U.S. immigration authorities surprised press-freedom activists Thursday when they released a journalist -- fleeing alleged Mexican government persecution -- who had been held in a Texas detention center for seven months.
Emilio Gutierrez Soto walked out of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement facility in El Paso late in the afternoon and expressed relief that he would soon be reunited with his 15-year-old son.
“I still don’t believe it. I need to wake up,” Gutierrez, 46, said in a telephone interview.
The case had outraged Reporters Without Borders and other media advocacy groups. They said the journalist -- seeking asylum after purported death threats -- endured the extended detention without a hearing or adequate explanation from the U.S. government.
Gutierrez and his son, Oscar, crossed the border in June and turned themselves over to immigration authorities, saying they feared for their lives if they remained in Mexico.
The reporter said he had been threatened after writing several articles critical of the tactics of the Mexican military, which has been attempting to crack down on drug traffickers.
A 2005 story for El Diario del Noroeste claimed that drunken soldiers raided a hotel in northern Chihuahua state.
Other Gutierrez stories reported on alleged thievery by the military.
The veteran journalist wrote last spring about how soldiers and a commanding officer reportedly threatened him during a meeting at a restaurant in his hometown of Ascension.
Not long afterward, he said, dozens of soldiers wearing masks awoke him and his son in the middle of the night -- reportedly looking for weapons and drugs. When they found nothing, he said, they left without explanation.
Despite warnings, Gutierrez described the threats in the newspaper. A friend tipped him that the next time, the soldiers planned to kill him, he said Thursday.
A few months after Gutierrez and his son were placed in custody, the teenager was released to family friends in the U.S. But Gutierrez remained locked up.
His lawyer, Carlos Spector, complained that the reporter had not received a prompt hearing, unlike many illegal border crossers.
After a postponement, the case was scheduled for March, more than eight months after he arrived in the U.S.
Alfredo Campos of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement in El Paso declined to comment, citing confidentiality rules. He referred the matter to a spokeswoman, who also declined to comment.
Spector said the authorities, who work under the Homeland Security Department, had once called Gutierrez a “threat to the community.” But the lawyer said officials offered no evidence to back up the claim.
Spector said authorities also offered no explanation for the sudden release.
Gutierrez speculated his fortunes might have changed with the arrival of the Obama administration, although he could offer no details to buttress the claim.
Lucie Morillon of Reporters Without Borders said stories by The Times and other publications kept the pressure on authorities.
She bemoaned Gutierrez’s extended captivity.
“He spent more time in jail than some criminals,” she said.
Morillon urged the government to grant the reporter permanent asylum.
“Sending him back to Mexico would be tantamount to sentencing him to death,” she said.
As for Gutierrez, he said his only plans were to hug his son and begin a new life, living with cousins in Texas.
He said the drug wars and the military’s heavy response had taken a toll on his homeland, leaving his countrymen frightened and confused.
“The freedom to write doesn’t exist in Mexico,” he said. “Freedom of expression doesn’t exist.”