Saving a Mexican journalist

It took him fifteen years, but Emilio Gutierrez Soto was finally granted asylum in the U.S. He needed it. Like other Mexican journalists, he was a special target of the drug cartels who murder a number of newspeople each year for just doing their job. Outside of war zones, more journalists are killed in Mexico than anywhere else on earth. 

Gutierrez Soto reported the every day news in Ascension, a small town in northern Mexico. Inevitably, that included crime which is ever day thanks to the drug cartels. On one occasion he noted that the criminals were outfitted in military uniform. That angered the military since it suggested military and criminals were one and the same, which is the case in Mexico. He was told he was in trouble.

Not heeding the warning, he continued to report and even filed a complaint with the police he had offended. Then  early one morning he and his young son Oscar were awakened by a loud thud on the door. In came a group of heavily armed soldiers who ordered the pair to lie on the floor while they searched the house. “It was a night of terror,” he recalls. 

He wrote up the event for the local newspaper but soon after fled with Oscar to the U.S., applying for asylum at a border  crossing in New Mexico. There began another unexpected ordeal. To attain asylum in the U.S. can be a long drawn out process, and most applications are rejected, though these days asylum seekers can secretly cross an overwhelmed border with the help of a cartel “coyote.” For the next several years, father and son were put on hold, awaiting a decision while living and working on a farm.  Would they be granted asylum or deported back to Mexico? It was a close call.

In 2017 Robert Hough, a federal immigration judge ruled that their story was filled with “inconsistencies, implausibilities and uncorroborated assertions.” He almost seemed to be confirming the cartel’s objection to journalism, though not – to be sure – its ominous warning. With a reputation for rejecting almost all asylum applications, he said the pair could avoid harm by relocating somewhere else in Mexico, apparently ignorant of the fact that the cartels control the whole country. No place would be safe for them.

Put under arrest, they were almost deported, but an appeal panel reversed Hough’s decision, concluding that their fears of persecution on returning were justified. Yes, there is a tight drug cartel control of Mexico. This month Gutierrez Soto was officially granted asylum.

Emilio Gutierrez Soto, Lawyer Beckett and Oscar after asylum announcement.

The National Press Club and others who helped him are pleased with the outcome. But their work is far from over. With an open border at their disposal the cartels are stronger than ever, pushing more drugs and people across for immense profits. Given the hazards of reporting in Mexico, more U.S. press coverage is needed, but is strangely lacking. We probably know more about Yemen and Somalia, with which, it is true, we are at war, than about neighboring Mexico. It’s routinely described in conventional terms when, in fact, it is a narco state, a criminal enterprise, that murders its reporters, some of whom, like Gutierrez Soto, we manage to save.

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