<i>"The Name of Our Country is América" - Simon Bolivar</i> The Narco News Bulletin<br><small>Reporting on the War on Drugs and Democracy from Latin America
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Four Mexican Journalists in Exile

Case Studies of the Drug War’s Multiple Harms to Press Freedom

By Molly Molloy
Special to The Narco News Bulletin

September 23, 2010

Less than one week after the murder of Luis Carlos Santiago, a 21-year-old photojournalist for El Diario de Ciudad Juárez, three Mexican journalists in exile spoke to the press from the offices of the Border Network for Human Rights in El Paso, Texas: Emilio Gutierrez Soto, a newspaper reporter from the town of Ascensión, Chihuahua, Ricardo Chavez Aldana, a radio reporter from Juárez and Alejandro Hernandez Pacheco, a TV cameraman with Televisa based in Torreon, Coahuila. In addition, Luis Horacio Nájera, a former reporter for Grupo Reforma based in Juárez, addressed the group via Skype from Vancouver, Canada where he sought refuge in September 2008.

Press conference in El Paso for exiled Mexican reporters: From left to right: Emilio Gutierrez Soto, formerly with El Diario del Noroeste, Ricardo Chavez Aldana, formerly with Radio Cañon in Juárez, Alejandro Hernandez Pacheco, Televisa—Torreon, Carlos Spector, immigration attorney in El Paso, and Fernando Garcia, Executive Director, Border Network for Human Rights, El Paso. On screen: Luis Horacio Najera via skype from Vancouver, formerly with Grupo Reforma.
Photo: D.R. 2010 Molly Molloy
Together with the journalists, Fernando Garcia of the Border Network for Human Rights and immigration attorney Carlos Spector discussed the grant of political asylum awarded to Jorge Luis Aguirre on September 20, 2010. Aguirre left Juárez for El Paso in November 2008, shortly after the murder of El Diario reporter Armando Rodriguez and after he received telephone threats from an official in the Chihuahua state government who had been implicated in corruption and ties to powerful criminal organizations in Juárez. (See: Threatened Mexican journalist granted US asylum, Sep 21, 2010, and; Mejor bicentenario que vicentenario, 20 Septiembre 2010.)

Aguirre was able to cross into El Paso with his family using their border-crossing cards. After some time living in exile and while continuing to publish his news website from El Paso, he and his family began the process of applying for political asylum. The reporters, attorney and human rights activists at the press conference mentioned that various community efforts had assisted Aguirre in his asylum petition, including funding his trip to Washington to testify to the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee on March 17, 2009.

The fact that Jorge Luis Aguirre has been granted asylum is an apparent victory in the struggles faced by Mexican journalists in exile, however there are some interesting twists to the story. Aguirre says in his posting to his Lapolaka website that he went through the asylum process on his own, “What is outstanding about the case is that Jorge Luis lobbied for the protection of the American government without any advice of expert immigration lawyers and demonstrated that he had been threatened with death by the Government of Chihuahua headed by Reyes Baeza…” Nevertheless, critical assistance was provided by immigration attorneys and human rights groups in El Paso who helped to obtain vital documents to back up his claims of persecution and also funded his trip to Washington to testify in Congress.

Jorge Luis Aguirre’s claim that he did it on his own may serve the US government’s interests since it pretends that achieving political asylum is a simple matter if the case is sound. The officials of the US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS, a division of the Department of Homeland Security) who granted Aguirre’s asylum claim can now affirm that they do indeed respect the dangerous situation faced by Mexican journalists and evaluate each case on its merits. Using this logic, they may be able to deny other claims by saying that the evidence presented is not strong enough. From my knowledge of the way the asylum process works, the officers in DHS-USCIS never talk to the press about their criteria or their reasons for granting asylum, however, when the claim is denied, it is always based on lack of evidence to establish the well-founded fear of persecution. Then the asylum seeker, usually with the help of an attorney, may take the case to an immigration judge, thus moving the process into the US Department of Justice (out of the DHS gulag) where there may be some openness. Carlos Spector, who represents several of the Mexican journalists seeking asylum, told the El Paso Times that Aguirre’s grant of asylum is “a welcome decision that signals a change of policy from the Obama administration because they can no longer deny reality.” (See: Mexican President Calderón announces arrest in journalist’s murder, El Paso Times, September 23, 2010.)

