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Monday, August 15, 2011

For one man, Mexico is too dangerous

Judge rules government south of border can't protect him.
By Jason Buch
August 14, 2011

The subject of this story is a marked man.

Members of Mexican drug cartels have threatened him, kidnapped him, beaten him and shot at him. Identifying him by name could get him killed.

They want to kill this man because he worked with the government to combat the cartels. His efforts as a private government contractor resulted in large drug seizures and significant financial losses to the criminal organizations.

“They were calling me to threaten me that they were going to kill me,” he said during an interview this summer in San Antonio. “If I kept doing my job, I was going to get killed.”

His story isn't too different from what tens of thousands of Mexicans face as a matter of course in a country that saw more than 15,000 drug war fatalities last year, and where everyday citizens and legitimate business owners are targeted by indiscriminate drug traffickers.

It's also not too different from the experience of thousands of Mexicans who come to the U.S. every year seeking refuge from the narcos.

But there’s one big difference between this story and theirs: In May, an immigration judge ruled that the man — who requested anonymity because of the risks to his safety — could stay in the U.S. because of the perils that could befall him in his native country.

The decision by Immigration Judge Margaret D. Burkhart found it’s too dangerous for the man to return to Mexico, allowing him to live and work in the U.S. until it’s safe for him to go back.

Burkhart ruled that as a private citizen who worked with the government to combat the cartels, the contractor fits in a class that’s protected by U.S. immigration law.

She also ruled the cartels have so corrupted Mexican law enforcement that the government there couldn’t protect him.

The contractor is so well-known in his profession that printing his occupation might identify him. In fact, it’s that recognition, the court ruled, that made returning to Mexico so dangerous for him.

“Due to his notoriety, the threats he received and the attempts made upon his life even after he had relocated to Mexico, (the contractor) fears torture and even death if forced to return to Mexico,” Burkhart wrote in her decision.

“He believes his life is in danger no matter where he goes in his country,” she continued. “Even if he entered another profession, he believes he would be targeted by the cartels because his name is so well-known in Mexico. His fear is further magnified because it does appear that the authorities also are involved with those persons seeking to do harm to” him.

Threats start

The contractor said he knew the power of the cartels. A colleague in northern Mexico had been tortured and killed for helping the government. But back then, in the mid-2000s, the drug-war violence largely was confined to Mexican states bordering the U.S. He thought he was safe living in central Mexico.

In 2006, he started receiving threatening phone calls but didn’t think much of them. That fall, the contractor said, he was stopped at a red light when two men with guns approached his car.

At gunpoint, they warned him to stop his business. Terrified, he and his partner began canceling contracts with Mexican government agencies.

But by December of that year, his partner noticed a black SUV with Texas plates in front of their business. And one day, the SUV followed him.

“They were about to pass me and I saw them with a weapon so I just turned the wheel against them and they went into the curb and they crashed into a tree,” he said.

It wasn’t until he got home that he saw the bullet hole in his windshield.

That was enough for him. He packed up, moved to a smaller town, stopped working with the Mexican government and lived a solitary lifestyle.

When a year had passed, thinking he was safe, he went into business with the Mexican federal highway police. That proved to be a near-fatal mistake.

In May 2008, he was pulled over by a federal police officer. Instead of asking for his license, he said, the officer ordered him out and handcuffed him. A van stopped in front of the cop’s car and the officer handed him over to the men in the van.

“As long as you cooperate with them, you won’t have problems,” the officer said. The men in the van hit him with a rifle butt when he looked at them and ordered him to look away. They threatened him with death and torture.

“I was sure that they were going to kill me this time,” he said. “This time I couldn’t do anything. I was already with them, in their hands.”

Crying, he begged for mercy. The narcos laughed in his face and insulted him.

“They said, ‘We need you to work for us,’” the contractor said. “And I realized, ‘OK, they were just playing with my mind.’ They didn’t want me dead, they wanted my job. So then I realized they were not going to kill me as long as I worked with them.”

The contractor asked for two months to meet the traffickers’ demands. They gave him one. He accepted, but instead of going to work, he began plotting his escape to the U.S.

“Obviously, I didn’t think about working for them or anything like that,” he said. “Because working for them, first of all, it is not right what they are doing. And second, you’re going to get killed anyway.”

Days later, he had a tail again, this time a black Ford Crown Victoria favored by Mexican police. Again, he made a series of odd turns to see if he was being followed. He was. Again, he fled.

The Crown Victoria chased him, pulling alongside his vehicle as they crashed over speed bumps.

“They were going to pass me and that’s when I turned the wheel,” he said. “It worked last time, so I did the same. ... This time, I saw the weapon, but they didn’t shoot this time. So then I run.”

