Watch our full jailhouse interview, a broadcast exclusive, with Mexican journalist Emilio Gutiérrez Soto, who is fighting his deportation to Mexico as he is being held in a U.S. detention center in El Paso, Texas. Gutiérrez first sought asylum in the United States in 2008 after receiving death threats for reporting on alleged corruption in the Mexican military. He was detained then and eventually released while his asylum appeal was pending. The Trump administration denied asylum to the award-winning reporter last week. Click here to see the interview in Spanish.
This comes as Mexican journalist Gumaro Pérez Aguinaldo was assassinated this month in the southern state of Veracruz, becoming at least the 12th journalist to be killed in Mexico so far this year. Reporters Without Borders says the killing puts Mexico alongside Syria as the most murderous country for journalists.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, in a broadcast exclusive today, we conducted a jailhouse interview by phone with another Mexican journalist: Emilio Gutiérrez Soto, who is fighting his deportation to Mexico as he’s being held in a U.S. detention center in El Paso, Texas. Gutiérrez first sought asylum in the United States in 2008 after receiving death threats for reporting on alleged corruption in the Mexican military. He was detained then, eventually released while his asylum appeal was pending. Well, last week, his asylum appeal was denied. He now faces deportation back to Mexico, one of the most dangerous countries in the world for journalists. Democracy Now!’s Juan González and I had a chance to speak with Gutiérrez directly in detention, where he is in jail in El Paso.
EMILIO GUTIÉRREZ SOTO: [translated] Look, Juan, I wrote some articles where I described how the military acting in the northwest of Chihuahua, specifically in the municipality of Ascensión, Chihuahua, and particularly the population of Palomas, which is by the border with the state of New Mexico. This caused disgust at the Ministry of Defense, which sent the head of the 5th Military Zone in Chihuahua, General García Vega, to threaten me, saying I had already written three articles noting corruption and assaults against the population by members of the military. And he sentenced me. He said, “You’ve written three articles, and there’s not going to be a fourth one.” And, of course, there was a fourth article. And I filed a complaint with the Human Rights Commission and also with the Office of the Attorney General for the state. As a result, for a time after those threats, they sought some sort of reconciliation with me, but the terms never came about. In this state of affairs, I was somewhat fearful in the face of a serious warning by a general, a high-level commander from the Mexican Army.
Back in 2008, the Army forcibly entered my home, knocking down the main door, threatening us with their firearms. They threw me to the floor. And they said they were searching for weapons and drugs. They destroyed our home. And, of course, they found nothing, nothing at all. And once again, great fear has come, such that I had to stay up all night while my son was sleeping. I had to look out the window to see who might be coming by. And my sleep—well, I would catch up on my sleep at the office, while at the same time doing my work as a journalist. A month later, on May 5th, at night, after they broke into our house and had destroyed our house, we took more precautions.
And on June 16th, 2008, we decided to enter the United States seeking political asylum. First, we said that the military were keeping close surveillance over me and that a friend of mine told me that a relative of hers in the repeat response elite group told my friend—told her that there was a plan to kill me. Obviously, I had to quickly take what I needed from my home. I went to a friend of a home where my son was. There was a religious service going on there. And we went to a ranch on Saturday, July 14th. And on the 16th, we opted to cross into the United States at the border post of Berrendo into the state of New Mexico, where we placed ourselves at the disposal of U.S. immigration officials, seeking political asylum.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Was it your intention to move to the United States, or did you just feel that you had to as a result of the threats to your life?
EMILIO GUTIÉRREZ SOTO: [translated] No. We did this with the intention of moving permanently, because when there is a threat by the military, it’s very serious. Plus, there were already antecedents in terms of how the military were acting, and, in some cases, people would not appear again.
AMY GOODMAN: Emilio, can you talk about what deportation would mean? First, describe where you are in the El Paso jail. And then, what would it mean if you were sent back to Mexico?
EMILIO GUTIÉRREZ SOTO: [translated] Well, if we are deported, that obviously implies death. Why? Because ICE, under the Department of Homeland Security of the United States, by law, must give a report to the immigration authorities of Mexico and the consulate. And the immigration officials in Mexico have no credibility. It’s impossible to trust in them. To the contrary, many of those officials, many personnel at the consulate or immigration service, are caught up with organized crime. And organized crime is precisely the Mexican government. If the government didn’t give its consent for criminal groups to work with impunity, certainly the conditions would be different. But the government of Mexico facilitates the work of criminal groups who operate with total impunity. The government of Mexico, we all know, is the most corrupt government in the hemisphere and obviously enjoys no credibility.