As can be seen from the cases of these other journalists in exile, there are many factors that can make the asylum process difficult.

Case summaries of four Mexican Reporters in Exile

Emilio Guiterrez Soto fled from his hometown of Ascensión, Chihuahua, in June 2008 after receiving direct death threats from Mexican Army personnel in the town who were offended by stories he had written that were critical of soldiers’ behavior in the region. Gutierrez did not have a tourist visa or border-crossing card, nor was he able to travel to Juárez to get one since he would have had to traverse several army checkpoints between Ascensión and Juárez. He was detained at the Antelope Wells, NM port of entry because at that time, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) policy was to detain any Mexican who asked for asylum upon entering the country at a border crossing. Gutierrez did not attempt to enter the U.S. illegally, rather, he stated his fear of persecution at the port of entry and asked for asylum in the U.S. At that time, he was separated from his teenage son, brought to El Paso and imprisoned for 7 months. His son was detained for 2 months. Emilio was finally released from detention on January 30, 2009, but did not receive a permit to work in the United States until August 2009. His political asylum hearing has been scheduled in January 2011. (For more background on Emilio’s case, see the article, We Bring Fear, by Charles Bowden, Mother Jones Magazine, August 2009.)

In part due to community activism surrounding Emilio’s treatment, ICE instituted a new policy of parole for “arriving aliens found to have a credible fear of persecution or torture” and no longer automatically detains everyone who asks for asylum at a port of entry. [ICE Policy Directive No. 11002.1, Issued December 8, 2009, Effective date January 4, 2010] But this policy is subject to the discretion of the ICE officials at the border crossing. When Ricardo Chavez Aldana (more details below) asked for asylum in December 2009, he was allowed into the U.S. using his border-crossing card, but his sister—who had witnessed the murders of her two sons and who also asked for asylum at the bridge—was detained by ICE for more than one month because she had no visa to enter the U.S. and probably because the new ICE policy had not yet officially been implemented.

Luis Horacio Nájera was a reporter for Grupo Reforma based in Ciudad Juárez where he reported on government corruption and drug trafficking. Najera knew what had happened to Emilio Gutierrez and he wanted to avoid being imprisoned in the United States. He fled directly to Vancouver, Canada in September 2008 to seek asylum with his family and he has been granted political refuge in that country. Nájera and Emilio Gutierrez are both winners of this year’s International Press Freedom Award from the Canadian Journalists for Free Expression. “The journalists we are honouring have bravely put their personal safety at risk to tell stories the world needs to hear,” said Carol Off, Chair of the CJFE Gala committee. “Our 2010 honourees have defiantly devoted themselves to freedom of expression, proving that the truth will not be silenced. Sadly, one of our awards will be presented posthumously and two in absentia, underscoring the high price that these journalists have paid.”

Ricardo Chavez Aldana, a journalist with Radio Cañon in Ciudad Juárez where he had long criticized government corruption and drug trafficking, presented himself at the bridge in El Paso in December 2009 and asked for political asylum after he broadcast his condemnation of the killings of his two teenaged nephews. Chavez says that his family was targeted for his criticism on the air of the government’s inability to stop the violence in Juárez. The boys were shot to death in front of their mother, Ricardo’s sister. After these brutal murders, government officials stated publicly that the boys were killed as a result of their involvement in narco-trafficking, a charge the family vehemently denies. After denouncing the crime and the false government accusations and criticizing the state attorney general on the radio in Juárez, Chavez received threats via telephone. He crossed into the United States legally on December 9, 2009 using his border-crossing card and asked for asylum. His wife and children were allowed to cross with him on a humanitarian visa. But his sister who crossed at the same time—the mother who witnessed the shooting deaths of her sons—did not have a temporary visa or border-crossing card. She expressed her fear of persecution to the officers at the bridge and told them what had happened to her family, but was nevertheless detained for a month by ICE.

