SAN ANTONIO – A Mexican journalist who was the target of death threats like those made by drug cartels says he has been granted asylum in the United States in a case believed to be the first of its kind since the country's bloody drug war began.
Two years ago, Jorge Luis Aguirre answered his cell phone while driving to the funeral of a colleague who had been killed in drug violence. "You're next," warned the chilling voice on the other end.
Death threats are at the heart of thousands of Mexican asylum requests received by the U.S. each year, but only a fraction of the petitions are granted. Even people who cross the border with fresh bullet wounds or whose family members have been tortured by drug gangs can face long odds.
But attorneys say the decision to give safe haven to Aguirre, editor of the Mexico news site LaPolaka.com, could open the door for other reporters covering the war.
Violence against reporters has surged since the Mexican government launched a crackdown on drug traffickers nearly four years ago.
El Paso attorney Carlos Spector is handling asylum cases for four journalists, including one who spent seven months in an immigration detention facility.
"What has changed is the situation in Mexico, where it's now impossible to deny reality," Spector said. "It is an indication that the asylum office is now listening."
Aguirre (prounounced ah-gweer-EH) fled to El Paso after getting the threat in 2008 and has lived there ever since. He announced the asylum Monday on his website.
At the time of the threat, he was reporting in Ciuidad Juarez, the epicenter of drug-gang violence across the border from El Paso. It's unclear exactly who threatened Aguirre.
He told a U.S. Senate committee last year that officials in the state of Chihuahua did not like his criticism of a prosecutor and decided to adopt cartel-style tactics to tone him down.
"I proved that it was political persecution," the 52-year-old Aguirre told The Associated Press. "They threatened me many times and wrote to me, and I presented all that as proof."
Fear of being hurt isn't sufficient grounds for asylum. Cases hinge on proving that a person is being persecuted because of race, religion, political views, nationality or membership in a particular social group.
Since 2000, a total of 65 journalists in Mexico have been killed in violence, according to Mexico's National Commission on Human Rights, making Mexico the deadliest country in the world for news people.
The asylum process is not public, and U.S. officials refused to comment on individual cases, citing the need to protect applicants. Both the State Department and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services said they could not even confirm that Aguirre applied for asylum.
But State Department spokesman Mark Toner said the government acknowledges the increasing danger to Mexican journalists, calling the number killed in the last five years "pretty startling."
"We obviously condemn these acts and have expressed our concerns about the safety of journalists to the Mexican government," Toner said.
Before Aguirre, the best-known Mexican journalist seeking asylum was Emilio Gutierrez Soto, who fled to El Paso after writing a series of stories about alleged Mexican military abuses of civilians.
He and his 15-year-old son were held in a federal detention facility in El Paso before being released, though Gutierrez's asylum request is still pending.
Another reporter from Ciduad Juarez, Luis Horacio Najera, was granted political asylum in Canada. The most recent asylum seeker is a Televisia cameraman who was allegexdly kidnapped by the Sinaloa drug cartel, which wanted the station to air videos threatening a rival drug cartel, Los Zetas.
Aguirre's announcement was a rare bright spot in another bleak week for Mexican journalists.
On Sunday, the largest newspaper in Ciudad Juarez called for a truce with the city's warring drug cartels after its photographer was killed, the second staff member at the El Diario de Juarez to be slain in less than two years.
In a front-page editorial, the newspaper asked the cartels what they want so the news staffers can continue their work without more deaths or threats.
On Wednesday, President Felipe Calderon sought to reassure Mexican media outlets, announcing a plan to protect journalists. The plan includes an "early warning system" in which reporters would have immediate access to authorities when threatened. It also creates a council to identify the causes behind attacks on reporters and makes legal reforms.
The U.S. receives nearly 3,000 asylum requests from Mexico each year. Between 2005 and 2009, just 252 were granted.
Immigration attorneys say Aguirre's case is an overdue acknowledgment from the U.S. that Mexican reporters are at risk. But they acknowledge that the U.S. does not have a one-size-fits-all asylum policy.
There are different avenues toward asylum, depending on whether the applicant is already in the country and has a lawyer arguing his case, or declares himself at the border and argues his case in court.
El Paso attorney Eduardo Beckett, who oversees about three dozen asylum cases for the Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center, said Aguirre deserved asylum. But the case also reminded him of what he says is the tougher path faced by ordinary asylum seekers with equally compelling stories.
"I think there is a flaw in the system," Beckett said, "where we're basically saying that if you're not a famous person and a nobody, don't ask."
Rodriguez reported from Mexico City.