“We are immigrants, not criminals”: An interview with Mexican whistleblower Karla Lottini

Karla Lottini (a pseudonym for Karla Berenice García Ramírez) is a Mexican journalist who in 2008 was forced to flee the country after exposing government corruption. She came to Vancouver with her family seeking refugee status, which she was finally granted in 2012. Karla published The Talent of the Charlatans (El talento de los farsantes) in Vancouver in 2011, an exposé of the corruption she uncovered. Since arriving in Vancouver she has been fighting for migrant justice, calling for accountability for the death of Lucía Vega Jiménez.

Jiménez was an undocumented Mexican immigrant who was arrested by Vancouver transit police who, due to an agreement with the Canada Border Service Agency (CBSA), handed her over to be deported. Terrified of returning to Mexico, she committed suicide in a cell in the detention centre where she was being held. In a victory made possible by grassroots activists like Lottini, TransLink has recently announced that it will cancel its agreement with CBSA.

On January 26th we sat down and talked to Karla about Lucía Jiménez, immigration issues in Canada, and her own experiences in Mexico.

The text of the interview has been edited for clarity.

Jane: So you’ve been involved in the case of Lucía Jiménez. Can you speak about the multiple factors that contributed to her death?

Karla: Yeah, well, Lucía Vega Jiménez was a 42-year-old Mexican migrant who came the first time asking for refugee status to Canada in 2007. It was denied because [Citizenship and Immigration Canada] didn’t believe she was in danger. Mexico is on the list of safe countries, that’s the first barrier for any refugee claimant from Mexico. They didn’t believe her: so they deported her. She was back in Canada just a few months before she committed suicide. She crossed the border, but she didn’t have status here.

That’s one of the reasons that pushed her to commit suicide, she didn’t have any guarantee. She was working for a hotel. She fled from Mexico because her partner was beating her, she was suffering from domestic violence. Her mother was really sick and she was here to support her mom and send money to the family. She tried twice to review her refugee application. The list is huge of the mistakes that CBSA committed, but also the whole immigration system. The lawyer Emma Andrews failed to send the application when she (Jiménez) was in the detention centre, so that’s a huge reason for someone who is expecting to be helped by the system and get another chance. She was really afraid to go back to Mexico because she suffered domestic violence and she was the economic support for her family. She was really in despair. When someone comes twice, three times, any number of times they have to come, by any means: by plane, by asking for refugee status at the border, they are knocking on doors asking for help. If nobody believes in you that’s pretty hard, and when you receive a deportation order it’s so hard, it’s like you don’t belong, you don’t match with any system, you don’t deserve to be helped, your word doesn’t mean anything for the government or for the system. All these reasons pushed her.

There was another reason, with her boyfriend, he betrayed Lucía, and she was afraid of course to go back to Mexico, because she had death threats. But also, as I said, Mexico is not a safe country. So what was the future she could expect? She came from the State of Mexico, the most violent state in Mexico in 2013. The state just killed 22 people last year on June 30. It’s back to the hole basically, she was really in despair, she had health problems, emotional problems. If you’ve watched the video of Lucía’s inquest, the detention centre is a dungeon, there’s no light, there’s no windows, there’s no communication with anyone. You have a deportation order, you have a sick mother, you’re afraid to go back to your country, you were twice warned to be deported. The list is huge. A lot of mistakes. She should have received mental health support. It was a mistake from the Mexican Consulate, from CBSA, the list is huge, there were a lot of irregularities. All together, this pushed her to commit suicide. It was the despair.

Eviatar: How have mining conflicts affected the refugee situation and what responsibility does Canada have given that many of these companies are headquartered in Canada?

Karla: Yeah, well, last year we had the Toxic Tour, the “greenest city” has dirty business, and it’s true. I will talk about Mexico, that’s the place I know best, but it’s not only Mexico, it’s Latin America, it’s Africa. Climate change is moving people; economic reasons, the extraction of strategic resources like mining gold, silver, this is moving the people from their lands. Basically, just talking about Mexico, the reforms and the laws are serving capital, Canadian mining. Recently they supposedly changed the law, but this is basically to open the door for the transnationals. And they can’t ask the people to leave. Even if you have a huge source of water in your land they don’t care because the government allows the companies to go ahead.

What they are doing in Mexico, the narcotraffic is very related with mining, they are working together, they are laundering money together. The narcotraffic is doing the dirty work for the mining industry, they are putting fear in the people. If you don’t move, I kill you. If you don’t move, I rape your daughter. It’s a state of terror. It’s like here in Mount Polley, everywhere they’re contaminating the water, they’re contaminating the soil, they’re displacing people. This is so stupid; if Canada doesn’t want migrants or refugee claimants, they shouldn’t be doing this, it doesn’t make sense. That’s what I and other friends were saying with Lucía: you can’t do this, you can’t be pushing the people to migrate and at the same time close the doors and say no. Also it’s so sad, when we came to this country we believed it’s different in many ways, and it is, and it is better in some ways for sure, but when you realize that this situation of the mining is here too, it’s really, really disappointing. They are the people in the lands, the Indigenous people, and when you suffer this process to have to migrate, which in my case is not the worst story, there’s people, Indigenous people, you’re walking in your community with the army there, with the narcotraffic.

