Threatened Mexican journalist awaits outcome of U.S. asylum hearing (Interview)

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  • January 24, 2011

By Monica Medel


It has been two and a half years since he crossed the border with his son after receiving death threats while covering the bloody war on drugs in Mexico. Since then, Mexican journalist Emilio Gutiérrez Soto has been waiting to find out if he will be granted political asylum in the United States. He had his first hearing with an immigration judge Jan. 21, 2011, in El Paso, Texas.

Gutiérrez worked for eight years at El Diario del Noroeste newspaper in Ascensión, Chihuahua, near the border with New Mexico. During his final years as a reporter for the paper, he began to receive constant threats after publishing articles on alleged civilian abuses by the members of the military. The soldiers were stationed in Chihuahua as part of the President Felipe Calderón's anti-drug offensive that was initiated in 2006. He also says his home was raided by individuals who identified themselves as soldiers who held him at gunpoint while searching for drugs and weapons. Soon after, one of his sources told him there were plans to kill him.

Gutiérrez then took his son and crossed the U.S. border in June 2008. He spent seven months in a federal detention center in El Paso. He has since been released and is waiting for the court to rule on his asylum bid, which could also have bearing on other Mexican journalists in a similar position. Some recent examples include radio journalist Ricardo Chávez, who was threatened by drug traffickers, and cameraman Alejandro Hernández, who was kidnapped by gang members.

In September, the editor of the online news site La Polaka, Jorge Luis Aguirre, became the first Mexican journalist to whom the U.S. has granted asylum in a decade. If the court rules in favor of Gutiérrez on Feb. 4 – when the hearing is scheduled to resume – he could be the second.

On Jan. 22, Gutiérrez spoke about his case with the Knight Center. Below are excerpts from the interview, for the full text see this post in Spanish.

Knight Center: How was the first day of hearings and how what was the mood in the court?
Emilio Gutiérrez: It was a bad day because we had a prosecutor who rejected much of the evidence that we presented, which included my views and the views of my lawyer, Carlos Spector. This didn’t seem relevant to either the judge or the prosecutor. That is to say, my lawyer had to stay silent (…) the judge instructed him not to give his opinion, which to us this seemed like a juridical aberration and that our right to free expression was restricted.

KC: How do you expect the court to rule? Do you have a plan B in case it rules against you?
Gutiérrez: We are in the fight, we are going to keep working. We have our next hearing on Feb. 4. What should be clear to the judge and the prosecutor is that, in the unlikely case that they deny me asylum, I am not going to leave the United States. I have nowhere to go, I could look for another home, look for another country, but I can never return to Mexico. (…) The Mexican government can't guarantee my safety and we can't go to a judge there because they are obviously going to kill me. I have evidence of death threats from a senior military commander, and I have evidence that they raided my house looking for weapons and drugs.

KC:What are your reasons for asking for asylum?
Gutiérrez: We are not here for papers, we are here to preserve our lives. I was never interested in coming to live in the United States, I had my house, my friends, my family, my home, my job. All of this they took away from me, I had to abandon it. I didn’t come here for residency papers like other people. This isn’t the reason for coming to the United States. And this is not clear to either the judge or the prosecutor. It is not possible that the United States, which works to increase human rights globally, would deny those who are fleeing violence in my country, which – in a way – the United States has helped promote.


KC: How would you describe the state of the press in Mexico, after the increase in violence and in the context of the war on drugs?
Gutiérrez:In Mexico, especially in Ciudad Juárez, I consider my collegeus heroes, because they are working without any support from their employers and without any support from the authorities. They are working in a battlefield, one that I think is more difficult than Iraq. In Iraq, the marines and the English soldiers take care to protect journalists, even though there were casualties. (...) The only protection given to Mexican journalists is the recommendation to use bulletproof vests…Thus I believe that my colleagues in Mexican are doing an exceptional job to continue informing the citizenry while putting their own lives at risk. They are heroes.