On June 20, 2011, in Veracruz, Mexico, Miguel Ángel López Solana arrived home to find that his brother, mother and father had been murdered. Both sons were photojournalists at the newspaper where their father was a columnist, writing about crime and political corruption. Within a month, another journalist at the paper was decapitated. A year later, four more journalists were murdered there in a single week. It’s not clear why they were killed, but Mr. López wasn’t going to wait around to find out.
“I just ran away, I ran away, I ran as far as I could, to where I could get lost in the black of night,” Mr. López said at a journalism forum in Austin, Tex., in 2012.
After the killings he and his wife fled Veracruz for Mexico City, then the border, where they waited for a visa to enter the United States. Finally they crossed, seeking political asylum. Then they went down the same path as all asylum seekers: the interrogations by immigration authorities; the search for a lawyer; the courtroom appearances; the wait for a work permit; the uncertainty. In May 2013, the couple were granted asylum.
Counting him, there are at least six Mexican journalists living in exile in the United States.
Three are from the state of Chihuahua: Emilio Gutiérrez Soto fled in 2008 when he learned that a military officer had given orders to kill him; that same year Jorge Luis Aguirre received death threats for publishing criticism of the governor and his cabinet; in 2009, Ricardo Aldana’s car was burned and two of his nephews killed, after he reported on corruption and a failed military operation on his radio show.
Then there is Héctor Salazar, from Morelos, in southern Mexico. In 2007, Mr. Salazar fled the country, after he received a threatening letter; found the front of his house peppered with bullet holes; and was assaulted and briefly kidnapped. He ended up in Denver, where he lived illegally for over a year.
Alejandro Hernández Pacheco, a cameraman, left Mexico in 2010 after he and colleagues were abducted and tortured by drug traffickers for covering a scandal involving the director of a Durango jail, who allowed prisoners to leave at night to commit cartel-ordered murders.
The exile and internal displacement of Mexican journalists is a relatively new phenomenon. Mexico is now one of the world’s deadliest countries for journalists. Since 2000, at least 89 journalists have been killed, and 18 disappeared. The majority of these murders took place after December 2006, when Felipe Calderón, then the president, mobilized the federal police and military to fight the war on drugs and, in the process, unleashed an unprecedented wave of violence.
According to Reporters Without Borders, between 2007 and 2013 at least 14 journalists fled Mexico: In addition to the six who went to the United States, two went to Canada and the rest to Europe. Balbina Flores Martínez, the Mexican correspondent for Reporters Without Borders, says all “were threatened in different ways and for different reasons: some for information they made public, or for things they were investigating.”
Ms. Flores, who has been threatened herself, says there are possibly more cases.
So far, only four have managed to obtain political asylum in the United States.
Mr. Gutiérrez was the first of the recent wave to apply. In 2008, after receiving word that the officer wanted him murdered, he crossed the border with his teenage son and turned himself in to the authorities. Separated from his son, he spent seven and a half months in a detention center. He was eventually released and granted a court date more than two years later, at which point his case was postponed. He has been summoned to appear before a judge four, maybe five times. He’s lost count. His next date is in 2015.
To make ends meet, he sold his house in Mexico, and, unable to legally work, for a few months lived on grant money awarded him by a foundation. Now he operates a food truck and sells nachos, elotes (Mexican-style corn on the cob), sweets and ices.
Mr. Gutiérrez is one of the founding members of Mexicanos en Exilio, a legal advocacy organization for exiled Mexicans. It is led by Cipriana Jurado, a human-rights activist who barely escaped Mexico alive. Ms. Jurado is concerned that American authorities believe that the situation in Mexico has improved under President Enrique Peña Nieto, even though Mexicans continue to flock north in the hope of escaping violence.
While the number of Mexican immigrants to the United States has declined, asylum applications have gone up. In 2006, Mexico had the fifth highest number of applicants for political asylum (after China, El Salvador, Guatemala and Haiti), with a total of 2,611. By 2012 that number had shot up to 9,206. Today Mexico is second after China and yet has a very low acceptance rate. Just 1.4 percent of Mexican applicants were granted asylum in 2012, while Chinese applicants had an acceptance rate of 42 percent.
“We believe that given the political treaties and business between Mexico and the United States, the number of asylum petitions granted is extremely low,” Ms. Jurado said. She also said that America shares responsibility for what’s going on in Mexico, “because the United States sends weapons for the so-called war on drugs, and consumes drugs.”
Who is granted asylum? Those who enter with valid visas get asylum faster than those who cross the border illegally and who are often detained when they ask for asylum. Journalists, activists and human rights workers at least have press clippings that can serve as evidence of what they have been through. Most people who arrive after being traumatized by violence don’t even have that.
“Did you ever take money from the traffickers or politicians? Who was paying you?” Those are some of the questions that Carlos Spector, a lawyer in Texas who represents several of the journalists in exile, has heard authorities ask his clients. He believes that United States authorities generally suspect that asylum applicants are linked to crime. He feels that judges do not understand the context of corruption and impunity in which Mexicans must survive: In much of the country, the narcos are in charge. They tell reporters what they may or may not publish. Life is governed by the law of “plata o plomo” — silver or lead, money or bullets.
“Nothing is ever black or white in Mexico; there is always someone with a link to someone in one of the cartels,” he says. “The Americans are very pedantic on this point — they want hard evidence, and often all you have is the word of some poor journalist.”
Jorge Luis Aguirre was the second Mexican journalist to obtain political asylum, in May 2011. (The first, who reported on the Zapatista uprising, received asylum in 1997). He won because he had copies of the death threats he had received from the Chihuahua State government. “It is very hard to produce proof. You don’t ever record anything — all you want to do is run, it’s impossible to gather evidence of a threat like that. If you stay, they’ll kill you. You’re up against a wall with an AK-47 in your face. I was lucky, I had a lot of evidence.”
Who can imagine what it’s like to photograph 19 dead bodies in a day’s work, as one photojournalist from Ciudad Juárez did? What must it be like to cover a crime and discover that the man you just found decapitated was a close colleague? Many suffer from post-traumatic stress.
And then, the minute they make it across the border alive, exiled journalists lose their jobs, their homes, their country, and enter a bureaucratic nightmare of petitioning for political asylum that requires them to prove the dangers they say they were subjected to.
“It’s awful living here,” said Mr. Gutiérrez. “Look, you don’t have your house, you don’t have your family, you don’t have — and this hurts me the most — to have lost my homeland, to know that you’ll never return to Mexico.”
Marcela Turati is a Mexican reporter and co-founder of the Grassroots Journalists Network. This article was translated by Kristina Cordero from the Spanish.