When Palomas, Mexico, police chief Emilio Perez dashed across the US border in April, fearing drug traffickers would kill him, he was one of many people in Mexico who have sought asylum as drug violence reaches unprecedented levels. While about 30 requested asylum at West Texas and New Mexico border crossings last year, twice that many requested asylum in the six months since.
It’s not coincidental that the sharp increase in asylum seekers is near the Juarez/Chihuahua sector, where the career of a police officer can be measured in hours, not years.
Two months ago, three unidentified Mexican police chiefs sought asylum in the U.S. But law enforcement is not the only group on the run from drug cartel violence. A car salesman, who had been kidnapped, then released when a $40,000 ransom was paid, is also an asylum seeker.
Even more chilling is the fact that the press has been singled out for retaliation. Only Iraq is a more dangerous country for journalists. Their cars have been sabatoged. Threatening notes addressed to journalists have been left on bodies killed by drug traffickers. Grenades have been lobbed into newspaper offices and some newspapers have been intimidated into shutting down. To illustrate the absurdity of some of the threats, sportswriters have been kidnapped by drug cartel hit men upset over coverage of their favorite soccer teams. This has turned many journalists into asylum seekers.
In one case more than a year ago, Gamaliel López Candanos had just finished a TV broadcast in Monterey, when he and his camerman Gerado Paredes Perez simply vanished. To date, their fate is not known, but family and friends fear they were victims of cartel violence.
Lopez had not seen any reason to ask for asylum and had felt relatively safe, but Emilio Gutierrez, a 45-year-old reporter in Ascension, a Chihuahua city, thinks he can make a good case for it. He said he received death threats for more than two years in response to stories he wrote revealing the Mexican army’s rough treatment of civilians. After soldiers – or men posing as soldiers — ransacked his house, he took his 15-year-old son and headed for the border. He now sits in an El Paso immigration detention center awaiting his fate. His son is in a separate facility.
They wait because being an asylum seeker does not mean they will get asylum. In fact, despite real threats to one’s life, the chances of being granted asylum are fairly slim. Of the 2,611 requests from Mexicans in 2006, only 48 were granted. Asylum seekers must prove persecution based on race, religion, political views, nationality or membership in a particular social group, and that their government is unable or unwilling to protect them. Many asylum seekers, therefore, sit in detention centers waiting for their cause to be heard.
Rather than granting asylum, the US often takes the position that police officers or journalists could find work elsewhere in the country, or move away from elements that are threatening them.
For those who are granted asylum, life is not always rosier on the other side of the fence. Mauricio Rubio, a Palomas, Mexico, police officer, was granted asylum in 2000, after he convinced the US that corrupt Mexican police were trying to kill him. In six months, his wife had left him; his daughters berated him for getting his family into such a position; and he himself missed his old Mexican neighborhood. But he was afraid to return.
These law enforcement asylum seekers are not always welcomed by border city law enforcement, as their troubles could follow them into the US. New Mexico’s Luna County Sheriff Raymond Cobos fears that the drug cartels will follow their victims into towns that are ill prepared to combat them. He has been quoted as saying that he doesn’t “want them around.”