Somewhere on the outskirts of Marfa, Texas, Carlos Gutiérrez grits his teeth in pain as a salty sweat runs down his brow and into his eyes. He’s been pedaling his shiny, cardinal red bike for hours and his legs – or what is left of them – are aching as he moves slowly through the barren land with only rough mesquite bushes and abandoned homes providing scenery in a landscape straight out of a Cormac McCarthy novel.
Less than 100 miles south lays Mexico and Gutiérrez’s home state of Chihuahua, a place where drug cartels took his legs, his livelihood and his sense of security. Even with the pain becoming almost unbearable, Gutiérrez keeps pedaling, as he knows his ride is not just for himself but thousands of other Mexicans like him.
“It’s a challenge and challenges are meant to be overcome,” Gutiérrez said in an interview shortly before beginning a bike trip that is taking him 670 miles from the border city of El Paso to Texas’ capital of Austin in an attempt to raise awareness for the plight that many Mexicans face in the midst of the ongoing violence in Mexico.
Before 2011, by all accounts Gutiérrez had an idyllic life: a wife, two young children and a bustling concession business catering to local sporting events. But like many people residing in northern Mexico, the soft-spoken 35-year-old businessman was unable to fly under the radar of the country’s vicious drug organizations.
Local members of the Juárez cartel – strapped for cash after losing control of lucrative cross-border drug shipping routes to the rival Sinaloa cartel and looking for a new channel to make profits – began extorting Gutiérrez and other local businesspeople for up to $10,000 a month.
At first Gutiérrez willingly made the monthly payments, but as the cartel members began upping their demands the business owner was unable to cough up the money. The ruthless drug thugs didn’t like what Gutiérrez was saying and on September 30, 2011 they decided as payback to chop off his legs as retribution.
“They made an example of Carlos by chopping off his legs,” Carlos Spector, a Texas lawyer who helped get Gutiérrez into the U.S. and the founder of the pro-asylum group Mexicanos En Exilio, told Fox News Latino. “Carlos’ story is emblematic of what many people in Mexico are going through right now.”
After being miraculously saved from his near death experience at a local hospital, Gutiérrez – and his new prosthetic legs – picked up his family and sought asylum in the U.S.
With a story like that and a lack of legs to prove it, Gutiérrez seemed assured that he would be granted safe haven north of the border. But with a huge jump in asylum cases since the beginning of the drug war in 2006 – almost 23,400 in the first nine months of 2013 alone, according to Immigration and Customs Enforcement statistics – his case was put on hold.
Immigration officials deemed his case a low priority one, but did grant him a work permit so he was able to settle in the Texas border town of El Paso.
Laying low and working on getting permanent residency would seem like the obvious choice for someone who had been through the experience that Gutiérrez went through. That experience and the treatment he received applying for asylum, however, pushed him to lead anything but a quiet life.
Claiming there is an anti-immigrant bias against legitimate asylum claims, Gutiérrez and his bike are waging a very public battle to prove that Mexican immigrants are not trying to fleece the system and are legitimately in danger from the drug cartels and Mexican authorities.
“To say that they are gaming the system is just one way of sweeping the problem under the rug,” Spector said.
Along with his wife Sandra, Spector founded Mexicanos En Exilio in 2012 in an attempt to help victims of the drug war like Gutiérrez and to convince U.S. immigration authorities that these Mexican citizens face life-or-death situations – from both drug cartels and Mexican authorities – that warrant the granting asylum status.
According to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), asylum can be granted for people “seeking protection because they have suffered persecution or fear that they will suffer persecution” due to their race, religion, nationality, membership to a certain social group or their political ideology. Justice Department figures put countries like China, Nepal and Ethiopia at the top of the list for asylum grants mainly due to their dicey political and human rights situations, with China alone being granted over 5,800 asylum requests in 2012.
The official wording from USCIS is vague and leaves many victims of Mexico’s ongoing drug war in a hazy state as, despite the threat of violence they live under, they don’t neatly fit into any of the categories specified to be granted asylum. In other words, U.S. officials don’t see drug violence – whether from the cartels or committed by Mexican forces – as a legitimate claim for asylum.
Advocates like Spector, however, argue that Mexicans should fall under these categories as the atrocities in the country are being carried out not only by the drug cartels but also by Mexican authorities. He added that the U.S. doesn’t want to recognize this because it would mean admitting its own culpability in the drug war.
“If the U.S. begins to grant asylum to all these people, U.S. authorities believe it would be recognizing that the war on drugs is a failure,” Spector said.
While Department of Homeland Security statistics put the number of denied Mexican asylum cases at 91 percent, not all are rejected because the claim is believed to be fraudulent.
Despite the reports that since former Mexican President Felipe Calderón launched his assault of the drug cartels in 2006 there have been over 60,000 people killed – by both sides of the law – in the ensuing violence, U.S. authorities don’t equate drug violence with persecution. This is true even when there is the ubiquitous belief that the Mexican government is corrupted by billion-dollar drug cartels.
“That doesn’t qualify them for refugee status,” said Peter Nunez, a former high-ranking U.S. Attorney in San Diego told the New York Daily News last month. “It’s not the American government’s role to do what the Mexican government cannot do.”
What the Mexican government did not do for Gutiérrez and the other citizens of the state of Chihuahua is control the violence from the battle between the Juárez and Sinaloa cartels or the widespread extortion rackets run by the decimated Juárez members after losing their turf.
“It’s a cartel on the ropes that needs money and the fastest way to get money is through extortion,” George W. Grayson, a professor of Latin American politics at the College of William and Mary told Fox News Latino about the Juárez cartel. “The best way to quickly extort money is to do dastardly things like the tactics they learned from Los Zetas.”
‘It’s the Zeta-nization of Mexican criminal organization,” Grayson, added referring to the ultra-violent Zetas cartel.
For Gutiérrez, this escalation in extortion and the accompanying violence is the reason why he believes Mexicans have a legitimate claim for asylum and why he is taking his bike journey.
As Carlos sets out from Marfa on a sunny, brisk fall morning on his trip to Austin, where he plans to arrive on November 9, he is making his tour not just to prove that he can do it but for other Mexicans who are not as fortunate as him to have made it to the U.S. With stops in major towns like Del Rio and San Antonio, the legless cyclist hopes that his expedition will spur a change that will help him and others get the asylum they want.
“Each case is different, but at the end of the day we are all here because of security,” Gutiérrez said.
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