Now, the conditions we find ourselves at this ICE jail in El Paso are truly denigrating. We have seen—my son and myself—most of the immigrants detained here are from Central and South America, the majority. We’re not so many Mexicans here at this jail. Now, given the extreme poverty, well, of course, that is experienced in Mexico, but even more so in Central and South America. For many of the persons detained, it seems that the conditions are adequate, are pleasant. But they are denigrating. The food is poor nutritionally. And it is not pleasant at all to eat the food here. Not at all. Plus, the rations, the portions are too small.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Emilio, the immigration authorities here in the United States are saying that you have no proof, no documentary proof, of your claims or that no witnesses have appeared to back up your claims. How do you respond to that?
EMILIO GUTIÉRREZ SOTO: [translated] I believe that the immigration authorities are an institution based on lies. It would appear that I would need to enter the United States with bullet holes on the front and back of my body or mutilated, which is what the institutional criminal group—the Mexican government—generally does. It seems to me that the immigration authorities are more than thrown off and are acting with intent and based on lies.
We have—in my case, from the very moment we entered the United States, my case has been the most documented. The judge who handled our matter, well, I consider him a lazy judge who did not take the time to read the main documents that we filed—among others, one that was sent by the National Commission on Human Rights, which investigated the attacks against us by the Mexican Army and determined that our lives were in danger. Now, they say there’s no documentation. Of course there’s documentation. And if we look at the background and the update, we see there are 121 journalists who have been assassinated, and none of these cases has been clarified. None of them. So, how can they dare to say that we don’t have the arguments and evidence necessary? They’re just lazy when it comes to doing their work, and there’s no credibility. In this case, it is ICE, the Department of Homeland Security and the judge.
AMY GOODMAN: I know you have to go for the prisoner count right now. What message do you have for people of the United States about your situation right now, about both your detention—are you planning to go on a hunger strike—and also about what your deportation would mean?
EMILIO GUTIÉRREZ SOTO: [translated] Look, I think that my case is emblematic for Mexican journalists. I am considering a hunger strike. Now, beginning it in this jail, under ICE, means I might be closed up, where—in a solitary place, where the doctors or nurses could force-feed me through a tube that would be placed in my nose. And that would be another violation of my fundamental rights as a person.
The message that I would like to share with the population of the United States is to, please, express solidarity with the terror experienced by families of journalists who have been assassinated in Mexico and to seek at least a breath of justice, which does not exist. To the contrary, what we have seen is total impunity, covered up from the president, Enrique Peña Nieto, and the previous president, Felipe Calderón, who began a war against drug trafficking, the only aim being to legitimate himself in power. So, the solidarity of the citizens of the United States is basic. We should have such solidarity, please, so that we can have an aspiration of life, an aspiration to continue denouncing, to continue saying that we are telling the truth, nothing more. The only thing that has motivated us, at least in my career as a journalist, is to speak with the truth, to participate in the search for social justice.
AMY GOODMAN: Emilio, we saw a picture of you, taken by your son, of your arm and leg in shackles. Was—where was this? Why were you chained in this way? Are you also able to receive your medication right now? Are you wearing an ankle bracelet right now? Talk about your conditions.
EMILIO GUTIÉRREZ SOTO: [translated] Well, my physical situation is not so good. It was not until yesterday afternoon that I was given medicine for high blood pressure and cholesterol. And they still need to perform some other tests on other organs of my body, which apparently are not working adequately. I think that this is all because of the stress that I’ve been suffering, to which we’ve been subjected, and the fear that they have imposed on us, including the immigration authorities, from the judge, who denied us our possibility and did not believe in our case, even though we had evidence. We had so much paper, it would fill two carts. The testimonies that were presented in due course were clear and convincing. Yet they were just set aside. My physical condition, well, I feel it’s delicate. I don’t feel well.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: You recently received an award from the National Press Club. You were invited to accept the John Aubuchon Press Freedom Award on behalf of Mexico’s journalists. Can you talk about life for journalists in Mexico, one of the most dangerous countries in the world for journalists, in especially countries that are not at war? What does it mean to be a journalist in Mexico today, especially one who exposes injustices?
EMILIO GUTIÉRREZ SOTO: [translated] Well, the fact that the National Press Club of the United States has awarded me the John Aubuchon prize this year is a major gesture by this organization, that makes me feel very happy and more humble, in the face of the work and the risks that my colleagues face in Mexico. In Mexico, journalists who dare to tell the truth, who dare to denounce the corrupt governments, are at serious risk of being kidnapped, of being disappeared, of being forced to go into exile or to shut up. And that’s what happens on a regular basis with journalists who think in a free manner. Those who work for companies that basically try to make the government look good enjoy certain protection by the government. They’re not attacked by agents of the government system in Mexico, particularly the federal system, though the state and local governments are also among the main assailants of journalists. Ninety-nine percent of the attacks on journalists in Mexico come from the governments. And so, it was a wonderful gesture by the National Press Club to give this distinction, which was recognition of the arduous work, facing danger, that one does and that we did in Mexico.
