When Lieutenant Salvador Hernandez heard his name was on a death list posted by drug gangs in the violence-gripped Mexican border city of Juarez, he knew it was time to skip town.
He had narrowly survived a previous “hit”, injured by three bullets from an would-be assassin’s gun, and did not want to try his luck again.
When he fled across Rio Grande into Texas, however, he sought more than just a hiding place – he also filed a request for asylum with the US authorities.
That made him part of an unprecedented new trend: Mexican police officers claiming safe haven across the border in America, because they claim their own colleagues cannot protect them – or might even be trying to kill them.
Mexican journalists, businessmen and elected officials have also placed asylum requests north of the border as violence engulfs their homeland. The American authorities must now decide how to deal with government functionaries who claim that their own state – a close ally of Washington – is unable to keep them alive.
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The drug wars that have made Mexico as dangerous as Iraq, claiming more than 6,000 lives last year, will dominate the agenda this week when President Barack Obama visits his Mexican counterpart, Felipe Calderon, en route to the Summit of the Americans in Trinidad and Tobago.
Some 312 Mexicans lodged “credible fear” asylum requests upon arriving at the American frontier last year, up from 179 in 2007 and just 54 in 2003. Another 2,231 asked for asylum after entering the US, nearly double the number in 2006.
“We are certainly seeing more Mexicans who are seeking safe haven in the US because of drug violence at home,” confirmed a spokeswoman for the US Citizenship and Immigration Service.
“Jesus”, another police chief from the border war zone, who wants to be known only by his first name for fear of revenge attacks on family and friends, bailed out after his commander was shot dead. He told relatives that if he did not leave Mexico, he would be next. “If I go back I will be waiting for death,” he said.