Human Rights Worker Flees Mexico

A prominent human rights worker in Cuidad, Juarez, sought temporary refuge in El Paso, Texas, claiming his life has been threatened. But it's not the drug cartels who are threatening him, he says, it's the Mexican military. He says they've targeted him after he detailed their hundreds of abuses in the past year. Now he's been placed in detention by U.S. Customs and Immigration.

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Gustavo de la Rosa Hickerson is a well-known human rights defender in Mexico's deadly city Cuidad Juarez. He's recently received death threats on account of his work and had to seek temporary refuge in El Paso until he obtained protection from the Mexican government.

He's continued his work in Juarez until this past Thursday. Mr. de la Rosa was crossing back into El Paso, legally, on a tourist visa, to meet with his lawyer. He was questioned by customs agents and is now being held at a local detention center. U.S. Customs and Border Protection policy is that a foreign national entering the country can be detained by simply expressing fear for his life.

Monica Ortiz Uribe reports.

MONICA ORTIZ URIBE: Gustavo de la Rosa Hickerson is a human rights lawyer who for nearly 40 years has fought to protect migrant workers, women and survivors of all kinds of violence. He is no stranger to death threats or even actual attempts on his life. But de la Rosa says Juarez has never been more fearsome than it is today. This is why he's taking the latest threat against his life dead seriously.

Mr. GUSTAVO DE LA ROSA HICKERSON (Human Rights Lawyer): (Through translator) While driving, I stopped at an intersection. Another car pulled up to my right. A man gets off and crosses over to me. He shapes his hand in the form of a gun and says to me: Tone it down or we'll kill you.

ORTIZ URIBE: At 63, with ivory curls that fall just below his ears and a matching beard, a child might mistake de la Rosa for Santa Claus. He hangs his worn fisherman's cap in a ranch in the outer valley of Juarez with his wife, some goats, and a rooster.

Late last month, soon after he was threatened, de la Rosa fled that life for the safety of El Paso.

Mr. DE LA ROSA HICKERSON: (Through translator) I'm afraid, I am afraid.

ORTIZ URIBE: Currently, the main focus of de la Rosa's investigations is the Mexican military. Thousands of troops have patrolled the streets of Juarez since 2008, tasked with combating the drug-related violence. In that time, de la Rosa's employer, the Chihuahua State Human Rights Commission, has received some 170 local reports of abuse by the army.

The reports include allegations of beatings, torture and homicide. De la Rosa has publicly denounced the military and stated that soldiers patrolling his neighborhood may be behind his death threats.

Mr. DE LA ROSA HICKERSON: (Through translator) To combat crime, you must first investigate and then deliver the blows. When the army arrives without a prior investigation, all they do is strike. And who do they strike? The citizens, because criminals won't allow themselves to be beaten so easily.

ORTIZ URIBE: The military denies responsibility in the threats against de la Rosa. A spokesman said de la Rosa must file a formal complaint with the military before an investigation can occur. But the problem of military abuse is widespread.

Professor RODERIC CAMP (Claremont McKenna College): The military has not been trained to perform what normally are considered civilian police functions.

ORTIZ URIBE: Roderic Camp, who teaches government at Claremont McKenna College in California, studies the Mexican military.

Prof. CAMP: In 2006, when he became president, there were just approximately 180 formal complaints to the human rights commission in Mexico. And by the end of 2008, there were 1,230 complaints.

ORTIZ URIBE: A recent poll by the Pew Foundation in Mexico showed overall public support of the military. But a smaller poll this summer, which surveyed people within urban areas occupied by the military, support was significantly lower.

(Soundbite of phone ringing)

Unidentified Woman: Good afternoon, county attorney.

ORTIZ URIBE: El Paso County Attorney Jose Rodriguez shares a 25-year-long friendship with de la Rosa and is among a handful of local leaders who have publicly supported him.

Mr. JOSE RODRIGUEZ (County Attorney, El Paso): He represents a process and a system that is supposed to work to protect the interest of the Mexican citizens.

ORTIZ URIBE: And like de la Rosa, many others in Mexico must daily weigh their job against their life.

Mr. DE LA ROSA HICKERSON: (Through translator) I am a defender of human rights. To live without being who I am is meaningless. To die defending people's rights is perhaps more worthwhile.

ORTIZ URIBE: For NPR News, I'm Monica Ortiz Uribe in El Paso.

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