The administration of Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto says narco-violence is falling. But it concedes kidnapping and extortion have risen year over year. Polls consistently show Mexicans do not feel safe.
More Mexicans are trying to escape intimidation or violence by petitioning the United States for political asylum. In the past, those applications typically came from victims of wars such as those in Guatemala or El Salvador. Asylum applications from Mexicans have quadrupled since 2009.
Ojinaga, Chihuahua is a ten minute walk away from Presidio, a border town in far West Texas three hours southeast of El Paso.
Two months ago, a 22-year-old named Maria said goodbye to her family here.
A family acquaintance explains why.
“She was left on the side of the road, ya’ know, thinking she was dead. Her eye socket came out of place. It was awful for her. That night she went across the border. She made herself all the way to the bridge. And she was allowed to enter the country.”
Maria is applying for political asylum. It may be difficult for her to win sympathy in the immigration court.
“She was dating someone involved with the drug cartels. She knew she wasn’t safe anywhere around here,” the acquaintance said.
To gain asylum, she’d have to prove that she’s a victim of politically motivated
violence, a tough task. In 2012, the Department of Justice says more than 9000 Mexicans applied for political asylum, and 126 were accepted — 1.4 percent.
There’s a reason so few are accepted.
“Their asylum is not about political reasons,” said Guadalupe Correa-Cabrera, a political science professor at the University of Texas at Brownsville.
In cases like Maria’s, Correa-Cabrera says the attackers will almost certainly not be investigated, a sign the Mexican government is unwilling or unable to control organized crime.
It’s not politically-motivated violence in the strictest sense of the term.
But asylum advocates say it is politically tolerated. Correa-Cabrera’s writing a book called “Los Zetas Inc” about the cartel’s industrial scale extortion business tolerated and often supported by police and politicians.
“The Mexican government has been failing. This is a phenomenon that has to be taken care of
by the Mexican government,” she said.
He says two years ago in Chihuahua, thugs hacked off his feet when he refused to pay them a monthly protection fee.
“I want to recover the Mexico we have lost,” he said in Spanish.
Professor Correa-Cabrera says publicity campaigns like Gutierrez’ won’t change much.
“It is a matter that has to be solved by the Mexican government. However their life is at risk. I have no doubt about that.”
El Paso lawyer Carlos Spector represents Gutierrez. He says protection given to organized crime by agents of the Mexican state means that people pummeled by violence are escaping state-supported crime, which he believes should make victims eligible for political asylum. He calls the concept “authorized crime.”
“And authorized crime means that the criminal cartels cannot function, cannot survive, cannot thrive without complicity by either the municipal, state or federal police. This authorized crime is something that everybody in Mexico understands,” Spector said.
Spector represented the former mayor of Ojinaga, Ernesto Poblano. When Poblano identified government people as drug traffickers, the governor of Chihuahua began intimidating the mayor. That was in 1991.
Poblano became one of the first Mexicans to win an asylum case.
More recently asylum cases have been in the public eye with high-profile attempts by Mexican nationals who arrived at the border in groups to request asylum.
Spector claims these groups, the DREAM 9 and DREAM 30 named for the after the DREAM Act, a failed attempt in Congress to grant citizenship to minors raised in the U.S., undermine cases of people fleeing violence.
“The DREAM 9 and the DREAM 30 went down and recruited people. We’re defending people fleeing Mexico for their lives or absent their legs,” Spector said.
As for Maria, the 22-year-old from Ojinaga, her family aquaintance says she’ll do anything to avoid coming back to Mexico.
“She’s safe now. She’s doing pretty well. But she’s somewhere in the middle of the country. I mean she moved far, as far away as she could,” the family acquaintance said.
There are thousands of Marias waiting in this country. Asylum applications take years to be heard.