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Mexico's consul general aims for harmony amid conflict

He sees that Mexicans here have their rights protected while abiding by U.S. laws.

May 03, 2008|Anna Gorman | Times Staff Writer

Juan Marcos Gutierrez has spent 16 years in Mexican public service, including as city attorney in Tijuana, federal legislator for Baja California and anti-corruption prosecutor in Mexico City.

But Gutierrez, 38, said his new position as the Mexican consul general in Los Angeles is by far the "greatest challenge" of his career. The size of the constituency alone -- including about 1.6 million Mexican immigrants in L.A. County -- makes the job daunting. Add to that a politically charged climate and frequent anti-illegal immigration protests and federal raids, and Gutierrez said he expects a tough tenure. Already, he has been working six days a week, often more than 12 hours a day.

In fact, Gutierrez arrived less than two weeks after about 70 Mexicans were arrested in an immigration raid at a manufacturing plant in Van Nuys. Gutierrez and his staff met with many of those who had been arrested, gave them a legal orientation and distributed more than $15,000 in one-time cash assistance.

"It wasn't that much of a surprise," he said in an interview at his office near MacArthur Park. "However, I would have liked to be around for a month or two without any heartbreaking situations."

As a representative of the Mexican government, Gutierrez walks a fine line. He protects the rights of Mexicans living in Los Angeles without getting involved in local politics. He ensures that Mexicans here have their civil and constitutional rights protected while still abiding by local, state and national laws.

For example, Gutierrez's office has met with Pedro Espinoza, the illegal Mexican immigrant and alleged gang member charged with fatally shooting a Los Angeles High School football star in March. Gutierrez said that his heart was with the family of the victim, Jamiel Shaw Jr., but that his role is also to make sure the suspect receives a fair trial.

Part of the consul general's job, as he sees it, is to promote a positive image of Mexicans and debunk what he calls myths about migrants: that they steal jobs, bring disease and don't pay taxes.

Since his arrival, he has held meetings with Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, City Council members, county supervisors, local attorneys and immigrant rights advocates. During those meetings, Gutierrez said, he has discussed ways to work together to improve public safety, healthcare and education. And because more than 1,000 Mexicans visit the consulate every day, Gutierrez said he is in a unique position to reach a large segment of the Los Angeles population.

"Cooperation is the name of the game," he said.

Council President Eric Garcetti said Gutierrez recognizes the importance of a strong and lasting economic and political relationship between Los Angeles and Mexico.

"He couldn't be here at a more critical time for Los Angeles," Garcetti said. "The challenge to him is to contribute positively to a divisive debate and to strengthen ties between Los Angeles and Mexico when political winds blow against that."

One recent day, Gutierrez met with John Trasvina, president and general counsel of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund. Gutierrez told Trasvina he was concerned about the effect on the Mexican community of stepped-up immigration enforcement and raids.

"They are not happening every day, but it feels like it," Gutierrez said. "That's the climate of fear and the atmosphere that it creates."

Trasvina said that working with the Mexican Consulate is "more important than ever."

"We have rights, and it's not just rights because of the Mexican flag, it's because of the American flag," he said. "We'd like to make sure those rights are respected and protected."

Gutierrez is also trying to reach out to Mexicans throughout the region by expanding consular duties to seven days a week and sending mobile consulates to new areas. Recently, he and his staff traveled to Santa Catalina Island to distribute consular identification cards and passports to Mexicans living there.

Gutierrez grew up in Tijuana and has a law degree from the Autonomous University of Baja California. He served as the Tijuana city attorney from 1992 to 1995 and a federal congressman from 1997 to 2000.

As a representative, he authored a law that reformed the constitution and gave more independence to cities.

At the end of his tenure, he took on a controversial job as part of a team investigating Mexico's tourism director for fraud.

One day a gunman forced his way into Gutierrez's car. Gutierrez, convinced that it was a politically motivated kidnapping and that his life was in danger, forced a car crash and escaped.

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