (He asked that the exact location not be disclosed for his safety). "We're only asking for the opportunity to live."
Winning an asylum case is an uphill battle. Last fiscal year, among the 2,320 cases in which Mexican applicants applied proactively for asylum, meaning they did so before they were picked up and targeted for deportation, only 115, or less than one in 20, won approvals.
To qualify for asylum, an individual must establish past persecution or a well-founded fear of future persecution due to race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or the political opinions they hold, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, an arm of the Department of Homeland Security. Fear of violence alone is not a basis for asylum.
While Mexico has become a bloody battleground since 2007, after President Felipe Calderon launched a war against drug cartels, few Mexicans have been granted asylum. In fiscal year 2009, 192 Mexican individuals, or less than 2 percent of the 11,933 total granted asylum from around the world, were awarded that status.
Spector said that, since articles Gutierrez Soto wrote critical of the Mexican army's conduct in the Nuevo Casas Grande area are what sparked the threats, political beliefs will form the basis for Gutierrez Soto's case. And since, after his arrival in the United States, Gutierrez Soto has frequently criticized the Mexican military for being corrupt and involved in violence against citizens, Spector said Gutierrez Soto would likely be targeted if he returned to Mexico.
"In Mexico, the danger is not with the drug traffickers," Gutierrez Soto said. "The danger is with your own government."
In a recent report condemning the de facto impunity killers in Mexico receive due to corruption, incompetence or fear of reprisals, the Committee to Protect Journalists said 22 journalists have been killed in Mexico since Calderon took office in December 2006. Three people who worked in support of media have also been killed in that time, while seven reporters have disappeared and dozens of others have been attacked, kidnapped or threatened.
In November 2008, an El Diario crime reporter, Armando Rodriguez Carreon, was gunned down in front of his Ciudad Juárez home. When a 21-year-old El Diario staff photographer was fatally shot at a city mall in September, the newspaper published a front-page editorial that asked drug traffickers: "What do you want from us?"
Gutierrez Soto said that he is confident about his own case and that his hopes were buoyed in September when a fellow journalist, Jorge Luis Aguirre, was granted political asylum. Aguirre, the editor of a Ciudad Juárez-based news blog, fled to El Paso in November 2008 after receiving a telephone threat while driving to Rodriguez's funeral.
Gutierrez Soto says he provoked the wrath of Mexican soldiers in early 2005 when he wrote three articles based on locals' claims that troops had, among other things, barged into a local hotel and stolen food and money from patrons.
That February, he was summoned to a meeting with a regional military commander at a hotel in Ascension. Before he could enter the hotel, Gutierrez Soto said, he was surrounded by dozens of soldiers. When an angry general confronted Gutierrez Soto and asked why he did not write about drug traffickers, the reporter replied that he did not know them and feared them.
"I kill them," the general said, according to Gutierrez Soto. "Aren't you afraid of me?"
Gutierrez Soto avoided publishing articles directly critical of the military after that. But he did file complaints about the encounter with local and state police and the National Human Rights Commission.
In early 2008, after Calderon sent 2,500 troops and federal police into Ciudad Juárez and the surrounding countryside in response to spiraling violence in the industrial border city, things heated up again. "The military just lowered their guard for a while," Gutierrez Soto said.
On May 5, 2008, just after midnight, masked soldiers armed with assault rifles smashed in the front door of Gutierrez Soto's home and, after ordering him and his son to lie on the ground, proceeded to tear through the house in a purported search for drugs. They seized various forms of Gutierrez Soto's identification and told him to behave.
"When they broke in the door, it was so loud, I thought an electrical transformer had blown up," Gutierrez Soto said.
For the next month, Gutierrez Soto was wary, but he still thought he might be spared. At the same time, people in the area were disappearing or turning up dead and "everyone would say, it's the soldiers, it's the soldiers," he said.
On June 14, Gutierrez Soto said he noticed he was being followed by several men using two different trucks. That night, he received a call from a female friend who was in a relationship with a soldier. She told Gutierrez Soto that there was talk the soldiers planned to kill him and he needed to leave immediately.
After hiding out at a ranch outside of town, he and his son headed for the Antelope Wells port of entry June 16.
Sixteen months later, Gutierrez Soto learned that a friend, a radio reporter and blogger named Norberto Miranda Madrid, was gunned down in his office in Nuevo Casas Grande. Miranda had written articles criticizing the lack of safety in the area and, in his final column, about two dozen execution-style murders, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.
"It's my land," Gutierrez Soto said of Mexico. "I didn't have any desire to abandon it. I had no intention of leaving. I didn't have that in mind."
In Mexico, he said: "The only protection that journalists have is a bulletproof vest and someone yelling, 'Hit the dirt.' "