The final participant at the press conference was Alejandro Hernandez Pacheco who is seeking political asylum after fleeing Mexico in August 2010. He was kidnapped and tortured for 5 days by a criminal organization seeking to influence the media and then presented to the international press and offered no protection from the federal government. His kidnapping and subsequent treatment by the Federal Police was widely reported in Mexico and internationally. His asylum claim is based on the fact that the Mexican government has not and cannot protect him from the powerful criminal organizations that he was forced to testify against publicly. (See , Cameraman wants U.S. asylum from thugs, By Houston Chronicle, September 13, 2010 and Formerly abducted Mexican journalist to seek U.S. asylum, lawyer says, CNN.)

All of these exiled journalists have waited or must continue to wait five months after filing their applications for asylum before obtaining a permit to work legally in the United States. During the time that they are not eligible to work, they must rely on help from family, friends and community supporters for their basic needs. All of the journalists at this press conference are the sole support for their families and they all have children who depend on them. Emilio has been a single father since his son was 4. Ricardo has 5 children, all aged 15 or younger. Alejandro has a special needs child of 11 and another 5 yr old. Luis Horacio Nájera took his family to Canada to avoid facing almost certain prison/detention and separation from his family if he had sought asylum in the US He knew what had happened to Emilio Gutierrez. Luckily, he had the means to fly directly to Vancouver.

A major consideration for these and other journalists who may face danger in Mexico is what will happen to their wives and children who may not have visas to cross temporarily into the United States. Any Mexican (or any other foreign national) who presents himself or herself at a port of entry is subject to the discretion of the officers of U.S. Customs and Border Protection. When someone states that they fear persecution in their home country, they may be detained for an indefinite period while the officers of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) make an initial determination as to whether their fear of persecution is “credible and well-founded.” Thus, any person who seeks political asylum places his or her family at risk of being imprisoned. It is important for us to realize the great risks and the very serious and irreversible decisions that these journalists make when they decide that they must exile themselves from their home country in order to protect their lives and the lives of their loved ones. And that they must also give up (at least temporarily), the practice of their chosen profession.

On the day of the press conference, Reporters Without Borders sent a message of support for these exiled journalists:

We salute this effort to bring light to the dramatic situation of the press in Mexico. More than 60 news media professionals have been assassinated since 2000 and 11 more have been disappeared since 2003. Mexico has become the most dangerous country in the world for journalists. … The exile of these journalists is a reversal of freedom of the press and freedom of expression. It means less space for information and more space for threats and violence. Today in Mexico, it is necessary to flee to survive, but these journalists do not renounce their work or their vocation. The journalist in exile continues to tell the story of his experience and pain and the truth that must not be lost.

On September 22, 2010, Mexican President Calderon told a meeting of the Committee to Protect Journalists and the Inter American Press Association that an arrest had been made in the murder of El Diario reporter Armando Rodriguez (killed on November 13, 2008). On September 23, the Mexican Federal Attorney General’s office (PGR) issued a statement saying that Armando Rodriguez was assassinated “for writing many newspaper articles against La Linea,” (La Linea is a name used for the enforcement arm of the Juárez drug trafficking organization.) One hour later, a different document with the same official number replaced the original communiqué on the PGR website. In this second version, the reference to “La Linea” is omitted and it indicates only that “there is information that links the killing to one of the criminal organizations fighting over control of the [Juárez] plaza.” The person the PGR accuses of planning the murder of Armando Rodriguez is himself said to have been killed in an execution in 2009, this based on testimony from two men imprisoned for other crimes.

Considering that a year and 10 months have passed since the reporter’s murder, it is unlikely that the Mexican government will see fit to clear the air. Considering that more than 6,615 people have been murdered in Ciudad Juárez since January 2008 and that less than one percent of these crimes have been “clarified,” (a word often used by Mexican authorities), it is even less likely that any civil authority or any other entity in Ciudad Juárez or the Republic of Mexico will have the power or the will to provide justice for these victims or their families in the most murderous city in the world. This is magical realism with bullets and corpses. Everything is explained, nothing is solved and no one ever answers for the slaughter of the Mexican people and the Mexican press. The US provides encouragement to the Mexican authorities while the news media slowly dies across Mexico.

Molly Molloy is a research librarian at New Mexico State University and the creator of the FRONTERA-LIST. Email: mollymolloy@gmail.com.

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The Narco News Bulletin: Reporting on the Drug War and Democracy from Latin America