Mexico is about decapitated people, dismembered people, the vocabulary related to people killed is huge, because the means of terrorism is horrifying. There’s a situation with Julio Cesar Mondragon, he’s one of the 43 students. There were 43 students kidnapped by the State in Mexico, but on the same day three students were killed. One of them is Julio Cesar Mondragon, he was just 22 years old, he was studying to be a teacher at the Ayotzinapa school, and his face was skinned and eyes were gouged out. There are very scary pictures. So what’s this message? This is very repressive and this is saying, all the people who are raising their voice, all the people who are organizing against the system, or trying to stop mining, they’re going to meet the same fate. That’s the message. And that’s the message since a long time ago in Mexico. We are very used in Mexico to hear everyday.

There’s a collective called Nuestra Aparente Rendición, this is a collective of writers, journalists, artists, academics, they have a projects named Menos Días Aquí, Last Days Here, and you can get involved in that. The work is for one week to research in all the news all the people dead in Mexico. I did that like four years ago, I thought it would be really easy for me. I promise you this is a full-time job, because there are a lot of people killed. It’s so sad that the people are killed are called “collateral damage”, sometimes they are buried in mass graves with no name, and the families never know where they are. So it’s pretty scary, and that’s why people are fleeing Mexico.

Jane: Can you speak about your own experiences of violence in Mexico?

Karla: Yeah, well, my case is not related with drug cartels or all these actors of the tragedy in Mexico [the 43 missing students of Ayotzinapa]. My case was involved with culture with federal employees. I was reporting for the Consejo Nacional para la Cultura y las Artes (The National Council for Culture and Arts), in the press area. That was the first time I discovered a lot of violence against journalists. There were a lot of irregularities. It wasn’t in my plans to discover corruption, it happened by chance. I discovered a lot of irregularities. You were supposedly contracted as freelance but you had to work 8 hours per day, two shifts, twice a week sometimes, no health coverage, nothing, you worked supposedly as freelance. And they said you would earn probably $700, but in reality in the contract it said you have to travel eight times per month to the country or even internationally, and you would be paid by interview some amount, by article some amount, by report some amount, and they were stealing all this money. I discovered all this evidence on my computer. I found that they were paying with my work to other workers. Those workers were ghost workers: the driver of my bus, the friend of whoever, very messy. The conditions were so, so bad.

So what I did, as a journalist, was gather the evidence and try to denounce them. I’m talking about intellectual people, very prestigious people, not drug dealers, but in these circles there’s always someone who’s doing the dirty work, people with no ethics. It was very chilling because I tried to denounce them, with a lot of evidence, and when I went to the media, intellectuals, the moral power of the country, even in the most left-wing media, they didn’t want to publish it. When you damage the reputation of these people, it’s very risky because they are very powerful, very connected, so nobody wanted to make this public. I tried and tried, they closed the doors. And I said, because I studied in a writers’ school, so I used to write what I wanted to write, okay, if nobody wants to make this public I will do it by myself, in a book. It’s very messy, the story about the people who were involved in this. They knew I wanted to do this, as soon as they knew that I got the evidence they tried to intimidate me, they made calls to my cell phone, they called my house, they threatened that they would sue for moral damage, for libel. I started to be afraid and sick, because I was carrying all the pressure and the fear, and you don’t know if they will do anything or if they’re just threats.

And then a journalist looked for me in 2008 to reopen the case because she was working for Contralínea and she doing a report. They found that there was a huge lack of money, 24 million pesos, that was unaccounted for. So she said, I know you have this case, show me the evidence. But at this point I didn’t trust her, but we met in a café in Coyoacán. After that the death threats started again, but not only for me, but also for my sister. My husband and I had a jewellery business and one guy came when my sister was there and I wasn’t. He asked for me, and when she said I wasn’t there he showed her a gun and said, “I just came to say hi.” Then my sister got afraid and started crying. When I was in the process my family was of course afraid, and I put the evidence in a safe place, and one of the safe places was with my sister. So she was really scared and she said, why are they coming, what is happening, because I was working in 2001 and 2002 at this governmental office, and this is in 2008.

The main guy that I denounced was never punished, he was made Chief of Transparency! Later he was working for Calderon, the ex-president of Mexico, on the bicentennial project, later he went to another institution where I was working, the Secretaria de Cultura DF, as the director. And now he’s in the same position, exactly the same position, exactly in the same position as when I discovered all this. I think I just discovered the tip of the iceberg, what is under is a frightening thought. It’s sad to say that it’s not only about narcotraffic, not only about drug dealers, it’s very corrupt. There are other journalists that are in the same situation, some of them haven’t been lucky and they’ve been killed. It’s pretty bad what’s going on with journalists in Mexico. Since 2006 it’s worse.

Jane: Do you see any hope in the Sanctuary City movement?

Karla: Any hope? I guess. As long as the community gets more involved. There are a lot of organizations: No One Is Illegal Vancouver, No One Is Illegal Toronto. Toronto and Hamilton are sanctuary cities, and Sanctuary Health is working on that in Vancouver. All the time more people  are getting more involved, but we’re not enough. In an immigrants’ country we should expect that more communities get involved in this issue. No matter how many borders they put, or the technology system they create to stop immigrants, like in the US, people, as long as the world is not equal with respect to rights, or natural and economic resources, people will keep migrating. We believe we’re immigrants, not criminals, and the people should have access without fear to services, and not be treated like criminals. So I have this expectation for sure: we need the support of the community.

See here for information on getting involved with No One is Illegal. We would like to thank Karla for sitting down with us us and for providing us with these important insights.