Reporter Emilio Gutiérrez says he knew the script the Mexican general wanted him to follow. He was to report what the Army wanted, how it wanted it, and to ignore any wrongdoing the soldiers, deployed by Mexican President Felipe Calderón, may have committed against the townspeople in the border state of Chihuahua.
But the reporter for the Diario del Noroeste, a small affiliate of the major daily paper in Ciudad Juárez, kept writing about soldiers robbing citizens. He believes it almost cost him his life. Now living in Doña Ana County, N.M., he fears ever returning to his native Mexico, where he lived modestly in the small town of Ascensión with his 15-year-old son.
Two years after arriving with his son at a U.S. border crossing at Antelope Wells, N.M. to seek asylum in the U.S., Gutiérrez still waits for an immigration judge to rule on his application and his residency status. The pre-dawn drive that led him to the border crossing — where he was handcuffed and whisked away by Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents — marked the beginning of his exile, one that continues today. His plight, his attorney says, underscores a problem with U.S. reluctance to grant asylum to Mexicans for fear of alienating the Mexican government.
"They are going to kill you"
The journey began simply enough for Gutiérrez. He wrote a few stories in the paper about what his sources said Mexican soldiers did at a hotel in Palomas, Chihuahua, and on a highway that extends from the small town to Ascensión: robbed people at gunpoint under the guise of looking for drugs or weapons.
After that, the threats began. Summoned to a hotel after writing his third story on the alleged robbings, he says he was greeted by a group of soldiers and the general in charge of local operations.
“If you write another story about us, it’ll be the last one you write,” he recalls the general telling him. Later, soldiers accused him of hiding drugs and weapons and ransacked his house while he watched. All they found, he says, was a rustic cartridge from the days of the Mexican Revolution that he owned as a collector’s item, which they confiscated. That was May 2008. The next month, he says, he noticed he was being followed.
“Though they were dressed as civilians, they had all the characteristics of the military, all the way up to how they walked,” he says of the men he believes tailed him. Then one day, he got a warning from a friend who was close to one of the soldiers.
“They are going to kill you,” Gutiérrez recalls the friend telling him.
A few days later, again believing he was being followed, Gutiérrez ducked into a store, pretended to shop and phoned a friend asking to be picked up on a side street. He slipped out a side exit. Hours later, he hit the road north and turned his back on the town he called home for decades.
The promised land
Gutiérrez spent seven months in an immigration detention center in El Paso after seeking asylum that night in June. The U.S. government separated him from his son, who ended up in a juvenile center. Estranged from his son’s mother, the boy was released, into the custody of relatives, about five months before his father.
The time Gutiérrez served — in what many would consider a jail, with illegal border-crossers — stemmed from the red tape entangled in the asylum process and the relationship between the U.S. and Mexico, says his attorney, Carlos Spector. “It was a conscious [U.S.] policy for prolonged detention of Mexican asylum applicants, to discourage them,” he says. “In that sense, he was like anybody else [seeking asylum]."
Asylum seekers must prove they face persecution in their home country due to their “race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion,” according to the U.S. government code.
Spector believes his client's chronicling of alleged crimes committed by Mexican government officials — in this case, the military — made him eligible under the "political opinion" portion of that definition. But in 2008, the situation was too delicate to open the door to people like Gutiérrez, Spector says. The U.S. had just sent the first installment of an aid package worth $1.4 billion, known as the Merida Initiative, that was designed to help the Mexican and Central American governments fight drug cartels. Spector believes that the U.S. government purposely delayed or denied asylum applications because it did not want to offend the Mexican government. “What is it going to look like that we are facilitating asylum against our dearest and strongest ally?” he asks.
The government says any claims of coordinated obstruction have no merit. "Anyone from any country can file for political asylum. Obviously, the mere filing of an application does not constitute approval or denial. Asylum is based on persecution," says Maria Elena Garcia-Upson, a public affairs officer with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. "At the end of the day, it's on a case-by-case basis. ... The burden of proof always falls on the applicant."
Gutiérrez was released from detention in January 2009. He might have been confined longer, his attorney says, but he was helped by his clean background and his job. “The difference was, he was clean as a whistle, he was a member of the press, he was eligible to be released, and he had a place to stay,” Spector says.
His application for asylum is still pending.
"I won't keep quiet"
Media attention didn't hurt, either. Gutiérrez and his cause have garnered attention from CNN, 60 Minutes, Reporters Without Borders and narco-writer Charles Bowden, who told his story in Murder City, Ciudad Juárez and the Global Economy’s New Killing Fields. Gutiérrez was nominated for a "press freedom" award by the Canadian Journalists for Free Expression. Under normal circumstances, a detainee in the immigration detention system might wait for more than a year before an initial hearing. The typical asylum-seeker also spends about $20,000 on the process, says Spector, who is working pro bono on the case. Gutiérrez is broke: He makes his living selling tacos and burritos at a nearby college. When he spoke to The Texas Tribune last month, he said he was saving up to install a window on the trailer he's been trying to fashion into a mobile kitchen.
Gutiérrez freelanced for a short time after being released from detention, for the Diario De El Paso. But the paper let him go after a billing dispute, he says. Diario De El Paso Editor Gerardo Rodriguez says he and his colleagues tried to help Gutiérrez as much as they could and reported stories about his troubles on the paper's front page. “I suggested to him that maybe he could work as a freelancer once in a while, but I didn’t really need a reporter. I was just trying to help him out,” he says.
Gutiérrez will learn his fate in January, he says, when an immigration judge will decide if he will be allowed to remain in the U.S. and for how long. Until then, he says, he has no intention of clamming up. For a person who made a clandestine escape from his hometown to escape danger, Gutiérrez has shown his face and told his story more than some might assume is safe. He wipes away a tear when he acknowledges that he might not get to see his parents’ gravesites in Juárez any time soon, if ever.
When asked why he refuses to keep silent, the mild-mannered Gutiérrez boils over with emotion.
“They leave you without anything. They take away your house, they take away your country, and you’re supposed to stay quiet?" he says. "No! I won’t keep quiet."