October 23, 2013,
Mexicans are running from drug cartel horrors and seeking asylum in skyrocketing numbers. Refugees tell the Daily News they ran for their lives for chance at safety in the U.S., where more than 23,000 Mexicans fled in the first nine months of 2013.
Antonio Chavez decided he just couldn’t take it anymore when enforcers from the terrifying Knights Templar drug cartel marched yet again into his small store in central Mexico, where villagers gathered to drink beer and shoot the breeze, and told him matter-of-factly that if he didn’t pay up, they would make him disappear.
The narcotics syndicate owns and extorts virtually every facet of life in the rural town of La Ruana, where Chavez, 47, was threatened with extinction if he didn’t hand over $150 each month as a “fee” for the music he played via his cell phone to entertain his regular customers.
He had seen others disappear at the hands of the cartel, whose members are also known for decapitating perceived enemies and leaving the heads in the street. He didn’t doubt they’d do something similar to him. His children, U.S. citizens living in California, said they’d find a way to get him out legally, but it could take up to 12 months.
“I wasn’t going to survive a year there,” Chavez, a refugee now living in Los Angeles County, told the Daily News.
So he picked up and ran, becoming one of tens of thousands who have swamped U.S. border points in record-setting numbers, pleading for asylum in the north because Mexican cartels have devolved much of the country into rampaging regions where the possibility of getting shot or worse seems likely as a sunny day.
According to U.S. Department of Homeland Security figures, more than 23,000 Mexicans sought political asylum in the first nine months of this year, quadruple the number of requests made in 2009. The spiraling number of pleas for entry is driven by the exponential growth of cartel terrorism against everyday villagers and townspeople, say immigrants and human rights groups.
Asylum seekers tell of lawlessness that has claimed the lives of grandmothers, children, aunts, uncles, mothers and fathers. They want refugee status, they say, because they fear they are next.
Carlos Gutierrez, 35, claimed cartel enforcers for La Linea (The Line) chopped off his feet in a public park two years ago in the Central Mexican city of Chihuahua, leaving him for dead in the back of his SUV because he couldn’t come up with $10,000 a month in “fees” to enforcers aligned with Los Zetas, the most sadistically violent drug cartel in the country.
Friends, who could only watch in horror while he was maimed, later rushed him to a local hospital, where surgeons were forced to amputate his mangled legs at the knees.
After turning himself in to El Paso border agents in 2011, he now waits for an asylum hearing in Texas, where he was given a work permit and speaks out publicly about cartel atrocities in his homeland.
More than 90 percent of Mexican asylum requests are denied by immigration judges who must adhere to a strict legal standard in a process that may drag out for months and years. Applicants must show “credible fear” of persecution on the grounds of race, religion, nationality or membership in a social group.
Despite the extremely low percentage of approved asylum petitions, the issue has nonetheless become part of America’s divisive political discord on immigration issues.
“It’s another symptom of the dysfunctional immigration system we have,” said Peter Nunez, a former U.S. Attorney in San Diego and a high-ranking member of the Treasury Department under President George H.W. Bush.
“These people don’t have a legitimate claim,” he told The News. “They’re not being persecuted by their government. They should seek the help of authorities for public safety claims.”
What about claims that the government and law enforcement are corrupted by powerful, billion-dollar cartels?
“That doesn’t qualify them for refugee status,” Nunez said. “It’s not the American government’s role to do what the Mexican government cannot do.”
After requesting asylum, most Mexicans are locked up in federal detention centers, where they wait for a court hearing in the backlogged system.
Some are held because they have criminal backgrounds ranging from misdemeanors to felonies. Others have no one to vouch for them in the U.S., and so remain in custody.
On any given day, there are 31,800 detainees in more than 257 federal centers across the country, held for a variety of immigration issues, according to recent figures from the National Immigration Forum, a Washington-based nonprofit group.
The daily cost of their incarceration is $5 million per day, or about $159 per person, the forum reported.
When it comes to asylum seekers, “there’s no real rhyme or reason as to why some get locked up and some are let go in the U.S.,” said Texas lawyer Carlos Spector, who represents Gutierrez and about 100 families asking for safe haven in America.
Crime syndicates operate with impunity in Mexico, Spector said, because of endemic cartel corruption in the military and law enforcement agencies ranging from local cops to federales, the Mexican Federal Police.
Sonia Montes, 27, is six months pregnant and has four children. She and her husband fled Michoacan three months ago with their kids. “You can’t live there anymore. There’s no work, there’s no way to survive,” she told The News from central California.
The Knights Templar are blockading La Ruana, where civilians rebelled and took law enforcement into their own hands last year, creating roving militias to protect themselves.
It was an extreme response to an even more extreme reign of terror by Knights Templar members who recently hung the bodies of a pregnant woman and three other residents from a welcome sign to the village of Limon de la Luna, a source in Michoacan told The News. The source provided a photo of the incident, which happened over the summer.
Homes and cars have been torched to intimidate residents into silence while the cartel openly engages in drug, weapons and human trafficking.
The pseudo-religious Knights Templar seized control over the past few years from the La Familia Michocana organization, which ruled the area with a more benign fist.
Eugenio del Bosque via Vimeo/pedalingforjustice.org
To raise money for his legal case and heighten awareness of torture and mayhem by Mexican drug cartels, Carlos Gutierrez plans to ride more than 700 miles later this month. He is seeking asylum in the U.S. after cartel thugs hacked off his feet. He now has prosthetic legs.
“There was always a cartel in the town, but before it was La Familia,” said Chavez. “They did their work and we did ours.”
Now there is no gasoline and very little food in parts of Michoacan, Montes said. Her family managed to sneak out of LaRuana and get to U.S. border agents in Tijuana, across the border from San Diego.
Her two eldest children, ages 11 and 6, are U.S. citizens who were born in this country when Sonia Montes and Julio Cesar Jacobo were undocumented immigrants living in California from 2002 to 2007, when they decided to return to La Ruana.
After the family asked for asylum at the Tijuana border, Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers released the eldest children to Montes’ sister-in-law, a legal U.S. resident living in the central California city of Porterville.
The mother and her two youngest, ages 3 and 18 months, were held for two days in a federal detention center, eventually allowed to leave pending an asylum hearing scheduled for January.
Eugenio del Bosque via Vimeo/pedalingforjustice.org
Carlos Gutierrez, 35, was a successful businessman in Mexico who fell behind in “protection” payments to the drug cartel controlling his town. To set an example, enforcers chopped off his feet and left him in the back of his SUV. He awaits an asylum hearing in the U.S.
But her husband was not allowed to leave. Montes has no idea why. His sister vouched for him, Montes said, and provided proof of income and her passport.
For some reason, it was not good enough and Jacobo was locked up in a San Diego detention center, she said. He was told he must post a $10,000 bond to gain release, money the family does not have. His other options were to remain imprisoned or return to La Ruana.
He chose the latter, and boarded a bus last week for the three-day journey.
She had been terrified, she said, that her husband would be killed by Knights Templar assassins who control the roads, setting up checkpoints and demanding identification from travelers.
They have been known to shoot on sight residents from towns such as La Ruana, where self-defense groups flourish.
But Jacobo arrived without incident, and called his wife to say he was safely home.
She doesn’t know what she and her husband will do. She is rarely at ease.
“Even here I’m afraid,” Montes said from California. “I am never, ever without fear now.”