Choose Your Poison

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These days Mexicans fleeing drug-cartel violence are faced with two lousy options: the threat of death in Juarez or detention in El Paso. With more than 1,900 people having been killed this year in the ongoing battle over Juarez’ lucrative drug corridor, there is no shortage of folks in that unenviable position — including those working to improve conditions on the Mexican side.

On Oct. 15, Gustavo de la Rosa Hickerson, a 63-year-old lawyer who investigates the Mexican military’s homicides, kidnappings and tortures for the Chihuahua Human Rights Commission, was jailed for attempting to cross legally through an El Paso port of entry. During a routine immigration interview, a U.S. Customs and Border Protection agent asked de la Rosa whether he feared for his life in Juarez. The lawyer answered honestly: Yes, he did fear for his life, but he did not want to seek political asylum, which would have prevented him from continuing his work in Chihuahua. The agent responded by handcuffing de la Rosa and placing him in an El Paso detention facility.

De la Rosa, who has documented 170 cases of military abuses, has perhaps done his job too well. In early October, while he was idling at a traffic light in Juarez, a man pulled up on a motorcycle and cocked an imaginary gun at his head. One of de la Rosa’s bodyguards has been badly beaten; another had his house burned down. De la Rosa has received many death threats.

Asked about de la Rosa’s detention, U.S. Customs and Border Protection spokesperson Roger Maier said he couldn’t talk about the specific case, but that the agency’s policy is to refer anyone who expresses fear of persecution to Immigration and Customs Enforcement for further questioning.

After six days in detention, de la Rosa was released, thanks to the efforts of his El Paso attorney, Carlos Spector. Spector’s wife, Sandra Spector, said that after being released the human-rights advocate crossed back into Juarez, then legally re-entered El Paso with his border-crossing card, which allows him to reside there for 30 days at a time. As he continues to advocate for prosecuting cases of military abuse in Juarez, de la Rosa is negotiating with the Chihuahua Human Rights Commission to beef up security for himself and his family.

Other Mexicans fleeing violence have spent months in detention. Emilio Gutierrez Soto, a longtime journalist from Acsension, Chihuahua, fled his hometown after his reporting on military abuses led to death threats. He spent eight months in detention in El Paso before he was released to pursue political asylum. His 15-year-old son also spent three months in detention.

Human-rights advocates in El Paso are asking Congress to look at de la Rosa’s treatment and review the Homeland Security guidelines used to detain him.

“It’s baffling that he was handcuffed and incarcerated, because he was absolutely not a danger to anyone,” says Louie Gilot, a spokesperson for the El Paso non-profit Border Network for Human Rights. “Even if he had asked for political asylum, you shouldn’t be put behind barbed wire while you pursue your case.”

Melissa del Bosque joined The Texas Observer staff in 2008. She specializes in reporting on immigration and the U.S.-Mexico border. Her work has been published in national and international publications including TIME magazine and the Mexico City-based Nexos magazine. She has a master’s in public health from Texas A&M University and a master’s in journalism from the University of Texas at Austin.