U.S. forces asylum on Mexican human rights activist Gustavo de la Rosa

By William Booth
Thursday, October 22, 2009

MEXICO CITY -- Gustavo de la Rosa looks over his shoulder, notes suspicious license plates, changes his routine. As one of the most prominent human rights officials in Ciudad Juarez, he says he would be a fool not to. On Wednesday, his home town reached a milestone: more than 2,000 people slain this year. His phone rings all day with pleas for help -- and with threats.

When de la Rosa crossed the international bridge from Ciudad Juarez to El Paso on Oct. 15, as he has done hundreds of times, he did not think it unusual that inspectors with the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency asked whether he feared for his life. He said yes. They asked whether he was seeking political asylum. He said no, not at this time. Then U.S. agents detained him, for his own safety.

"They said to me: 'Well, then, we cannot allow you to return. You have not violated any law. But neither can we allow you to be free in El Paso.' I took this as a gesture of hospitality. And then they said, 'We are going to protect you by taking you to a secure place,' " de la Rosa wrote in a letter to his supporters, saying that he was treated well but was put in handcuffs when taken to see a doctor. "Could it be true," he asked, "that I am in prison?"

De la Rosa was held for almost a week as U.S. officials sorted out his case. His attorney asked: What case?

"This is one of those episodes of 'Twilight Zone' on the border," said Carlos Spector, de la Rosa's attorney and friend. "It's one of those cases where idiots screw up, but it is too embarrassing, and so they don't know what to do. You're just trapped in this bureaucratic maze."

Spector said de la Rosa was released late Wednesday.

De la Rosa, 63, is the public face of human rights in Ciudad Juarez, where he serves as a top official on Chihuahua state's human rights commission. He is also a lawyer, a professor and a source for reporters digging into allegations of abuses by police, soldiers and prosecutors.

"Everybody knows Gustavo. He looks like Santa Claus. He's a famous guy. He comes across the bridge, they look at his visa, the computer spits something out, and they ask him if he's afraid? Unless you're crazy or stupid, the correct answer is yes," Spector said. "But based on this criteria, they would have to arrest every Mexican who crosses from Juarez to El Paso."

U.S. officials declined to discuss the specifics of de la Rosa's case, citing concern for his privacy and safety. But Roger Maier, a spokesman for Customs and Border Protection, said: "If during the interview someone entering the country expresses a fear for his life, our officers are required to process them for an interview with an asylum officer. Our officers are not authorized to determine the validity of the fear expressed. The applicant does not have to specifically request asylum, they simply must express fear of being returned to their country."

After he was detained at the border, de la Rosa was passed to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, brought to the detention facility for illegal immigrants and others in El Paso, and finally interviewed by officials with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration services, which handles applications for political asylum.

Except that as de la Rosa had said, he didn't want asylum.

He had, however, been feeling increasingly exposed. In recent weeks, threats have grown. In a letter seeking help from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, de la Rosa said that in August, Mexican soldiers abducted and beat his bodyguard. His phone rang with taunts. He was followed.

As a human rights official, de la Rosa has his hands full in Ciudad Juarez. Ten thousand soldiers and federal, state and local police officers patrol the city as two big smuggling cartels fight for access to the billion-dollar U.S. drug market, and gangs of low-level dealers kill one another over turf.

Between January 2008 and September, de la Rosa collected 154 human rights complaints against the Mexican military, including "allegations of house searches without warrants, arbitrary detentions, torture, abuse and even killings during the detention of the victims."

The Mexican military and President Felipe Calderón, who sent troops to fight the cartels three years ago, say that Mexican forces do not engage in systemic human rights abuses and that all complaints are investigated and the guilty punished.

De la Rosa said that the commander of Mexican troops in Ciudad Juarez, Gen. Felipe de Jesús Espitia, had threatened him by suggesting to state legislators that there are links between drug traffickers and human rights commissioners.

That makes de la Rosa, the human rights crusader, as fearful of the Mexican military as he is of the cartels and their henchmen.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company