‘Every day here we are waiting to die’: Mexican journalist detained in U.S. fears for life

“I’ve been thinking it’s better to face death in Mexico than to continue in this place,” says Mexican journalist Emilio Gutiérrez-Soto who, with his son Oscar, is being held in immigration detention in Texas.

“Every day here we are waiting to die.”

In 2008, Gutiérrez-Soto was a journalist in Mexico, writing about corruption in the military. When his life was repeatedly threatened by the army, he fled with his then-teenage son and sought asylum in the U.S.

The case was based on “credible fear” that their lives were in danger in Mexico, and it has been winding its way ever since through the complex maze that is the U.S. immigration process.

Now, a decade later, their bid for a life in America is reaching its climax at an especially challenging time, just as the practice of journalism in Mexico has become a deadly trade and the U.S. immigration process has hardened.

“It is an awful experience, where authorities try to break your spirit. They try to make you an example for everyone so there is no interest in coming back to this country,” Gutiérrez-Soto told The National‘s Adrienne Arsenault in a rare interview granted at the immigration detention centre in El Paso.

“At any moment we could be deported, U.S. authorities will hand us over to the Mexican army,” Gutiérrez-Soto says.

“They have been looking for me all this time. We are headed to our deaths.”

Challenging military corruption

Emilio Gutiérrez-Soto used to work for El Diario del Noreste, a local newspaper in the small town of Ascension in the state of Chihuahua. He covered the crime beat, which led him to report on corruption in the local military.

One article in particular, headlined “Demands to Stop Impunity,” chronicled the military’s takeover of a hotel near Ascension where people were assaulted and robbed.

Mexican journalist Emilio Gutierrez-Soto fled his country and sought asylum in the U.S. after receiving a tip that a special unit of the military planned to murder him. (Adrienne Arsenault/CBC)

Days after it was published, Emilio describes being threatened by a military general.

In a second encounter, Gutiérrez-Soto says the military broke through the front door of his home in the middle of the night and pointed guns at him. He immediately identified himself as a journalist, and the men searched his home, telling him they were looking for weapons and drugs.

In the weeks that followed, Gutiérrez-Soto believes he was being watched by the military.

Then, according to court documents, a local teacher contacted Gutiérrez-Soto telling him she’d heard a special unit of the military planned to murder him. So in June 2008 he left Mexico with his son Oscar, crossed the U.S. border and asked for asylum.

New life, old fears

Emilio and Oscar were separated and held in immigration detention for several months in Texas. Then they were paroled and released, settling in Las Cruces, not far from El Paso.

Emilio operated a food truck and Oscar attended school, and for a decade their case lurched through the dense bureaucracy of U.S. immigration law. Both father and son continued to appear regularly at the local Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) office for mandatory check-ins.

Then last summer, an immigration judge denied their request for asylum, deciding Emilio and Oscar should be deported.

This night view shows the border between El Paso on the left and Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, to the right. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images)

Although Emilio’s case was based on “credible fear” for his life in Mexico, which is key to gaining asylum in the U.S., Judge Robert S. Hough ruled against his bid. Emilio’s testimony was found to be inconsistent, implausible and uncorroborated, according to court documents.

Judge Hough wrote that he believed the Mexican government “was neither unwilling nor unable to offer protection,” noting it had made an effort to co-operate with Emilio by offering him bodyguards.

An appeal was filed. While the case was pending, Emilio and Oscar made their regular check-in at the ICE offices in early December — but when they arrived, ICE officials decided both men would be deported that day.

While they were en route to the Mexican border, their lawyer learned what was happening and filed an emergency injunction. They were put into detention in El Paso, where both father and son have been held ever since, their future uncertain.

Detention centre

From the city’s centre, it is a 15-minute drive to the El Paso Processing Centre. The facility sits on a scrubby patch of land, a complex of buildings alongside the city’s airport. It is surrounded by a razor wire fence and guarded by armed staff from U.S. Homeland Security.

Earlier this year, CBC’s The National negotiated with ICE for several weeks to get access to Emilio and Oscar at the centre to hear their story first-hand. The centre’s director finally agreed to an interview with no cameras — just an audio recording and photographs taken with a cellphone.

