EL PASO, Texas — Carlos Gutierrez says the Holy Spirit didn’t take hold of him until five years ago when three men took hold of his legs. Using an ax, the men proceeded to mutilate him, he said.
“The only thing I did at that moment was scream to God because I didn’t think I was going to survive. I screamed, ‘Forgive me! Lord, forgive me!’ ” Gutierrez told CNN from the courtyard of his Catholic church near his middle-class neighborhood in west El Paso.
At the time, Gutierrez, now 38, was a successful businessman operating an entertainment and marketing business in Chihuahua City, Mexico. By 2010, drug cartels and corruption had taken deep holds across the northern Mexican state of Chihuahua.
Gutierrez may have survived what he called “the cruelest moment of my life,” but he lost both legs below his knees. Not only did he have to overcome the emotional distress of learning to walk on prosthetic legs, but, he says, he was forced to flee his homeland to save his family.
Two weeks after leaving the hospital, Gutierrez crossed into the United States in a wheelchair alongside his wife and two sons. They requested asylum.
On Wednesday, Gutierrez will be part of a group of about 400 “Francis VIPs” standing at the edge of Texas, looking back through a chain-link border fence into Mexico to receive a blessing and prayer from the Pope.
“Pope Francis is coming to give us emotional and spiritual support,” he said. “We are a group of people who have suffered very much, and he sees the need to be with us.”
The group will be made up of refugees, undocumented migrants and victims of Mexico’s violence.
Ruben Garcia is the director of the Annunciation House, a shelter in El Paso for migrants and refugees. He’s escorting about 40 undocumented migrants to the border for this once-in-a-lifetime moment with Francis.
“The people that are going to be there are immigrants. They’re refugees. Many of them are homeless. They’re destitute and they’re afraid,” Garcia said.
His hope is that Americans see the group and reflect: “What if it was me? What if it was my kid?”
A symbolic visit
Chihuahua state borders Texas and New Mexico. It’s also home to Juarez, the onetime murder capital of the world and the last stop on Pope Francis’ five-day pilgrimage to Mexico.
The Pope’s visit to the beleaguered city is well-designed and highly symbolic. He will be standing between two different worlds: Mexico, besieged by corruption and violence, and the United States, whose drug consumption helps fuel Mexico’s violence while its politicians intensely debate how to handle a wave of undocumented immigrants.
He is also urging Mexicans to overcome the senses of resignation and hopelessness brought on by the cartels and violence, while encouraging the United States to welcome its neighbor’s suffering refugees.
The troubles for Gutierrez began a year before his attack. Two men came to him and demanded monthly extortion payments, he said. He paid as long as he could.
The demands came from two Chihuahua state police officers and, in all, Gutierrez paid the crooked cops more than $100,000, said Nancy Oretskin, a lawyer with the Southwest Asylum and Migration Institute who has volunteered to guide the Gutierrezes through the asylum process.
The father of two boys couldn’t afford to keep paying, and in October 2011, Gutierrez said, the officers tracked him down in a park. In broad daylight, they chopped off his legs with an ax.
The police officers then threatened they’d take the heads of Gutierrez’s sons next.
“They said I was insulting them and ridiculing them and that these were my consequences for trying to hide from them,” Gutierrez said. “My life in Mexico ended the day they cut off my legs.”
Though the number of Mexican immigrants seeking asylum has increased dramatically in the last decade, the cases are difficult to win.
Between 2009 and 2013, the latest numbers available, 33,022 Mexicans arrived in the United States seeking asylum, according to the U.S. Department of Justice; 454 people were granted asylum.
“Mexicans have the hardest time proving their asylum cases,” Oretskin said. “It’s because there’s not always direct evidence to prove that the Mexican government is persecuting these people.”
Because state law enforcement officers threatened and maimed Gutierrez, he and his family have been able to garner favorable rulings in their asylum cases.
But the police officers never faced Mexico’s justice system. They were later killed, Oretskin said.
The youngest son was recently granted asylum in the United States, but Gutierrez, his wife and oldest son are still awaiting final approval, which could come this year.
Gutierrez said he is more hopeful than ever. He left behind a successful career in Mexico for a fresh start in the United States. After a failed bid to open a restaurant, he now works as a refrigeration mechanic at the U.S. Army’s Fort Bliss in El Paso.
He’s come so far since the days when he felt useless, when he “prayed to God that he would take my life.” He credits that, in part, to his “great therapy”: On prosthetic legs, he pedals through South Texas’ desert landscape, up to 10 miles a day.
He’s become passionately spiritual and prays that this moment before Pope Francis will plant the seeds to begin to loosen the grip that violence and corruption have on his homeland.
“That moment changed my family’s life forever but changed it for the better,” Gutierrez said. “God thought it was (better) for me to live without legs than for my family not to be alive today.”