July 27, 2008

Reporter, son seek asylum

By Daniel Borunda / El Paso Times
Article Launched: 07/27/2008 12:00:00 AM MDT

EL PASO -- Emilio Gutiérrez Soto only had time to take his teenage son, a few clothes and memories of 25 years as a newspaper reporter when he fled his native Mexico last month, fearing for his life.

Gutiérrez, of the small town of Ascension, Chihuahua, is among the more than 60 Mexican citizens who have asked for political asylum at border crossings in the El Paso region since October, spurred in part by a raging drug cartel war.

"I have no desire to return to Mexico. It would mean death," Gutiérrez, 45, said in a recent telephone interview from an immigration detention center in El Paso.

Gutiérrez is awaiting a hearing, which may not come until December. He asked for asylum June 16 at the border crossing at Antelope Wells in the Bootheel of New Mexico.

"The decision to come here (the U.S.) was because of the terror. An attempt to save the life of my son. He's my only hope," Gutiérrez said in Spanish. His 15-year-old son is being held at a juvenile detention center.

Gutiérrez, who wrote for El Diario del Noroeste, claims that Mexican army officials targeted him for death after he wrote about allegations of crimes committed by soldiers in communities in the rural northwestern part of Chihuahua state.

Gutierréz's plea comes at a time when international press freedom organizations have labeled Mexico as the deadliest country in the Americas for journalists.

Last month, the Committee to Protect Journalists issued a report stating that 21 journalists have been killed in Mexico since 2000. Seven were killed in reprisal for their work. Seven others have been missing since 2005. The committee ranks the danger level in Mexico with that in such war zones as Iraq, Somalia and Sierra Leone.

Being a reporter in Mexico is "fine for those that cover sociales (the social scene) and entertainment. There is not much difference between politics and police news. It's the same garbage," said Gutiérrez, a Nuevo Casas Grandes native who has worked for several newspapers in Chihuahua.

The troubles for Gutiérrez began in 2005 when he reported allegations that soldiers had been involved in crimes, including a hotel robbery in Palomas, stated a detailed 12-page handwritten account by Gutiérrez.

Gutiérrez was confronted by army officers angered over his articles. "So you are the son of a whore who has been disparaging us," an army major reportedly told Gutiérrez.

The major asked Gutiérrez why he didn't report on the narcotraffickers in town. Gutiérrez responded that he didn't know who the traffickers were and that he was afraid of them.

"You should be afraid of us," the major warned before reportedly telling Gutiérrez not to write any more stories.

Two days later, an article on the confrontation was reported in the newspaper. Problems escalated. Gutiérrez said that he filed a complaint with Mexico's National Commission on Human Rights but that nothing was solved.

On May 5, soldiers raided and searched Gutiérrez' home after supposedly getting an anonymous tip about drugs and weapons. The raid, which turned up nothing, was also reported in the newspaper.

Gutiérrez began to noticed he was being followed and watched, his account stated.

"I would hardly sleep at my home. I would sleep at the office or at friends' homes. I was in a state of stress," he said.

On June 15, a friend told Gutiérrez that he should leave because the military was going to kill him.

"The sensation I had was cold. ... When they told me, I didn't doubt it for an instance," Gutiérrez said. "My mind went blank. What will I do? What will happen?"

He and his son hid out at a friend's ranch before heading to the U.S. border the next day, praying not to run into a military checkpoint. "At the border, they asked me what I had with me. I told them, 'Fear,' " Gutiérrez said.

The international press freedom group Reporters Without Borders has urged the Mexican federal government to open an investigation into the army and has urged U.S. authorities to give Gutierrez permission to stay in this country.

The Mexican Embassy in Washington, D.C., did not immediately return a call for comment Friday. In recent years, Mexico has strengthened laws to protect journalists.

The press in Mexico has historically not been immune to corruption, including reporters paid bribes for coverage. It is also rumored that drug cartels have associates at publications to ensure that some things are not reported.

Maria Elena Upson, spokeswoman for the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service, said that anyone can file for asylum but that the burden of proof is on the applicant. Refugees must prove they would be persecuted in their country because of their race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.

"The basic problem is the U.S. won't denounce it (persecution) because Mexico is an ally and they won't admit the level of corruption and persecution that exists," said immigration lawyer Carlos Spector, who is representing Gutiérrez.

Spector said he felt the number of Mexicans seeking political asylum -- with claims that their government won't protect them -- would continue to grow as they flee the violent-crime wave that has left more than 600 dead this year alone in Juárez.

But because asylum seekers are held in detention centers until their cases are heard, many simply give up their claims, Spector said.

"I think the situation in Mexico has deteriorated so much, the police forces are so infiltrated and corrupt that chaos has ensued," Spector said. "Criminals are acting with impunity."

Daniel Borunda may be reached at dborunda@elpasotimes.com; 546-6102.

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