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Posted by: TEEBONE

02/11/2018, 16:23:04

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latimes.com

Journalists are fleeing for their lives in Mexico. There are few havens


Kate Linthicum



Mexico is now the most dangerous country in the world for journalists. (Feb. 5, 2018)

During
sleepless nights in an immigrant detention center in Texas just north
of the border, Emilio Gutierrez Soto has had a lot of time to think.
Shivering on a flimsy mattress under thin sheets, 54-year-old Gutierrez
finds himself circling back to the same question: Was it worth it?

Was
it worth writing those articles critical of the Mexican military? Was
it worth having to flee Mexico after receiving threats against his life?

Many miles away, in a teeming Mexican metropolis, Julio Omar Gomez is not confined behind bars, but might as well be.

Since
last spring, Gomez, 37, has been living under state protection in a
cramped, anonymous apartment many miles from home. He typically only
leaves for appointments with his psychologist, who is treating him for
anxiety and post-traumatic stress.

Gomez,
too, wonders whether his journalism was worth it. Was exposing
government corruption in his home state of Baja California Sur worth the
three attacks on his life? Was it worth having to send his children
into hiding?

Last year, reporters and photographers turned up dead in Mexico at a rate of about one per month,
making it the most dangerous country in the world for journalists after
war-torn Syria. They were some of the country's most fearless
investigators and sharp-tongued critics, shot down while shopping, while
reclining in a hammock, while driving children to school. In January,
77-year-old opinion columnist Carlos Dominguez was waiting at a traffic
light with his grandchildren when three men stabbed him 21 times.

A son of Mexican journalist Carlos Dominguez, killed on Jan. 13 in the state of Tamaulipas, mourns over his coffin during his funeral in Guerrero state. Dominguez was the first journalist killed in Mexico in 2018.

A
son of Mexican journalist Carlos Dominguez, killed on Jan. 13 in the
state of Tamaulipas, mourns over his coffin during his funeral in
Guerrero state. Dominguez was the first journalist killed in Mexico in
2018. (Francisco Robles / AFP/Getty Images)

Less
known are more than two dozen journalists, who, like Gutierrez and
Gomez, have given up their work, their homes and their families to save
their lives.

There are no good options for Mexican journalists on the run.

Of
the roughly 15 or so who fled to other countries in recent years, a
majority have sought refuge in the United States, according to press
freedom advocates.

Though
a few won asylum during the Obama administration, denials or prolonged
detention have been the norm under President Trump. That's despite the
fact that the U.S. government has made combating violence against
journalists one of its priorities in Mexico, funding press freedom
efforts and training about 3,000 media workers in recent years on a
variety of topics, including security.

Last
May, Mexican journalist Martin Mendez dropped his asylum claim in the
U.S. and agreed to be deported after he was held in detention for nearly
four months. Gutierrez was denied asylum in November after nearly a
decade in the United States. He was about to be deported when the Board
of Immigration Appeals agreed to reconsider his case in December.
Gutierrez, who has shaggy gray hair and a serious demeanor, is certain
he will be killed if he is sent home.

"They
want to turn me over to the same government that wants me dead," he
said in an interview inside the sprawling immigrant detention center in
El Paso. "I'm just looking for a place to find peace."

Journalists
who go into hiding in Mexico also face an uncertain future. In 2012,
two crime photographers who had fled the violent state of Veracruz after
receiving threats were found dead, their bodies dismembered.

That
year, Mexico established the Mechanism to Protect Human Rights
Defenders and Journalists, a program that provides reporters and
photographers who have been threatened or attacked with security guards
and a panic button that summons authorities. At least 368 journalists
have sought these protections over the last five years, although at
least one of them was killed anyway.

Mexican
officials won't say how many journalists are living in government safe
houses, but press freedom advocates put the number at 16.

The
journalists can't stay forever. Gomez has about six months left under
protection. He feels helpless when he thinks about what will come next.
"I am broken," he said at a cafe recently, tears welling behind his
glasses. "I am without a future."

Just
a few years ago, his future seemed so bright. The son of an engineer in
La Paz, a few hours from the resorts of Los Cabos, Gomez ran a popular
news website. He chronicled an explosion of violence in the region,
often filming at grisly murder scenes, but his favorite stories
highlighted government malfeasance.

Julio Omar Gomez, a journalist who has gone into hiding, says,

Julio
Omar Gomez, a journalist who has gone into hiding, says, "I am broken. I
am a man without a future." (Kate Linthicum / Los Angeles Times)

In
2016, he told of a La Paz man whose money had been taken by police, who
detained him because they said he appeared drugged. The man was not
drugged; he was mentally disabled. Gomez drew attention to the case, and
eventually forced the police to apologize to the man and return most of
his money. Stories like that endeared him to his web audience, but he
thinks they earned him enemies in the government.

