EL PASO, Texas – An asylum hearing for Mexican journalist Emilio Gutierrez, who says he fled his homeland in 2008 with his teenage son after receiving death threats from the army, adjourned without the judge issuing a ruling and will resume on Feb. 4.
“I’m worn out from all this time under psychological pressure, from them taking away our homeland and we don’t have one that will take us in ... even knowing that we left Mexico because the Mexican state is pursuing us and cannot protect us,” Gutierrez said on Friday upon leaving the federal immigration court in El Paso, Texas.
Despite not receiving asylum on Friday, the journalist said he remains confident the judge will grant him the right to live legally in the United States after the hearing resumes.
Gutierrez, who worked for El Diario del Noroeste newspaper in the northern Mexican town of Ascension, fled with son Oscar to El Paso in June 2008. They immediately surrendered to U.S. immigration authorities in that border city and requested asylum.
Chihuahua state, where Ascension is located, accounted for 30 percent of Mexico’s more than 15,000 gangland killings last year, with some 3,100 homicides in the state’s biggest city, Ciudad Juarez, located just across the border from El Paso, Texas.
In his application, Gutierrez said he was threatened after writing articles related to the tactics used by the Mexican army in its crackdown on drug gangs.
He said troops initially threatened him in 2005 during a meeting at a restaurant in Ascension and that shortly afterward a group of masked soldiers woke him and his son at their home, supposedly in a search for weapons and drugs.
The reporter continued to write articles critical of the security forces, but when a friend told him that soldiers planned to kill him he decided to flee to the United States.
Immigration authorities sent him and his son to an immigrant detention center in El Paso, where Emilio was held for seven months.
His son was released to the custody of family members in a U.S. border city after being detained for three months.
Gutierrez said he knows his case is sensitive because it is based on accusations against the Mexican army and is tantamount to “casting doubt on” the Merida Initiative, a U.S.-funded regional plan to battle drug cartels and organized crime.
If a U.S. court grants him asylum, that also could open the door to a wave of similar requests, he said.
But he stressed that he has no “plan B” and is not even contemplating the possibility that his asylum request might be denied.
The journalist said that once he is granted asylum he will resume his campaign to raise awareness about the dangers journalists face every day in Mexico.
Among those testifying on Gutierrez’s behalf on Friday were Mike O’Connor, Mexico representative of the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists; Ricardo Sandoval Palos, with the Washington-based Center for Public Integrity; and Gustavo de la Rosa Hickerson, who represents Mexico’s independent National Human Rights Commission.
Sandoval said Gutierrez’s case is well supported by the evidence and that he traveled from Mexico City to testify because he knows the dangers the journalist is bringing to the court’s attention are real.
For his part, Mike O’Connor said fear has led to self-censorship in Mexico and “a tremendous lack of information” available to the Mexican people, who are left “deaf and dumb” as organized crime’s tentacles continue to spread.
He said that since late 2006, when President Felipe Calderon took office and militarized the struggle against Mexico’s powerful drug cartels, 23 journalists have been killed in the country and seven more have gone missing.
National and international human rights groups have criticized the decision to use soldiers for law enforcement.
New York-based Human Rights Watch said in its World Report 2010 that “while engaging in law enforcement activities, Mexico’s armed forces have committed serious human rights violations, including killings, torture, rapes, and arbitrary detentions.”
Late last year, the United States granted political asylum to Mexican journalist Jorge Luis Aguirre – the first reporter to receive asylum since attacks against the media intensified in 2008.
Mexico’s powerful drug cartels often target media outlets and individual journalists and routinely resort to threats and bribery to influence press coverage of their activities.