Adrian Humphreys, National Post
Military police stand guard at the scene of a murder on March 23, 2010 in Juarez, Mexico
Guillermo Marquez Alvarez, a businessman in the city of Morelia in central Mexico, cherished his 13-year friendship with the brother of Mexico's President, Felipe Calderon, until a man slid beside him in a taxi and demanded he act as a messenger between the President and Los Zetas, a notoriously savage drug cartel.
If he helped the gangsters he would be well paid, he was told that morning. If he refused, he and his family would be killed.
In a different city, a second threat came with ominous details, including the name of his wife and where she worked and the names of his two daughters and the school they attended. A few weeks later, he received a message of a different sort. The windshield of his car was smashed and a large note scrawled on its hood saying: "We are taking care of you --Zetas."
"I felt really bad with a lot of fear," Mr. Alvarez said at his refugee hearing last year. He was unsure who to trust or who could help.
"Seeing it continuously in the newspapers, the death of victims, of soldiers and police officers and also people that belonged to organized crime. "The only safe option was to leave Mexico," he said.
He and his family came to Canada and immediately filed refugee claims, becoming one of a growing number of asylum seekers fleeing Mexico's drug war.
The harrowing tales of violence and corruption, however, are getting a chilly reception at Canada's Immigration and Refugee Board.
The claims include:
-A truck driver ordered to transport drugs by a police commander who threatened him and his family. When the driver reported it to police, he was told to leave the station as soon as he named the officer. The next day, three officers beat him, saying he should not have reported it;
-A journalist who uncovered the transportation of children's corpses and linked it to illicit organ trafficking. Afterwards, he was threatened and involved in a car accident in which members of his family were hurt. Experts concluded his car's brake lines had been cut but police did not help;
-A woman who was being pressured to transport cocaine by her former husband, who was an agent with the federal police. She filed a complaint and went into hiding. In each new hiding place, the officer found her and threatened her;
-A radio reporter investigating links between drug traffickers and police who was assaulted and threatened in response. His pleas for help were ignored. After fleeing to another city, his wife and children were victims of an "intentional automobile collision."
Each of these pleas for asylum was dismissed by the IRB but recently appealed successfully to the Federal Court of Canada. In each, the IRB argued that Mexico, as a democracy, could protect its own citizens.
That, however, is under debate.
"Lots of narco-traffickers are very, very well-connected and basically can kill anybody," said Peter Showler, a former chairman of the IRB who teaches immigration and refugee law at the University of Ottawa.
"If there is evidence that the state itself is corrupt, in the sense that you cannot rely on its protection because of corrupt officials -- that they have already been bought by narco-traffickers -- you can say the state is not able or willing to protect," he said.
"In the last few years, state protection has been the most difficult and contentious issue, not only before the IRB but also before the Federal Court."
In the past, refugees usually fled government persecution. More recently, persecution has come from non-state players, such as ethnic tribes or paramilitary thugs.
This is the case with Mexico, where asylum seekers cite the powerful narco-traffickers and their corrupting influence. It makes for tough cases.
Drug violence has killed more than 18,000 people in Mexico since late 2006 when President Calderon announced a crackdown on organized crime. Authorities say much of the bloodshed stems from a split between the Gulf Cartel and Los Zetas, who used to be the hired mercenary army for the cartel before branching off on its own.
Last week, two children aged 5 and 8, were killed in the crossfire of a gun battle between soldiers and cartel gunmen along a highway in northern Mexico.
Other public outrages include gunmen bursting into a hospital operating room to finish off an injured rival being treated there and the severed head of a police commander being left in an ice cooler on the front lawn of a town's police station.
Decapitation is a regular feature of the war, starting in 2006 when traffickers dumped the heads of five rivals onto the dance floor of a popular disco as a powerful public message.
At the same time, the immense profits from the multi-billion dollar drug trade are just as evident, with traffickers showing off mansions, luxury cars, gold-plated machine guns, emerald-encrusted necklaces, private planes and albino tigers as house pets.
Together, threats and money are a powerful corrupting force.
Alesha Green, a Toronto immigration lawyer, said it makes it difficult for Ottawa.
"You have the U.S. and Canada that are part of a free trade agreement with Mexico. It becomes a difficult call for Canada to then say that Mexico is not taking care of its business.
"I think there are political games being played," she said.
Last summer, in response to the rising number of asylum seekers, Ottawa imposed visa restrictions on Mexicans travelling to Canada.
The IRB would not release statistics on how many claimants relate to the drug war.
What is known is that claims from Mexico for all reasons grew steadily in the past five years while the acceptance rate plummeted.
In 2006 there were 4,955 refugee claims from Mexico, of which 932 were accepted into Canada, a success rate of 28%. Last year, there were 9,309 claims from Mexico with 516 accepted, a success rate of 8%. This week, the IRB released its numbers for the first quarter of 2010 and the visa restriction's impact is clear, with claims way down but the acceptance rate unchanged at 8%.
The National Post found 25 cases of Mexicans complaining of drug violence and corruption that were appealed to the Federal Court in the past year after being denied by the IRB. Eight of the decisions were overturned.
Charles Hawkins, spokesman for the IRB, said politics is not a factor.
"Our decisions are in no way made on political considerations. They are based solely on the facts raised in each case," he said.
"Some, but by no means all, of the issues considered by members include the availability of state protection, in-country flight alternatives and the credibility of the evidence and testimony presented."
Ms. Green said many of the cases are compelling. She asked the Federal Court to intervene in the case of Julio Fernando Gutierrez Murillo after the IRB denied him refugee status.
Mr. Gutierrez Murillo was a 15-year police veteran in Aguascalientes, assigned to a unit targeting drug dealers. In 2006 his commander was murdered and Mr. Gutierrez Murillo suspected fellow officers were to blame.
Some months later, a federal force stormed his police station and detained colleagues on the suspicion of links to organized crime.
In 2007 a former colleague asked to speak with him. He was ushered into a luxury car where a man introduced himself as the "new boss" of Aguascalientes. He told Mr. Gutierrez Murillo to relay information on anti-drug operations. He was told that if he refused, he would "regret it," he said.
A few days later, the former colleague approached him again. This time he wanted to know the schedule and route for police patrols so he could avoid any intervention in a planned murder.
Mr. Gutierrez Murillo said he refused to help. Two months later, he arrested a fellow officer who was trying to take someone hostage. A phone call urged him to release him. When he refused, he was told he would be killed before Christmas. He quit his job and fled to Canada.
"The panel finds that Mexico is a democracy and is making serious efforts to protect its citizens," the IRB wrote, when denying asylum to Mr. Gutierrez Murillo. "Mexico candidly acknowledges its past problems and is taking active steps to rectify corruption and impunity."
In the case of Mr. Alvarez, the friend of President Calderon's brother, the IRB accepted he was telling the truth but did not agree he needed to flee his homeland.
"No government is expected to guarantee perfect protection to all of its citizens at all times," the decision says. "Mexico... has in place a functioning security force to uphold the laws and constitution of the country."
Both Mr. Alvarez and Mr. Gutierrez Murillo recently appealed the decisions to the Federal Court.
Mr. Gutierrez Murillo was granted a judicial appeal. Mr. Alvarez was denied.