His
mentor, veteran La Paz journalist Maximino Rodriguez, once explained
the rules of reporting in Mexico. Drug dealers will offer you money for
favorable coverage, Rodriguez said. Never take it. He didn't warn Gomez
that sometimes writing about the government could be most dangerous of
all.

Assassins
tried to kill Gomez three times. He's still not sure who they were, but
believes they may have attacked him at the behest of the local
government. Officials in La Paz did not respond to requests for comment.

The
first two times, they set fire to vehicles parked in a downstairs
garage at his house. The fires caused major damage to the home and Gomez
lost two trucks, but he and his wife and children survived. A crudely
lettered note left at the scene the second time warned: "Don't involve
yourself in politics."

After
the second fire, the protection program for journalists implored Gomez
to accept 24-hour bodyguards. Gomez was distrustful at first. After all,
he thought it was the government trying to kill him.

But
last April his mentor, Rodriguez, was gunned down after parking his van
in a La Paz parking lot while he was assisting his disabled wife.
Distraught, Gomez decided to accept the protection, and soon a team of
ex-marines followed him like a shadow.

One
night at home, Gomez woke to the sound of gunshots. One of his guards
had exchanged fire with two assailants, and lay wounded. That night, the
injured guard died. The next day, Gomez and his wife sent their
children into hiding and boarded a flight to a city far away.

Emilio Gutierrez Soto, 54, fled Mexico for the United States in 2008 after he says soldiers upset with an article he wrote ransacked his home. His asylum request was denied in late 2017 and he has been detained in El Paso since then.

Emilio
Gutierrez Soto, 54, fled Mexico for the United States in 2008 after he
says soldiers upset with an article he wrote ransacked his home. His
asylum request was denied in late 2017 and he has been detained in El
Paso since then. (Kate Linthicum / Los Angeles Times)

People
don't typically flee for their lives with a lot of planning. It's a
decision typically born in a moment of panic. Gutierrez made his choice
in 2008, shortly before his 45th birthday, after he says a friend warned
him that the army was out to kill him.

"You've got to leave now," said the tearful friend, a woman who was dating a soldier.

Gutierrez
says he had first received threats three years earlier, after he
published stories accusing soldiers of raiding a boarding house for
migrants and stealing their money.

The
military, deployed more than a decade ago to fight drug cartels in the
streets, has been accused of much worse. Between January 2012 and August
2016, the National Human Rights Commission received 5,541 complaints of
human rights violations by the armed forces, including allegations of
rape and murder.

Still,
calling out the military publicly was an enormous risk. Several days
after publishing his stories on the boarding house raid in 2005,
Gutierrez said, he was summoned to meet with several military leaders.

"You've written three idiotic stories," Gutierrez said a general warned him. "There will not be a fourth."

In
the following years, Gutierrez said, his home was once ransacked by
dozens of soldiers, who said they were searching for drugs. Another
time, patrols of soldiers drove slowly back and forth in front of his
house.

A
few days after the warning from his friend, Gutierrez got in a car with
his 15-year-old son, whom he was raising alone, and drove north through
the vast Chihuahua desert. At the border, he asked an immigration agent
for political asylum.

"We're not afraid," he told the agent. "We're terrified."

With his dramatic story, Gutierrez thought he would easily win protection in the U.S. He was wrong.

Only
a few hundred Mexicans receive asylum each year many fewer than
people from countries including India, Ethiopia and China.

Lucas
Guttentag, who served as a senior advisor at the Department of Homeland
Security under President Obama and now teaches law at Stanford
University, says he worries that denial rates are high because judges
fear that lenient decisions could fuel more migration from Mexico.

"There's
a reluctance, an aversion even to recognizing an asylum claim from
Mexico," he said. "I worry that it is unduly influenced by enforcement
concerns rather than humanitarian concerns."

Gutierrez
and his son spent months in detention before being released on parole.
In the intervening years, Gutierrez moved to Las Cruces, N.M., and
worked as a gardener, a cook and food truck operator, slathering cheese
and mayonnaise on cobs of corn. It wasn't journalism, but he felt safe.

Last year, Gutierrez was honored
in Washington with the National Press Club's prestigious Press Freedom
Award. Shortly after, Gutierrez and his son were detained. His asylum
denial has provoked outrage among many U.S. journalists and migrant
advocates, who have organized protests outside the detention center
where he and his son are being held.

Deep
inside a labyrinth of cold concrete corridors, Gutierrez can't hear the
protests. He rarely sees the sun. He wishes he had chosen another
career. Farming, maybe. Or masonry, like his father. Every week in
detention, he says, he feels a little less alive.

"I feel like I'm another dead journalist," he said.









LIBERTY HAS NO EXPIRATION DATE

Democrats wouldn't buy a clue if it was government subsidized.





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