Mexican journalist Emilio Gutiérrez-Soto describes his time in the U.S. immigration detention centre as feeling like he is ‘waiting to die’ every day:

Mexican journalist Emilio Gutiérrez-Soto and his son Oscar speak from the U.S. immigration detention centre in El Paso, Texas, where they’re being held pending a final decision on their bid for asylum. In these excerpts from The National’s exclusive interview, they discuss their case, the living conditions, and their fear that they’ll be killed by the army if they’re returned to Mexico. 3:22

The National‘s team travelled to El Paso recently, and met with Emilio and Oscar for a one-hour interview. It was done in a small, cement-block room with a metal table and round bench. One wall had a large one-way glass insert so staff outside could observe.

Emilio does not speak English, but his son Oscar does, after 10 formative years in the U.S.

They offered some details about the living conditions. Both men appeared to be in good health. They sleep in a barracks with 62 other men on a series of bunks. They are allowed access to the outside twice a day, for an hour. Oscar works doing laundry and is paid $1 a day.

More importantly, says Oscar, father and son are allowed to be together.

The El Paso Processing Center is a fenced-in detention facility guarded by armed staff from U.S. Homeland Security. (CBC)“They’re not separating us, or something. We’re together here.”

During the interview, the two were quick to dismiss key aspects of Judge Hough’s decision. Emilio contends there is no protection for journalists in Mexico.

“To say that we could be protected in Mexico is crazy. I would like to see him spend a weekend in Ciudad Juarez, without protection, so he can see how serious and irresponsible his actions are by denying us asylum,” Emilio says.

Oscar adds that the Mexican government’s protection program, “doesn’t work. It’s the same government that does that program, so we are running away from [the people behind] that program.”

Emilio painted his plea to be released, ‘Freedom for Emilio,’ on the shoes he wears in detention. (Carmen Merrifield/CBC)Asked about the most demoralizing aspect of being detained, both say some of the Hispanic guards inside have been “disrespectful” to them.

“The most significant detail of being in this jail is the emotional damage,” Emilio says. “A damage that is motivated by the [U.S.] government, but applied, unfortunately, by people who are Mexican descendants.

“Most of the guards here, some were granted amnesty, others arrived as children and got their citizenship. Others were born here, but are children of Mexicans. Most of them are aggressive with us, the immigrants, even when it’s clear they have the mark of the Rio Grande water still painted on their necks,” Emilio says.

His son Oscar agrees: “Sometimes they make our lives impossible here. They yell at us, they treat us really bad … I have some troubles with some officers, you know, because they talk to me without respect, and I talk to them the same way and they don’t like it. So they start to yell.”

Oscar Gutierrez-Soto says life in immigration detention is difficult. ‘Sometimes they make our lives impossible here. They yell at us, they treat us really bad.’ (Adrienne Arsenault/CBC)Along with worries about what could happen to him while detained in the United States, Emilio says he continues to be fearful of being returned to Mexico.

“Yes, I am scared to go back to Mexico. I am scared, I can’t deny it. The Mexican state has all the power and economic resources, and all the criminals within the state to hurt us. We are afraid,” Emilio says.

Oscar says his father’s fear is infectious.

“It’s very depressing, hearing him talking like that, because we are together, you know? And if he loses, I lose. And we are both in danger if we go back to Mexico. So it’s kind of hard to hear him talking like that,” Oscar says.

Who to trust

Emilio and Oscar have good reason for fear.

Across the border from El Paso is Ciudad Juarez, one of the most violent cities on Earth. The National spent a day there with Sandra Rodriguez, one of Mexico’s top investigative journalists.

At the El Diario de Juarez newspaper, Rodriguez digs into local corruption and the drug war, their byzantine connections, and what is behind the explosion of violence in Juarez.

Sandra Rodriguez, one of Mexico’s top investigative journalists, works at the El Diario de Juarez newspaper in Ciudad Juarez, covering local corruption and the drug war. (CBC)Rodriguez herself has been threatened, at one point moving south to Mexico City for a few years to wait for the danger to cool.

