Mexican journalist seeking asylum in the U.S. voluntarily returns to his country after being detained by ICE for 100 days

Mexican journalist Martín Méndez Pineda, who sought political asylum in the U.S., voluntarily returned to Mexico after spending 100 days in Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention centers, according to Reporters Without Borders (RSF for its acronym in French).

On May 16, in the only hearing granted to Méndez since he applied for asylum on Feb. 5, the journalist waived his asylum claim and asked the judge to leave the U.S. voluntarily, his lawyers told the Center Knight.

"Maltreatment, humiliation and abuse by local authorities became increasingly disagreeable, as I was transferred to three different detention centers and in each one of them the psychological torment increased, damaging my health further, the reason why I made the decision to leave that country, because I prefer to be in another nation than to live locked in that place in which, from the first day I entered, I recognized as (the same hell)," Méndez Pineda said in a statement that he sent to various media and organizations that defend freedom of the press after his departure.

For security reasons, Méndez's whereabouts in Mexico are still unknown. RSF continues to offer its support in order to find a safe place for him. The possibility of seeking asylum in another country remains an option, said Gloria Amesquita, legal assistant to the office of Carlos Spector, Méndez’s defense lawyer and director of the organization Mexicanos in Exile.

The Mechanism for the Protection of Journalists and Human Rights Defenders in Mexico is aware of Méndez's situation, RSF reported.

With the help of RSF, Méndez contacted Carlos Spector, who accompanied him on Feb. 5 to the El Paso, Texas border port of entry to apply for asylum, informed Amesquita from Mexicanos in Exile. Despite having all the papers required for the trial, and with evidence that his life was in danger in Mexico, Méndez was arrested.

In February 2016, Méndez Pineda wrote an article for Novedades Acapulco, the newspaper where he worked in the state of Guerrero, that a person involved in a car accident with a patrol car suffered abuse from authorities. Following the publication, a group of armed federal agents broke into his home, assaulted him and threatened him with death, RSF reported.

Death threats continued over the telephone for months, prompting Méndez to leave Guerrero and seek help from international human rights organizations, such as RSF, to leave the country.

His situation in the U.S. was not easy since he arrived in the country and was detained by immigration officials. He was transferred to other ICE detention centers twice, and during the journeys they barely gave him food and water, according to what Méndez wrote in a letter about his confinement that was published by RSF.

Since the journalist made public the precarious conditions in which he was held in ICE centers, the guards began to harass him, making his imprisonment even more difficult to cope with, Amesquita said.

While waiting in detention for his asylum application to be accepted, he twice asked immigration authorities to allow him to continue his political asylum process in freedom. However, on March 28 and May 4, ICE Deputy Director in El Paso, Texas, Alfredo Fierro denied Méndez that possibility, considering that he did not have enough ties with the community and because he represented a "flight risk," RSF reported at the time.

“The government is forcing people to decide between being locked up indefinitely and going back to somewhere where people want to murder them,” Alan Dickerson, a member of the Detained Migrant Solidarity Committee, said to The Dallas Morning News with regards to Méndez’s case.

Various journalistic and human rights organizations have condemned the treatment to which the U.S. government subjected Méndez during his stay in that country.

“We deplore the behaviour of the US Immigration authorities, who are putting this Mexican journalist’s life in danger by refusing to grant him asylum,” said Balbina Flores, RSF’s representative in Mexico.

Mexico is the deadliest American country to practice journalism, ranking 149 out of 180 in the RSF 2017 World Press Freedom Index. So far this year, six journalists have lost their lives, with one of the most recent murders being that of award-winning journalist Javier Valdéz Cárdenas, who wrote about drug trafficking in Sinaloa.

The Knight Center attempted to communicate via email with ICE. We did not immediately receive a response.

Note from the editor: This story was originally published by the Knight Center’s blog Journalism in the Americas, the predecessor of LatAm Journalism Review.