Last summer, Alejandro Hernandez Pacheco was almost certain he was going to die — he just didn’t know how. Would he be killed quickly, with a gunshot wound to the head? Or would he fare worse and become a victim of torture and agony, stories he knew all too well as a cameraman for a Mexican news agency?
Instead, Hernandez miraculously fled drug cartel members that had kidnapped him. Weeks later, he applied for asylum in El Paso. He received word just days ago that the U.S. government had granted his petition. Hernandez's attorney, Carlos Spector, said the decision may signal a shift in the federal government's thinking on how to handle such cases.
“It’s a welcome decision and it has made the U.S. government more aware,” he said. “It’s one thing to read the reports and the statistics provided by [advocacy groups] Reporters without Borders and Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. But I think what Alejandro’s case shows is that these aren’t just cartel members killing and repressing the press. I think what is symbolic about his case is that the Mexican government is around the corner or involved directly [in the oppression].”
Last July, Hernandez and reporter Hector Gordoa Marquez were kidnapped by members of the Sinaloa cartel in the Mexican state of Durango after reporting on a prison in Gomez Palacio. The warden there was letting inmates escape to assassinate rivals, Spector said. The captors slipped up, however, and when they felt the presence of law enforcement, the hostages fled. Hernandez was picked up by federal police, who Spector said “duped” his client into believing they were en route to meet with Mexican President Felipe Calderón. Instead, they arrived by helicopter to a hangar for a press conference, where Spector says they were placed in even more danger by being outed as witnesses to cartel-related crimes.
“The asylum claim is based on him being targeted for being a journalist and for expressing political opinion because he denounced the fraud and the outing of him as a witness to the cartels,” Spector said. “We won on both counts — that the Mexican government can’t protect journalists from the cartels and that the Mexican government is corrupt and placed him in further danger.”
Hernandez spoke out passionately against Calderón, Facundo Rosas — the director of Mexico’s federal police — and Genaro Garcia Luna, the country’s public security director. It created a quagmire for American officials charged with deciding his case because the relationship between the two countries is often touted as positive and symbiotic, at least publicly. It means officials in the U.S. are reluctant to grant the claims, as they could be seen as an admission that Mexico cannot protect some of its citizens.
“What made the case difficult for the U.S. government was that he ... felt free to speak out and he denounced the Mexican government as well as [Sinaloa cartel leader] Chapo Guzman,” Spector said.
That hurdle may have been why Hernandez’s case took longer than others, Spector said. Whereas most affirmative asylum claims — where a person seeking refuge enters the country legally and visits with an asylum office — usually take a couple of months to process, Hernandez's case lasted more than seven months. To drive home his point, Spector compared Hernandez’s case with that of Mexican activist Cipriana Jurado, another one of his clients. Jurado, a Mexican activist who had long been outspoken against the military, filed for asylum two months after Hernandez, though her case was approved almost immediately.
“She had a long history of political involvement and a lot of U.N. intervention on the threats she was getting from the military, so there was a long history there,” he said. “With Alejandro, while he’s a journalist, he was a cameraman.”
Statistics from the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, which oversees legal immigration to the country, shows that despite evidence to back up Hernandez's claims, the odds were still against him. In 2010, 2,320 Mexicans applied for affirmative asylum. Only 115 were approved. That was a drop from 2009 figures, when 150 cases were approved. That year 1,393 petitions were filed.
Despite the delay, Hernandez’s ability to file affirmatively still meant a decision in months and not years. Immigrants may also file for defensive asylum, but it is a more adversarial process. It involves the person entering the country without documentation and being placed in immigration detention, and subsequently proving to a judge that they should not be placed in deportation proceedings. Such is the case for Emilio Gutiérrez, also Spector’s client, who has been awaiting a decision since 2008. Gutiérrez fled the Chihuahua hamlet of Ascensión after being threatened for his reporting on alleged human rights violations committed by the military. He was detained by immigration officials for seven months and then released. He last heard from a judge in January, when he learned a decision would not be rendered until next year.