EL PASO, Texas — Carlos Gutierrez passed out as the large blade cut through his legs — punishment for his refusal to pay a Mexican gang extortion fees from his successful catering business in northern Mexico.
Four men had forced him into the back of his vehicle at a local park before slicing just under his knees. He spent two weeks in critical condition and sought asylum in Texas as soon as he was able.
Now, facing long odds on getting approval to stay in the United States, Gutierrez has been staging an unusual demonstration to call attention to his plight and to the thousands of other Mexicans who seek asylum in the United States each year from drug cartel violence, with little success. Gutierrez has been riding his bicycle through Texas using his prosthetic legs, talking to everyone he meets.
"If someone from Cuba or from Venezuela can get asylum, why not someone from Mexico?" said Gutierrez, who spent nearly two weeks on his 800-mile bicycle trek from El Paso to Central Texas.
U.S. law allows asylum for those who have credible fear of persecution based on their race, religion, national origin, political status or membership in a particular social group.
But Mexican asylum seekers have struggled to convince U.S. courts they fit in any of these categories, with approval rates running 1 to 2 percent. By contrast, more than a fourth of immigrants from other Latin American countries such as Colombia and Venezuela were granted asylum last year. Many can cite ethnic or political grounds.
Since he hopped on his bicycle in El Paso on Oct. 28, Gutierrez has been making his case for a change in the system. His journey ended Saturday in Austin.
The 35-year-old endured rain, strong winds, flat tires and fatigue. On the fifth day, a prosthetic specialist met him to adjust his legs because he was bruising and blistering.
"There were times when we thought it'd be best to have him rest, to drive him to the next town to let his legs recover, but he'd say, 'No,' " said Jaqueline Armendariz, a member of the support team for the ride to Austin. "He has a mission."
Gutierrez said he never considered quitting.
It doesn't matter, he said, "how grave your wound was. What matters is that you get up. I have no legs, but I am on my feet."