AMY GOODMAN: Emilio, do you feel targeted or criminalized for seeking political asylum in the United States? And do you feel pressure to drop your asylum claim?
EMILIO GUTIÉRREZ SOTO: [translated] I think so. I am sure that that’s the case. It’s a message to the press in my country to not dare come to the United States seeking exile, lest they might be imprisoned, as has happened to us.
We have followed every instruction from the government through its immigration institutions, absolutely each and every one. And so, we went to a court of appeals, that we were summonsed to, with an ICE official. We have never tried to hide or tried to elude any measures by the immigration authorities. And the day that we went forward to go before the immigration authorities, we got there a little bit late. Why? Well, there was very bad weather. It was raining. It was snowing. The highway was coated with ice. And the person who gave us a ride to get there at the right time had a breakdown on their vehicle, and so we had to go back and get another ride, in order to appear before ICE and the court of appeals by phone. And the ICE officer, Patricia Noga, in a very personal manner, ordered that we be arrested, without giving us any opportunity to explain. And we were immediately placed in serious danger, practically at the international bridge.
Now, fortunately, the Supreme Court helped us. A response came from the court of appeals suspending my deportation. Nonetheless, this led Patricia Noga, the officer, to get angry, and instead of releasing us to the freedom that we had enjoyed for about nine years, instead sent us to a prison, a prison so depressing, so absent of any values, in terms of the staff. It’s called Sierra Blanca. And there, they intended to deport us, even though there was a court order to stop the deportation. They were going to deport us through the city of Acuña, Coahuila. Now, the city of Acuña, Coahuila, is practically taken by the criminal group Los Zetas, one of the most dangerous in Mexico. So, for an ICE officer to put us in that situation, well, it makes us ask who would have the most responsibility in the case of an assassination of my son and myself. They’re simply devaluing human integrity.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Emilio Gutiérrez Soto, you’ve been offered a protection by the Mexican government if you decide to return to your country. Why have you refused to accept that offer?
EMILIO GUTIÉRREZ SOTO: [translated] Because, obviously, the Mexican government does not enjoy any credibility, nationally or internationally. And proof of this is that one of the reporters allegedly receiving protection by the federal government in the state of Veracruz was assassinated. The protection given by the federal government to journalists is a vile lie. There is no protection for journalists in Mexico. Those of us who dare to speak the truth are exposed to being assassinated.
AMY GOODMAN: Emilio, you have talked about you and your son. How old are you? How old is your son? And what will—are you applying for political asylum together?
EMILIO GUTIÉRREZ SOTO: [translated] My son is 24 years old. He had just turned 15 when we entered the country. I am now 54 years old. My son is also very fearful of going back, for, with the passage of time, he has stayed in close touch with what’s happening in Mexico through the media. And he began to see how the government of Mexico would act. He witnessed the threats by General García Vega. He was with me when they searched our home. And he has also been fearful because he has seen my fear, that we might be intercepted along the road and kidnapped and assassinated. So, my son doesn’t want to go back to Mexico either. Plus, neither my son or I have family in Mexico. We’ve been growing a family with friendships in the United States.
AMY GOODMAN: Emilio, Mexico’s Congress approved a law that allows the use of the Army in Mexico’s deadly war on drugs that has killed something like 100,000 people in the past decade. This law was passed despite the concern of Amnesty International and many human rights groups. Can you respond to Mexico approving this law that allows the use of the Army?
EMILIO GUTIÉRREZ SOTO: [translated] Well, the Army has always been involved in the drug war in a disguised manner. And then, after Calderón, the drunk President Calderón, declared war on drug trafficking, it’s always been a lie. They’re now passing this law on internal security, and this is just a preamble to be able to hush dissident voices after the 2018 elections. It is merely preparation for submitting all those who protest after the electoral fraud, that we are now observing ahead of time, before the fact.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Can you talk to us a little bit about what you—during the time that you’ve been in the United States, how you have attempted to pursue your work in journalism?
EMILIO GUTIÉRREZ SOTO: [translated] My work in journalism has involved keeping society and the community informed, in open forums, about what’s happening in my country. We have survived because I had a trailer from which we could sell food and some snacks. My son studied to prepare himself as a chef. So, we have survived. We have survived. Now, my trailer was stolen just last week. Some thieves broke into our home, destroyed what we had inside and, at the same time, took away our possibility of continuing to work, at least in that business selling food.