Asylum or Death: Endangered Mexican Reporters Unable to Enter US

(CN) – A bludgeoned corpse found this week in Mexico perpetuated the country’s plague of press killings, yet the stories of two men who fled to the United States after receiving death threats show how hard it is for Mexican reporters to win asylum.

The prosecutor’s office of the northeastern border state of Tamaulipas said Hector Gonzalez Antonio’s body was found Tuesday morning on a dirt road in the state capital of Ciudad Victoria.

Gonzalez, the sixth Mexican journalist killed this year, covered crime for the Mexican national newspaper Excelsior. The paper’s editorial director called him a “magnificent person” and urged authorities to track down his killers, a Hail Mary in a country where experts say less than 10 percent of murders are even investigated.

Gonzalez is the 17th Mexican journalist slain since 2017, an epidemic that has sunk the country to No. 147 out of the 180 countries on Reporters Without Borders’ 2018 World Press Freedom Index.

José Luis Benavides, a journalism professor at California State University, Northridge, was a reporter in Mexico in the 1980s. He founded the school’s student newspaper El Nuevo Sol in 2007.

Benavides said Mexico’s media system seems illogical through the lens of the U.S. press due to the many constraints Mexican reporters have on their coverage.

Media owners often have connections with organized crime, or corrupt government officials, he said, and newsrooms are often infiltrated by moles.

“Then perhaps the most difficult of all the constraints they have is if a journalist, either by will or by accident, portrays a link between organized crime and the state, the government, that is a pretty risky place to be,” he said. “That’s where probably many journalists have lost their life.”

The third Mexican journalist killed this year was Leobardo Vázquez, who covered crime and police in the Gulf state Veracruz on his online publication Enlace Informative Regional.  Gunmen shot him on March 21 at the taco stand he ran next to his house.

Experts say it’s common for Mexican journalists to have side jobs and take bribes from government agencies in return for favorable coverage because they are not paid well.

“Once you receive the money then you are obligated to not say anything really negative about the people who are giving you money,” Benavides said.

Molly Molloy, a research librarian at New Mexico State University and Latin America specialist, tracks murders in Mexico.

She said Vazquez’s was one of 10,395 homicides from January through April this year, an average of 87 people per day, citing statistics provided by the Mexican government.

Molloy said Mexico’s murder rate jumped from 8,000 in 2006 to 27,000 in 2011. Last year it eclipsed 29,000.

She suspects much of the violence wracking Mexico this year—besides journalists, numerous candidates for public office have been murdered—is tied to the federal, state and local offices up for grabs in this presidential election year.

“The criminal organizations are trying to get influence,” she said. “They are trying to make sure the people they want get elected … So when that’s all in flux a lot of people are getting killed because the cartels themselves are jockeying for power. They try to eliminate the people they think are their enemies.”

Benavides said the British human rights group Article 19, named after a clause in the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights that states, “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression,” has diligently documented murders in Mexico and its findings are surprising.

“The majority of attacks on journalists in Mexico come from government sources, which seems counterintuitive from an American point of view. Because the assumption is the Mexican government is the one in charge of fighting the drug war and crime and extortion,” he said.

Accompanied by his then 15-year-old son, former Mexican journalist Emilio Soto Gutiérrez, a single father, who lived and reported in the northern border state Chihuahua, turned himself in to immigration agents at the border and applied for asylum in June 2008 after military officials threatened him.

“It was a general and a colonel in the Mexican Army, national figures, who threatened him for writing a small story back in 2005,” his attorney Eduardo Beckett said in a phone interview.

Molloy works with an immigration attorney translating for Spanish-speaking political asylum applicants during interviews at the El Paso Detention Center and other immigration lockups in the Southwest.

She befriended Gutiérrez when he came to the United States. She said Gutiérrez and his son lived in Las Cruces, New Mexico for nearly 10 years, and he made a living as a gardener and catering cook.

But Gutiérrez and his son have been locked up in the El Paso Detention Center since December. ICE took them into custody after an immigration judge denied their asylum applications in July 2017.

Father and son caught a break May 15 when the Board of Immigration Appeals ordered a new asylum hearing.

The board found that the immigration judge needs to consider new evidence, namely a letter from the U.S. State Department stating Mexico is the second most dangerous country for journalists after Syria.

Beckett said Gutiérrez has received support from an unexpected ally, former Fox News star and best-selling author Bill O’Reilly.

“To my surprise in April he went on the record on Facebook and he talked about Emilio’s case. … And he was reading the decision of the judge here in El Paso, saying ‘I can’t believe that this judge said that Emilio and his son don’t quality for asylum because Emilio was never tortured.’”

Numerous media organizations and newspaper editorial boards have also expressed their support for Gutiérrez in friend-of-the-court briefs and editorials.

Beckett said Gutiérrez’s asylum hearing has not yet been scheduled, but he is trying to set it for August.

Though Gutiérrez and his son are being held in a detention center, Beckett said that’s an euphemism.

“For all practical purposes it’s a prison,” he said. “You know, detainees wear jump suits, there’s barriers, razor wire fences, armed guards; you have to wear electronic monitoring devices.”

Beckett said Gutiérrez’s case exemplifies how President Donald Trump’s administration has criminalized the asylum process, and his client is fighting depression and losing weight as he sits behind bars.

“They have no good reason to hold him anymore,” Beckett said. “So I feel like they are using him as an example basically to send a message to say, ‘If we can do this to this high-profile Mexican journalist Emilio Gutiérrez Soto, think of what we can do to you.’”

Martin Méndez Pineda got a harsh taste of the U.S. immigration system in 2017. Méndez, who is in his mid 20s, was a reporter for Novedades, a newspaper in Acapulco in the southern state of Guerrero.

According to Méndez’s attorney Carlos Spector, Mexican Judicial Police attacked him and aimed a gun at him after he wrote an article that described how heavily armed officers tried to handcuff an injured man who had crashed his Volkswagen after its brakes went out.

Though U.S. immigration agents found Méndez had a credible fear of returning to Mexico–credible fear is a requirement to win an asylum case–U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement said he was a flight risk.

ICE refused to grant him humanitarian parole so he could live with his cousin in California while his case played out.

Tired of being shuffled from one detention center to the next, Méndez gave up on his asylum claim in spring 2017 and returned to Mexico, where he is no longer working as a journalist and is under the protection of Reporters Without Borders, according to Spector’s assistant Gloria Amesquita.

Méndez described his experience in U.S. immigration prisons in an April 2017 statement released by Reporters Without Borders.

He said ICE transferred him to a detention center in Sierra Blanca, Texas, 80 miles southeast of El Paso.

“In this place, I experienced the worst days of my life,” he said. “It is known by the detainees as ‘el gallinero’ (the henhouse) since the barracks resemble a stable for livestock or chickens, designed for approximately 60 people but currently housing more than 100 individuals.”

Molloy, the border specialist, said although the detention center is in a desert where the days are scorching and the nights are chilly, people sleep in barracks that are partly open to the elements.

Despite his ordeal, Méndez ended his missive on a hopeful note.

“After all of the agony I have experienced, I hope that, when other journalists feel threatened as a result of their work and decide to seek political asylum, they will not have to fear being detained for several months and being separated from their families, and that all journalists in danger will receive refuge,” he wrote in April 2017 from a detention center.

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