In Mexico, Daniel Balcorta had it good. Three cars, a house with a pool, lavish meals at Cancun’s top restaurants—such were the perks of a successful realtor selling beachfront on the Yucatan coastline. A former professional soccer player, Balcorta had paired minor celebrity with a strong grasp of Internet commerce, and developed a thriving business catering to well-heeled snowbirds from the U.S. and Canada. “I even had a private jet I’d rent to fly around my clients viewing properties,” says the 34-year-old ruefully. “We lived a very comfortable life.”
One call to his cellphone would change that. It was Aug. 14, 2009, and the man with the raspy voice on the other end introduced himself as a representative of “the Company”—gangster-speak for Los Zetas, a notorious criminal cartel known throughout Mexico for drug trafficking and extortion. The time had come for Balcorta to pay, the man said, and the price was 500,000 pesos (about $50,000). “You must have the wrong person,” Balcorta responded, and he promptly hung up.
But the man called back, and thus began a month-long nightmare during which the gangsters called Balcorta and his wife, Maria, no less than 10 times demanding they pay up or else. When the Balcortas stopped answering, the gangsters left voice mails threatening their lives and those of their children, aged 5 and 2. On Aug. 17, Maria took a call at the house in which a man told her the Zetas would kill Balcorta “or a member of your family” unless she persuaded her husband to co-operate. They complained to police—twice—but the calls kept coming.
The tipping point came Aug. 30, when the family returned from the luxury mall at Plaza la Isla to find their gate ajar and their front door pried open. The contents of the house were untouched: “We’d left $200 on the table to pay some bills,” Balcorta marvels. “They didn’t take it.” But by then they’d noticed strangers watching their house from vehicles parked on the street. When their call to police about the break-in went unanswered yet again, the Balcortas planned their escape. That day, they moved to a friend’s house, and on Sept. 13, they boarded a plane for Calgary, where they claimed asylum under Canada’s refugee protection laws.
With their Louis Vuitton clothing and laptop computers, the Balcortas are not your stereotypical refugees. Rather, they typify a wave of asylum-seekers whose flight from their home country has been dubbed the “Mexodus”—a mass withdrawal of monied, skilled Mexicans whose wealth has made them targets for narco-gangs back home. In the last six years, there have been some 286,000 complaints of extortion in the country, while an estimated two million shakedowns go unreported each year, most of them done over throwaway cellphones.
Many victims initially applied for U.S. visas, under provisions admitting people willing and financially able to start new businesses. But as the gangs turned to extortion and kidnapping for income about four years ago, an increasing number began seeking asylum on the grounds that they are persecuted and in need of protection. In 2009, Canada’s Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB) received an astounding 9,000 claims from Mexico—more than triple the number five years earlier, and a figure that prompted the federal government to slap a visa requirement on visitors (it achieved the desired effect: by 2011, only 763 sought asylum).
The IRB doesn’t track claimants by income, and its decisions remain private unless an applicant appeals to federal court. But the handful of cases in the public domain point to a disturbing pattern. Shortly before the Balcortas arrived, the board heard the story of Javier Castillo Mendoza, a former distributor of Hewlett-Packard office equipment who testified he received a series of demands for cash over the phone before he was kidnapped by corrupt police in August 2005. He was released, he said, after his wife delivered an $8,000 ransom to a local police station. After receiving another extortion demand in April 2007—this time for $25,000—he closed his business and fled to Toronto with his wife and four children.
Mendoza’s plight, in turn, closely resembled that of Alejandro Blando, a distributor of wireless network plans who in 2008 came under threats from men claiming links to Mexico’s Federal Investigation Agency. In Blando’s case, the callers didn’t want money but undocumented phone lines through which—presumably—they could conduct illegal business.
Such cases pose a dilemma for countries like Canada and the U.S., says Paul Rexton Kan, a professor at the U.S. Army War College who has studied Mexico’s so-called “narco-refugees.” Giving safe haven to Mexico’s skilled and wealthy flies in the face of the spirit of NAFTA, he notes, but the plain truth is their own government can’t shield them. “There’s no such thing as witness protection in Mexico,” says Kan from his office in Carlisle Barracks, Pa. “Only five per cent of crimes get solved, and only two per cent result in conviction. You have the basic collapse of judicial and law enforcement systems.”
That sense of conflicting obligations has played out in Canada in cases where the IRB has been reluctant to extend asylum to wealthy Mexicans, and the federal court has told it to reconsider. In several cases, including Balcorta’s, the IRB has concluded that monied Mexicans don’t qualify for asylum because all Mexicans face gang crime, and the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act offers no protection against “a risk faced generally by other individuals.” The court, however, has held that a wealthy person singled out by the gangsters faces a very specific threat. “The risks of those standing in the same vicinity of the gunman,” wrote Justice Michel Shore in sending Balcorta’s case back for another IRB hearing, “cannot be considered the same as the risks of those standing directly in front of him.”
The stalemate is unlikely to last. Last week, Prime Minister Stephen Harper confirmed the government’s plan to lift the visa requirement on Mexicans travelling to Canada—a move that could open the gates to another flood of asylum claims. To avoid that scenario, the feds are expected to add Mexico to Canada’s list of “designated safe countries,” which would make it easier to deport refugees claimants after the IRB rejects them. Sharryn Aiken, an immigration law expert with Queen’s University, believes that would be a mistake: “If you look at the stats, you’re going to see a significant percentage of well-founded claims from Mexico. The federal court has [examined] some of these IRB decisions, found that they got it wrong and sent them back.”
The Balcortas, meanwhile, have their second shot at refuge in an as-yet unscheduled IRB hearing. Their children—Carla, 8, Rodrigo, 4, and Santiago, 2—are “Canadian through and through,” Daniel says (unbeknownst to him, Maria was pregnant with their third when they fled Mexico). And though lack of immigration status has hampered his job searches, he’s found work as a marketing consultant while coaching top-flight youth soccer teams in his spare time. To top it off, Balcorta was nominated last week for one of Calgary’s coveted Immigrant of Distinction Awards—a gesture that reinforced his belief that one day those threatening phone calls will prove a blessing. “Canada,” he says, “has moral values that other countries have lost.”