STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Now, Soraya mentioned the absence of independent information about the war in Yemen. There is a similar problem with the drug war in Mexico. As we've heard on this program, some Mexican journalists have been killed and others have stopped covering the conflict for their own safety. Some have sought asylum in the United States. NPR's John Burnett reports on one journalist who got it.
JOHN BURNETT: It is the moment that thousands of Mexican citizens who've fled to the United States wait for but very few get to savor - the celebration when they learn the U.S. government has granted them political asylum.
(Soundbite of glasses clinking)
Jorge Luis Aguirre, his family and a few friends toast, his good fortune in the small backyard of his house in suburban El Paso. The 52-year-old journalist edits a hard-hitting irreverent website called LaPolaka.com that covers Juarez.
Aguirre fled his city nearly two years ago when he received a death threat, he believes, for writing critically about powerful Chihuahua state officials. From his exile in El Paso, Aguirre went to Washington last year, to testify before the U.S. Senate about his nightmare.
Mr. JORGE LUIS AGUIRRE (Journalist, LaPolaka.com): Today, I live in exile in a foreign country in order to avoid being murdered for my work as a journalist.
BURNETT: Aguirre is believed to be the only Mexican journalist to be granted asylum since the cartel war exploded in the past four years. He knows how lucky he is.
Mr. AGUIRRE: (Through translator) I hope this asylum is a good precedent and theres a chance for other journalists whose lives are threatened by mafiosos and narco-politicians. The U.S. is a friend to Mexico. Thats why it should help journalists.
BURNETT: Its too soon to say what his case will mean to other Mexican journalists seeking asylum. But in the past four years, the U.S. government has been more receptive to Mexicans who can prove a well-founded fear of persecution from drug cartels, the government, or both. Figures from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services show that in 2007, asylum officers recommended 58 Mexican cases for approval. Already, by the third quarter of this year, theyve recommended 176 cases.
Carlos Spector, an El Paso immigration attorney, thinks that Aguirres case is encouraging news.
Mr. CARLOS SPECTOR (Immigration Attorney): And we were all waiting for the first case because so many cases have been presented. And I think that there was a learning curve going on that they just werent believing the tragedies and the chaos and the repression in Mexico. Finally, theyve come to realize that there is a major problem in Mexico.
BURNETT: But its still a struggle. Of the more than 15,000 Mexicans whove fled to the U.S. in the past five years, on average U.S. immigration courts grant fewer than two percent of asylum requests.
Barbara Hines is director of the Immigration Clinic at the University of Texas Law School.
Professor BARBARA HINES (University of Texas Law School): Many Mexicans are just caught in the crossfire. And for the average person in Mexico, thats not enough for asylum because you have to show that youre a member of a particular group, or you have a particular political opinion.
BURNETT: Mexican journalists constitute a threatened group. The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists reports more than 30 reporters have been killed or disappeared since December 2006. Just last week, suspected cartel hitmen gunned down a young photographer for El Diaro de Juarez and wounded his co-worker. He was the second journalist at El Diario murdered in less than two years.
(Soundbite of chatter)
BURNETT: On Tuesday, three journalists who've fled Mexico appeared at a press conference in El Paso to call attention to their plight. Emilio Gutierrez Soto is a Chihuahua newspaper reporter who says he received a death threat after his stories angered the Mexican military. He fled to the U.S. and was locked up in a federal immigration jail for seven months. Now hes out and waiting for his case to be resolved.
Mr. EMILIO GUTIERREZ SOTO (Journalist): (Foreign language spoken)
BURNETT: Now I make burritos and sell them to friends and office workers, he says with a sad smile.
Ricardo Chavez Aldana is a Juarez radio reporter who says he was threatened and his two nephews were murdered for his on-air criticism of the state government.
Mr. RICARDO CHAVEZ ALDANA (Radio Reporter): (Foreign language spoken)
BURNETT: He says he and his wife and five children live with his sister in El Paso. Its complicated, but we manage.
Alejandro Hernandez Pacheco is a TV cameraman from Torreon who was kidnapped in July by suspected cartel thugs who then demanded his network broadcast a video they produced.
Mr. HERNANDEZ PACHECO (Cameraman): (Foreign language spoken)
BURNETT: Hernandez says he hopes the asylum granted to Jorge Luis Aguirre opens the door for people like me. I cant return to Mexico, he adds, either the cartels or the police will get me.
John Burnett, NPR News.