Mexican whistleblower Karla Lottini fights corruption, death threats and deportation
'Echar raíces' – to put down roots. That's exactly what a threatened Mexican journalist did since fleeing to Surrey with her family. In this VO exclusive, Karla Berenice García Ramírez -- pen name Lottini --tells the story of her fight to stay.
When she first received a death threat for exposing Mexico's government corruption, award-winning journalist Karla Lottini's first thought was to protect her family.
“'How are are you, my queen?'” she recounts her assailant saying in 2003. “'If you don't stop writing about this, your body could end up being in an empty lot – or even worse, someone in your family.'
“I think it's worse if you have daughters in your family... I got a call in 2008, saying I would have my arms cut off. But my daughters...”
The 38-year-old journalist and Vancouver radio broadcaster – who lives in Surrey with her husband César Casso and two small children – invited the Vancouver Observer into her home for an exclusive interview.
Lottini is a pen name -- her real name is Karla Berenice García Ramírez. She recounted a harrowing tale of whistle-blowing, escape to safety – and now, the Canadian government's push to deport her family. With the helpf of some activists, she is fighting to stay on humanitarian and compassionate grounds – but will Canada listen?
Mexico's worsening violence and corruption
“They say that Mexico is safe – democratic and safe,” she told VO, explaining that Canada's justification for twice rejecting her refugee claim was that she was not in danger from organized crime. “The Mexican government and the Canadian government have arrangements.
“I'm offended, actually – if you talked with anyone on the streets of Mexico, that would be an insult. It's not true... When the First World goes to Mexico, they go to our beautiful beaches and have all-inclusive packages. But things are so bad now – a lot of innocent people are being killed. We are so afraid.”
As García Ramírez recounted how, in 2002, she uncovered a vast web of graft and corruption in the Mexican government's massive cultural ministry – photocopying and leaking thousands of documents showing irregular kick-backs and bribes – her 17-month old daughter, Ámbar, climbed onto the couch to play with my camera, giggling, before Casso picked her up.
“In the beginning, when she told me she was taking documents out of her office, I knew it would be problematic,” Casso said, recalling the whistle-blowing that landed his wife in hot water. “Of course, I supported my wife – but I told her to be careful.
“Sometimes I ask, 'Why are we in this position?' But I feel proud of her – not too many people are brave enough to do these kinds of things. But I worry about what could continue to happen. With this whole deportation, I feel scared. I can't think of any place that we can go.”
The dangers of whistle-blowing
A graduate of writing school, García Ramírez' career took a dramatic turn after she left her newspaper job in Cancún – where she reported on crime, police, human rights and politics – to join the government's influential National Council for Culture and Arts (Conaculta). She had won several awards, including the illustrious Cultural Journalist of the State in 2000. (“The award was for an article about mushrooms,” Casso says, chuckling. “Magic mushrooms”).
But in 2002, she became suspicious after discovering – and even being ordered to author – invoices documenting unexplained payments for non-existent projects, including kick-backs to prominent journalists and their families. She photocopied an estimated 2,000 documents and took them to a lawyer and the media. But when she tried to find a publication to write about them, no one wanted to touch allegations of corruption in Mexico's most influential cultural institution.
She had become a whistle-blower, and lost her job for it. In Spanish, she said, the word is 'grillo' – a cricket – someone who makes a giant noise about wrong-doing.
“I couldn't stop talking about it,” she recalled. “But everyone said, 'Who cares?' Even if you have evidence, it doesn't matter – if they have impunity, it makes no difference.
“I'm not talking about drug dealers – I'm talking about prestigious people, people with a name – even good writers – many people with power and prestige.”
Then, García Ramírez said, the series of death threats began. Starting with the “tanned man” who threatened her on the street one day in Mexico City, calling her “my queen,” she said that even her family started getting ominous visits.
“My mother and mother-in-law received calls in Mexico saying, 'It's better if she doesn't appear anywhere near here,'” she recalled. “The last and hardest threat was to my sister.
“The message was for me, but I wasn't there. He told her, 'Just say I came to say hi' – and he showed her a gun. She was absolutely crazy – crying. She asked me, 'What's going on? Why? Are they coming back? Then I decided we had to run. It was time to put a stop to it. I was crying from the frustration – and fearful. It was visceral.”
She and her husband moved to Surrey, where they rented a basement suite which they furnished with second-hand furniture. She began volunteering for a community radio station – co-hosting a Latin affairs program – and Casso worked in construction landscaping until his injuring his back, when he started a job in pipe insulation.
She continued working on exposing corruption in the Mexican government – even publishing a book last October through both the University of British Columbia (UBC) and Simon Fraser University (SFU), under the pen-name Karla Lottini. She reached onto her 1970s brown bookshelf and flipped through a bookmarked copy of 'The Talent of the Charlatans.' Finding a page near the back, she points out some of the documents showing irregular payments to cultural figures.
Refugee status denied
But in 2010, her request for refugee status was denied by the Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB), which told the Vancouver Observer it could not comment on any individual case, but explained that it is very rare for Mexicans to be granted status – last year, only 17 per cent of cases succeeded, and the number can be as low as 10 per cent. In 2011, an appeal – for pre-removal risk assessment – was also rejected.
In a press conference this morning with her lawyer and the migrant justice group No One Is Illegal, García Ramírez and her family announced they are filing their final appeal on "humanitarian and compassionate" grounds – a last-ditch effort to prevent their deportation. They had collected dozens of letters from community organizations and academics at both UBC and SFU.
In the middle of VO's interview, Ámbar began giggling profusely as I began piling her foam block toys on top of her – showing off an unforgettable smile with one missing tooth that has only recently begun to grow in, her father told me. She squirmed as he tried to show me the emerging molar – then he gave up and went to wake up their newborn baby, Nícte – who was born only a month-and-a-half ago – for a photograph.
“I'm now so involved in the community,” she told VO. “'Echar raices' – to put down roots. It's really hard if you have to leave your nest – because you don't have a guarantee of life and justice.
“We are very tired of this situation. In the end, we just said we're going to make 'oraciones' – to pray. I said to my friends, I'm close to believing in feng shui because I'm so despairing.”
Laughing, she then turns serious – recalling that her first reaction when her appeal was rejected was anxiety about being sent to Mexico, where she fears being jailed, tortured or even killed. But with a new child, deportation also has many logistical challenges.
“When they denied the case, I said, 'Oh my God, what are we going to do with the baby's room?'” she said. “'Are we even going to decorate? We might be deported.
“This is more than about keeping my life. I'm not a saint, I am a journalist. I am a writer. I am human. I know everybody is afraid. Everybody is at risk – but we have to make noise. I want all the corruption, impunity and deaths to stop.”