EL PASO, Texas(Reuters) - Mexican journalist Armando Rodriguez, renowned for his coverage of gangland slayings in his hometown of Ciudad Juarez, lay dead in a casket, shot by suspected cartel hitmen.
As his colleague Jorge Luis Aguirre drove to the funeral home in the dismal border city to pay his last respects, his cell phone rang. The husky voice delivered a chilling warning: "You're next."
"I left Ciudad Juarez in panic the same day," said Aguirre, the editor of news website "La Polaka."
The newsman joined a growing number of Mexicans fleeing raging drug cartel violence in and around Ciudad Juarez to begin a long-shot bid for political asylum next door in the United States.
More than 9,300 people have been gunned down, mutilated and beheaded in the grim industrial powerhouse south of El Paso, Texas, since early 2008 when the rival Juarez and Sinaloa cartels began an all-out war for rich trafficking routes.
That conflict has unleashed further violence as local gangs battle over street corner drug rackets, and turn to kidnapping and extortion. The Mexican military and federal police sent to curb the mayhem are also blamed by many residents for killings and other abuses.
Amid the violence, asylum requests from Mexico reached a record 5,551 last year, according to U.S. government figures, more than a third up on 2006 when President Felipe Calderon took office and sent the military to crush the cartels. Just 165 asylum requests were granted in 2010.
Among the wave of panic-stricken asylum seekers are the muckraking journalists who chronicle brutal gang warfare in Ciudad Juarez and Mexico's northern Chihuahua state, the police officers tasked with curbing the violence, and the rights campaigners clamoring for justice.
NEW APPLICANTS DAILY
If they have a U.S. visa or border crossing cards, some Mexican asylum seekers lodge their pleas within the United States. Others arrive, sometimes distraught, at border crossings and request asylum from U.S.
U.S. authorities do not provide data on the basis for the claims, or the states in which they are made. But so great is the influx in El Paso that immigration attorneys and rights groups have formed a coalition to support applicants during the often lengthy and uncertain asylum process.
Before 2008, just five percent of the cases handled by leading El Paso immigration lawyer Carlos Spector were asylum petitions. Now asylum seekers make up about 50 percent of his workload. "We have new applicants on a daily basis," he says.
Among those seeking refuge stateside is Marisol Valles, a criminology student once dubbed the "bravest woman in Mexico" after she volunteered to become police chief of Praxedis G. Guerrero, near Ciudad Juarez, after her predecessor was tortured by drug cartels and then beheaded.
But after only five months on the job Valles fled with her family to Texas in March after she received telephone death threats, apparently from a drug gang.
Then, on Easter Sunday the following month, Ciudad Juarez rights activist Saul Reyes and 10 relatives arrived in El Paso, fleeing violence that has claimed six members of their family in the past two years.
Activist Josefina Reyes was kidnapped and murdered in January 2010, shortly after accusing the military of involvement in her son's murder. One of her brothers was killed seven months later, and then, earlier this year, another sister, a brother and his wife were snatched by gunmen. Their bodies were found by a cousin, dumped on a roadside in the Juarez Valley.
"We knew that leaving Mexico was the only way that what remains of my family could survive," Saul Reyes, Josefina's brother, told Reuters.
SLENDER CHANCE OF SUCCESS
To gain asylum status, refugees have to prove a "well-founded fear" of persecution on the basis of race, religion, nationality or as a member of a specific social group or political opinion -- and for many fleeing Mexico, it's a long shot.
Claims are frequently based on a general fear of drug cartel violence or rampant crime in the petitioner's hometown, or fear of retaliation for informing on the gangs, and fail to meet the strict criteria for asylum, officials say.
"These kinds of claims often do not qualify ... because the harm faced by the applicant is not on account of a protected ground," said Chris Rhatigan, a spokeswoman for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
However, asylum has been granted in some key cases. Last year, Aguirre became the first journalist granted political asylum stateside since violence exploded in Ciudad Juarez three years ago. He blamed the persecution he suffered on politicians from the previous administration in Chihuahua state.
Then in June, Cipriana Jurado, a rights activist in Chihuahua state, become the first Mexican claiming persecution by the country's military to win asylum, Spector, her lawyer, said.
Many asylum seekers, though, have their lives thrown into limbo as they wait, sometimes for years, for their case to be adjudicated.
Among them is Emilio Gutierrez, a journalist from Ascension, in Chihuahua, who reported on abuses allegedly committed by the Mexican military and fled with his teenage son in 2008 after being warned soldiers were coming to kill him.
He was detained by U.S. immigration authorities for several months, and since his release has supported himself by selling burritos and doing yard work while he waits for a hearing on his case next year.
"These criminals made me leave my town, my house, and everything I knew," he said, weighing the frustration of exile against the stark danger of return.
"But at least, I am alive."
(Writing by Tim Gaynor; Editing by Jerry Norton)