EL PASO, Texas -- Cipriana Jurado never imagined her fight for human rights in Ciudad Juarez, “the murder capital” of Mexico, would lead her to flee her country in defense of her life.
“The problem is that the federal and state government has been blind to what’s going on in Juarez. For them we are just numbers, collateral damage,” said Jurado.
Jurado was granted a political asylum request last Friday, making her the first case in recent history in which the U.S. government recognized that a human rights activist was persecuted by the military in Mexico, according to her attorney Carlos Specter.
“The complaint was based on the fear Jurado had of returning (to Mexico) for her criticism and her documenting of abuse perpetrated by the military,” said Specter.
The Office of Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) said they couldn’t confirm the decision for confidentiality rules and that they don’t keep statistics on the reasons why the U.S. government grants asylum.
The lack of statistics makes it hard to know whether Jurado’s case is among the first of its kind, said Karen Musala, clinical professor of law and director of the Center for Gender and Refugee Studies at the University of California Hastings College of the Law.
But she agrees with Specter that historically, politics have gotten in the way of granting political asylum. When it comes to Mexico, she said, there is an underlying fear that due to its proximity to the United States, the numbers of people seeking this protection could grow.
Musala also believes political asylum can be granted not only due to political persecution by the government but when the government can’t protect its citizens from non-state actors, “whether it’s narcotraffickers or individuals.”
In fiscal year 2010, the United States granted political asylum to 21,113 people, 192 of them from Mexico, according to statistics from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).
According to Specter, about 90 percent of asylum cases presented in the United States are refused “for political reasons.”
“They still don’t recognize that there’s violence coming from the state towards the Mexican community, specifically from the federal officers and the military,” said Specter, adding that is why Jurado’s case is so significant.
Jurado, a 46-year-old single mother, applied for asylum in March, almost a year after her longtime friend Josefina Reyes, another human rights activist who had denounced military abuses, was gunned down in Guadalupe, a small town near Juarez on the West Texas border. She holds backs her tears as she remembers the testimony of some of the witnesses.
“She fought. We’ve always said that if they try to take us it wouldn’t be alive, because we fear torture so much,” she said.
Jurado and her friend Josefina Reyes had been publicly outspoken against the military since 2007, when the first troops started arriving in Juarez as part of Mexican President Felipe Calderón’s war on drugs.
The city was already known for the violent murders of hundreds of women that were never solved. The presence of the military, she said, took the violence and impunity to another level. In Juarez and surrounding areas, close to 8,000 people have been killed in the last three years, when the war on drugs escalated.
“In Juarez there’s no fight against drug trafficking. In Juarez there are armed groups murdering people that are unarmed,” she said.
Jurado came to Juarez to work in a maquila when she was 13. She founded the “Centro de Investigación y Solidad Obrera” (Center for Investigation and Worker Solidarity) from her home to fight for workers’ rights and had been investigating femicides in the city for decades. But soon she found herself documenting a new kind of case: grievances from locals who said the Mexican military had kidnapped their family members, tortured and sometimes murder them.
“They’ll take them to the military base and then they’ll start torturing them, so they’ll plead guilty to smuggling drugs or being ‘sicarios’ – that’s what they call paid assassins here,” she said. “We started seeing forced disappearances and extrajudicial murders.”
It was during her investigation into the disappearance of Saúl Becerra Reyes that she began feeling that her life was in danger.
Becerra was reportedly taken by the military on Oct. 21, 2008 with five other young men who were incarcerated in a military base, accused of possession of drugs and weapons. One of the arrestees testified that he and Becerra had been tortured, according to a report in Mexico City newspaper El Universal. After that, he said, he never saw Becerra again.
Becerra’s body was found on the side of the road in April 2009, while Jurado was investigating the case.
In an article published in El Universal in July 2009, Jurado said that what could have happened to Becerra was that, “como en muchos otros casos, se les pasó la mano con la tortura” (as in many other cases, they went too far with the torture).
When his body was found, she started receiving threats. There were several attempts to break into her home, documents were stolen from her office and at one point her 19-year-old son was followed and threatened on the street.
Jurado was urged by several human rights organizations including Amnesty International, which was assisting her in her investigations, to seek asylum in the United States.
But it was a difficult decision to make. She felt a responsibility to continue the work she had started to press the government to investigate hundreds of unsolved cases of murders and disappearances.
She was reminded of an earlier incident, in 2008, when she thought she was going to be killed. A group of agents from Mexico’s Federal Agency of Investigations took her from her home without explanation. She was released 24 hours later, and told she had been arrested for obstructing the public way during a protest back in 2005.
But when she saw Josefina’s children at the funeral for her longtime friend and colleague, she knew what she had to do.
“They couldn’t even say goodbye because her coffin was closed,” she said. “I just thought, I don’t want my children to be in this situation.”
She took a trip to Chicago to speak about violence in Juarez. When her visa expired in December 2010, she didn’t return to Mexico.
A long wait for refuge
Jurado is one of many activists who have had to flee Mexico for fear of their lives.
Marisela Ortiz, a teacher and co-founder of the organization “Nuestras Hijas de Regreso a Casa,” which focuses on fighting femicides in Juarez, also recently applied for asylum.
“I didn’t want to leave my country,” said the 53-year-old human rights activist in tears. But when she received a death threat at her home, she and her family left immediately.
Ortiz said she has lost all hope in her government to protect her.
“Organized crime has already won. And we are about to lose the war against un-organized crime, because crime is growing. The reality is that there’s a parallel state, which is the one that really governs and rules. So we can’t expect much from the government.”
Saúl Reyes, one of the brothers of Josefina Reyes, is among those seeking asylum in El Paso and calls himself one of “the displaced due to violence.”
Reyes, 41, left his bakery behind, along with his wife and child, and now rents the business to a former employee for $200 a month. It’s not an easy road, he says.
While applying for political asylum, Reyes and Ortiz aren’t allowed to work until their refugee status is granted.
Jurado has already cleared that hurdle. For the last few months she’s been living in Santa Fe, New Mexico with her son and 7-year-old daughter at a Presbyterian church that offered financial support and a place to live.
But she can’t help thinking that she robbed her son of the life he had planned in Mexico. He was about to enroll in a university.
“He didn’t choose to be a human rights defender. I did,” she said.
Jurado continues to speak about human rights from this side of the border, and to call for an end to Plan Merida, a 2008 U.S. initiative that provides funding and training to military personnel to fight drug trafficking in Mexico.
She is also trying to learn English and with a work permit, she hopes to land a job soon.
“The loneliness you feel is difficult to bare,” Jurado said. “You are here, minimally safe, but your friends and family are still in Juarez.”
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