Mexicans are running from drug cartel horrors and seeking asylum in skyrocketing numbers. Refugees tell the Daily News they ran for their lives for chance at safety in the U.S., where more than 23,000 Mexicans fled in the first nine months of 2013.
BY DEBORAH HASTINGS / NEW YORK DAILY NEWS
WEDNESDAY, OCTOBER 23, 2013, 9:34 AM
Antonio Chavez decided he just couldn't take it anymore when enforcers from the terrifying Knights Templar drug cartel marched yet again into his small store in central Mexico, where villagers gathered to drink beer and shoot the breeze, and told him matter-of-factly that if he didn't pay up, they would make him disappear.
The narcotics syndicate owns and extorts virtually every facet of life in the rural town of La Ruana, where Chavez, 47, was threatened with extinction if he didn't hand over $150 each month as a "fee" for the music he played via his cell phone to entertain his regular customers.
He had seen others disappear at the hands of the cartel, whose members are also known for decapitating perceived enemies and leaving the heads in the street. He didn't doubt they'd do something similar to him. His children, U.S. citizens living in California, said they'd find a way to get him out legally, but it could take up to 12 months.
"I wasn't going to survive a year there," Chavez, a refugee now living in Los Angeles County, told the Daily News.
So he picked up and ran, becoming one of tens of thousands who have swamped U.S. border points in record-setting numbers, pleading for asylum in the north because Mexican cartels have devolved much of the country into rampaging regions where the possibility of getting shot or worse seems likely as a sunny day.
According to U.S. Department of Homeland Security figures, more than 23,000 Mexicans sought political asylum in the first nine months of this year, quadruple the number of requests made in 2009. The spiraling number of pleas for entry is driven by the exponential growth of cartel terrorism against everyday villagers and townspeople, say immigrants and human rights groups.
YURI CORTEZ/AFP/GETTY IMAGES
A child stands in an impoverished Guerrero state village in Mexico, where residents have fled to the U.S. border, asking for asylum because drug syndicates burned their homes and killed family members to silence them and to force them to pay 'protection' fees.
Asylum seekers tell of lawlessness that has claimed the lives of grandmothers, children, aunts, uncles, mothers and fathers. They want refugee status, they say, because they fear they are next.
Carlos Gutierrez, 35, claimed cartel enforcers for La Linea (The Line) chopped off his feet in a public park two years ago in the Central Mexican city of Chihuahua, leaving him for dead in the back of his SUV because he couldn't come up with $10,000 a month in "fees" to enforcers aligned with Los Zetas, the most sadistically violent drug cartel in the country.
Friends, who could only watch in horror while he was maimed, later rushed him to a local hospital, where surgeons were forced to amputate his mangled legs at the knees.
After turning himself in to El Paso border agents in 2011, he now waits for an asylum hearing in Texas, where he was given a work permit and speaks out publicly about cartel atrocities in his homeland.
More than 90 percent of Mexican asylum requests are denied by immigration judges who must adhere to a strict legal standard in a process that may drag out for months and years. Applicants must show "credible fear" of persecution on the grounds of race, religion, nationality or membership in a social group.
Despite the extremely low percentage of approved asylum petitions, the issue has nonetheless become part of America's divisive political discord on immigration issues.
"It's another symptom of the dysfunctional immigration system we have," said Peter Nunez, a