The risks are real — one of her closest colleagues, Armando Rodriguez, was killed in 2008. His empty desk is nearby, still holding photos and dried flowers to mark where he worked.

Sandra Rodriguez says she believes there is no reliable program to protect journalists in Mexico. In the case of Gutiérrez-Soto, “if he fears to be here, and the only protection he has is this program of the government, it’s like useless. There are a lot of examples of how this program has failed other journalists, very specific examples of people killed or threatened.”

At least a dozen Mexican journalists have been killed in the past year, some under the government-run protection program.

Given the reported connections between the government and the military, Gutiérrez-Soto cannot trust either organization to protect him, Rodriguez adds.

A small ‘ofrenda’ or memorial at the desk of journalist Armando Rodriguez, who was killed while reporting in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. (Adrienne Arsenault/CBC)“That’s the foundation of the fear that Mexico, I mean the population, is living, because you don’t trust authorities. That’s the worst scenario, where the police or the people that are supposed to protect you are the people that are scaring you, or threatening you,” Rodriguez says.

Back on the U.S. side of the border in El Paso, Carlos Spector practices immigration and asylum law.

“I was born and raised on the border, and given my proximity to the border and having family on both sides I have chosen to specialize in Mexican political asylum,” Spector says. “I try to give refuge to refugees.”

U.S. lawyer Carlos Spector specializes in immigration cases. (Adrienne Arsenault/CBC)He, too, is afraid for Gutiérrez-Soto if he is ultimately deported to Mexico.

“If he goes back home to Chihuahua where he has his ancestral home, he’s dead. They would kill him. He’s just another troublemaker that needs to be taken care of,” Spector says.

CBC News played back part of the recorded interview with Emilio and Oscar, including when Emilio is particularly expressive about his experience in detention, saying “I’ve been thinking it’s better to face death in Mexico than to continue in this place.”

Hearing Emilio’s words, Spector replies, “It’s traumatizing to be locked up when you’ve not committed a crime.”

U.S. immigration lawyer Carlos Spector says there’s no reason Emilio Gutiérrez-Soto and his son should be held in immigration detention:

U.S. immigration lawyer Carlos Spector says there’s no reason Mexican journalist Emilio Gutiérrez-Soto and his son Oscar should be held in immigration detention. 0:38

He calls the treatment by the American government “outright persecution. You know it’s payback for him denouncing Mexico and denouncing the U.S. And there’s no other reason why he shouldn’t be released. Absolutely none,” Spector says.

“We’re back to where immigration law and protection was in the ’20s and ’30s, I have no doubt about that.”

The statue on Spector’s desk depicts Benito Juarez, Mexico’s first Indigenous president, who is considered a kind of patron figure for the people of Mexico. Whenever he leaves his office, Spector has a ritual of rubbing the top of the statue, hoping it gives him strength as he ‘heads into battle’ fighting for his clients seeking asylum in the United States. (Adrienne Arsenault/CBC)Asked why Americans should care about the plight of Emilio and Oscar Gutiérrez-Soto, Spector says supporting a journalist against government oppression would encourage Mexico’s democracy, and ultimately keep Mexicans from fleeing across the border.

“What they’re not getting is that the best, and I think only, hope for a democratic Mexico is transparency and accountability. And the institution that is in the best position to do that is the Mexican press,” Spector says.

“You want to keep Mexicans at home, help Mexicans stay at home by being able to file complaints and deal with human rights.”

In the meantime, Emilio recognizes that his battle with U.S. immigration officials is a fight that is hurting his son Oscar as well.

Emilio knows his son Oscar is paying dearly for his battle with U.S. immigration authorities, but the former journalist says he cannot give up the fight. (Carmen Merrifield/CBC)“That my son has to carry the responsibility that belongs to his father, doing the job of a journalist,” Emilio says as he begins to cry, “this is something that fills me with pain … and I hope that someday he will understand.”

And yet, while Emilio feels demoralized, he has no intention of giving up.

“I am going to hang in as long as I can. I am going to show them we have the right to be asking for our lives to be protected, and to live in freedom. We are not delinquents. We are people that have respected the laws of this country.”

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