He didn’t go home. He had an employee bring him his belongings.

“So from there I didn’t go back to my house,” he said. “I just took the highway coming to U.S.A.”

Letting him stay

The contractor was allowed to stay in the country under a provision of immigration law called withholding of removal. Like asylum, in order to receive withholding of removal, the man had to prove he risked persecution because of his race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group.

The judge ruled that as a government contractor working against the cartels, the man was being persecuted as a member of a social group.

Last year, immigration judges ruled on 83 withholding requests made by Mexican citizens, according to the Justice Department’s Executive Office for Immigration Review, which operates immigration courts. Of those, just 17 were granted.

Unlike asylum, which would have given him a green card, withholding only allows the contractor to live and work in the country until the situation in Mexico improves enough for him to return.

Withholding also has a higher threshold than asylum. He had to prove there was a probability of harm if he returned to Mexico, rather than just a credible fear of harm. Immigration courts have balked at awarding either to those fleeing the drug war in Mexico. And because immigration court files are closed, the ruling can’t be used by other attorneys.

“Withholding is very difficult to get granted ... especially for Mexican natives,” said San Antonio immigration attorney Juan Gonzalez, who represents the subject of this report. “Because Mexico’s not considered a country that is unstable or is working against its people.”

The intrusion of the cartels into everyday life is driving more asylum-seekers to the U.S., San Antonio immigration attorney Lance Curtright said.

“Definitely, there’s been an uptick in the number of people who are afraid to return to Mexico based on the drug violence,” Curtright said. “Now some of these people have had family members that have been extorted. A lot of times a common story you’ll hear is to operate a business you need to pay protection, need to pay a fee. A lot of times they have guys walk into their storefronts and demand money.”

In 2007, the year after Mexican President Felipe Calderón increased the use of the military in combating drug traffickers, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services saw the number of asylum requests from Mexican nationals jump from 1,302 in 2006 to 2,073.

In 2009, the number fell to 1,393, but last year 2,320 Mexicans came to the U.S. asking for asylum, and the total already has exceeded 2,812 in 2011. Those numbers don’t include people who seek asylum through immigration courts after going into deportation proceedings.

Asylum-seekers from Mexico generally have to claim membership in a social group that’s being persecuted. But it’s hard for a business owner who doesn’t want to pay the cuota, the protection fee charged by criminal organizations, to get asylum in the U.S., Curtright said.

It’s widely known that elements of the Mexican government are in collusion with the cartels, but asylum-seekers, he said, find it difficult to prove that the “state is unable or unwilling to protect the asylum-seeker.”

And engaging in a business that’s targeted by cartels doesn’t necessarily make someone a member of a social group, he said. Journalists and human rights activists have had some success winning asylum in the U.S., but police officers, for example, have a tougher time because some judges believe they take on risks when they put on the uniform.

“It’s going to be tough to win some of these cases,” Curtright said. “And some of them are going to depend on who the adjudicator is.”

Last year, USCIS granted only 115 asylum cases to Mexican nationals.

The government contractor, the subject of this report, wasn’t eligible for asylum because he’d already been deported.

Fighting deportation

The contractor lived in the U.S. for two years, trying to fly under the radar by operating his own business and not seeking employment. He drove to Laredo to renew his tourist visa every six months, but in May 2010 he ran into trouble.

An immigration officer who thought he seemed nervous and noticed he had a U.S. cellphone canceled the contractor’s visa and ordered him removed from the country. He spent the night on the border and the next day hired a coyote, or human smuggler.

“When you hire the smugglers, that was when the scary things started,” the contractor said. “Because they are gangsters and they are doing drugs or they are drunk. They have weapons. They have new vehicles, but of course they are stolen and they run like crazy in Mexico and even here in the U.S.A. And they are talking about you like you are cattle and you are just a thing, you’re not a human being.”

He was shuffled from stash house to stash house, crammed with other immigrants into the back of a truck and led for days walking in the brush, only to be caught by local police and turned over to the Border Patrol. Facing deportation again, he decided to stay in the U.S. and fight removal.

The contractor ended up spending 364 days in custody before the judge ruled May 25 to grant him withholding.

His fight isn’t over yet. The government has appealed the ruling. And while he’s lucky to have family in the U.S. to support him, recovering from years on the run and in detention hasn’t been easy.

“At the beginning, when I was released, I was so happy I couldn’t believe it,” he said. “When I was inside, all I was thinking was to get out, to get regular food, to sleep in a bed, to have a regular shower, a regular restroom. ... That was all I wanted. But then you get out and it’s not like that, it’s not as easy as that.”

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