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Page last updated at 16:03 GMT, Friday, 6 March 2009

Mexicans seek asylum at any cost

By Javier Aparisi
BBC Mundo, Miami

A Mexican soldier with a body in Villa Ahumada, about 120km south of the border between Ciudad Juarez and El Paso
Violence in Ciudad Juarez has already taken 350 lives this year, local media say

Drug-related violence in Mexico has become so extreme that some policemen and journalists would rather sit in a cell at a US immigration detention centre than run the risk of being caught in the crossfire between rival gangs in their home country.

In Ciudad Juarez, an important city that borders El Paso, in the US state of Texas, police officer Salvador Hernandez Arvizu can testify to the gravity of the situation.

Mr Hernandez, whose name had been blacklisted by the drugs gangs, was hit by two bullets in February 2008 while walking with his family in a downtown area.

The Spanish-language local internet site Lapolaka.com reported in a matter-of-fact tone that this was the "umpteenth criminal attack" to be carried out.

Even though the lieutenant was rushed to a medical centre "guarded by dozens of armed agents", his fear of further violence was greater than the pain he was suffering.

The Los Angeles Times newspaper reported on 4 March, 2009 that Mr Hernandez had left his hospital bed in spite of his injuries and crossed the border to El Paso, where he applied to US immigration officials for political asylum and was promptly taken into custody in a holding cell.

A matter of life and death

Jorge Luis Aguirre, the Mexican journalist who wrote the story in Lapolaka.com, soon found himself in the same predicament as Mr Hernandez.

Jorge Luis Aguirre, editor of www.lapolaka.com
I would prefer seven months in jail because it's a matter of life and death
Jorge Luis Aguirre
Mr Aguirre remembers the details of the anonymous phone call that forced him into exile in El Paso.

"He asked me my name and said 'you are next, you son of a bitch'. That was what all he said, then he hung up," he recalls.

The call came in November 2008, as Mr Aguirre was driving to the funeral of a journalist from the El Diario de Juarez newspaper, Armando "Choco" Rodriguez, who had been shot dead.

"I turned back towards my house, but I stopped half-way there," Mr Aguirre says.

"I left the truck in a mall, in a public parking lot, and walked away. I called my wife and told her to pick me up in another vehicle and to bring the children, so we could all go to El Paso directly."

Life in El Paso

The 51-year-old journalist, together with his wife and three adult children, currently lives in El Paso on a temporary one-year visa that had been previously granted so he could report on both sides of the border.

Emilio Gutierrez, a fellow journalist from the El Diario newspaper in Chihuahua, was not as fortunate.

He crossed the border into El Paso in 2008 and requested political asylum after writing a series of articles that were critical of anti-drug efforts being conducted by the Mexican army.

However, Mr Gutierrez ended up being held in an immigration detention centre for seven long months before being released to pursue his asylum application.

But whatever the inconvenience, Mr Aguirre - who has also denounced alleged threats from an official in the Chihuahua state government - says sitting in jail would be a better option than a return to Mexico.

"Of course I would prefer seven months in jail because it's a matter of life and death. Either way, I would like to explore other possibilities," he told the BBC.

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