How Mexico Helped The Times Get Its Journalists Out of Afghanistan

A humanitarian effort led by Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard gave Afghans and their families a sanctuary amid the fast-unfolding crisis.

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A group of Afghans who worked for The New York Times, along with their families, touched down safely early Wednesday — not in New York or Washington, but at Benito Juarez International Airport in Mexico City.

The arrival of the 24 families was the latest stop in a harrowing escape from Kabul. And Mexico’s role in the rescue of journalists from The Times and, if all goes as planned, The Wall Street Journal offers a disorienting glimpse of the state of the American government as two of the country’s most powerful news organizations frantically sought help far from Washington.

Mexican officials, unlike their counterparts in the United States, were able to cut through the red tape of their immigration system to quickly provide documents that, in turn, allowed the Afghans to fly from Kabul’s embattled airport to Doha, Qatar. The documents promised that the Afghans would receive temporary humanitarian protection in Mexico while they explored further options in the United States or elsewhere.

“We are right now committed to a foreign policy promoting free expression, liberties and feminist values,” the Mexican foreign minister, Marcelo Ebrard, said in a telephone interview. Citing a national tradition of welcoming everyone from the 19th-century Cuban independence leader Jose Marti to German Jews and South Americans fleeing coups, he said Mexico had opened its doors to the Afghan journalists “in order to protect them and to be consistent with this policy.”

Mr. Ebrard added, explaining the country’s swift work, “We didn’t have time in order to have the normal official channels.”

The path of the Afghan journalists and their families to Mexico was as arbitrary, personal and tenuous as anything else in the frantic and scattershot evacuation of Kabul. Mr. Ebrard was at home around 5 p.m. on Aug. 12, when he got a message on WhatsApp from Azam Ahmed, a former chief of The Times’s Kabul and Mexico bureaus, who is on book leave.

“Is the government of Mexico willing to receive refugees from Afghanistan?” asked Mr. Ahmed, who maintained a cordial relationship with Mr. Ebrard despite occasionally heated Mexican government criticism of his coverage. “We have people there, good people, who are trying to get out.”

Mr. Ebrard quickly responded that it wouldn’t be possible. Then, he said, he thought about whether his department could circumvent what would typically be “hours and hours” of process and a cabinet meeting. “And so I called the president and explained the situation,” he said.

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Mexico’s foreign minister, Marcelo Ebrard, last week. He “was in the position to make some decisions,” he said.Credit…Sashenka Gutierrez/EPA, via Shutterstock

President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador agreed that “the situation was moving very fast, and the decision should be taken at the same speed,” Mr. Ebrard said in an interview this week.

“We looked at this request not as foreign policy between Mexico and the U.S.,” he continued. “Instead, it’s a common position between someone who was a New York Times reporter in Kabul several years ago and myself, who was in the position to make some decisions.”

Mr. Ebrard wrote back to Mr. Ahmed around 6:30 p.m. to say Mexico was ready to help by providing assurances — to a charter airline, or another government — that it would accept a list of Afghans.

As the Taliban closed in on Kabul, however, the situation changed. The commercial airport shut down, and for a time only American military flights would depart. Qatar, where the U.S. jets landed, would usually accept Afghans only if officials there could be assured that they would move on to a third country.

Many of the details of the Afghans’ passage are being kept confidential by news organizations, in part for fear of flooding the narrow channels of escape. The Times did not promote its arrangement with Mexico. After it was reached, Mexico extended its invitation to The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post. The editor in chief of The Journal, Matt Murray, said the paper planned to send its team, now in Qatar and Ukraine, on to Mexico. A spokeswoman for The Post declined to comment on its plans.

While the United States has ramped up its evacuation flights, the politicized and bureaucratic American immigration system has struggled to meet the crisis. Processing the special visas that are available to journalists often requires them to spend at least a year in a third country, presumably to satisfy the forces warning that Muslim immigrants may be terrorists working under extremely deep cover.

So governments around the world are stepping in, as they did when Syrian journalists fled that country’s war — most of them to find homes in Europe. Many others went to Turkey, which has also scrambled to provide lifelines to Afghan journalists. Uzbekistan, too, has accepted refugees and offered itself as a short-term destination for Times journalists, a senior Times editor said.

Qatar, which maintained ties to the Taliban and hosted peace talks, has played the central role. Its ambassador to Kabul has reportedly led convoys to safety, and the first wave of evacuees — including the journalists — bivouacked in Doha. British soldiers also played a role in evacuating journalists, The Journal reported.

Understand the Taliban Takeover in Afghanistan

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Who are the Taliban? The Taliban arose in 1994 amid the turmoil that came after the withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan in 1989. They used brutal public punishments, including floggings, amputations and mass executions, to enforce their rules. Here’s more on their origin story and their record as rulers.

Who are the Taliban leaders? These are the top leaders of the Taliban, men who have spent years on the run, in hiding, in jail and dodging American drones. Little is known about them or how they plan to govern, including whether they will be as tolerant as they claim to be.

How did the Taliban gain control? See how the Taliban retook power in Afghanistan in a few months, and read about how their strategy enabled them to do so.

What happens to the women of Afghanistan? The last time the Taliban were in power, they barred women and girls from taking most jobs or going to school. Afghan women have made many gains since the Taliban were toppled, but now they fear that ground may be lost. Taliban officials are trying to reassure women that things will be different, but there are signs that, at least in some areas, they have begun to reimpose the old order.

What does their victory mean for terrorist groups? The United States invaded Afghanistan 20 years ago in response to terrorism, and many worry that Al Qaeda and other radical groups will again find safe haven there.

Mexico’s help in rescuing U.S. allies cuts against the usual image of the country in America’s divisive immigration politics, but Mr. Ebrard declined to dwell on the irony. “Maybe society in the United States is not aware of the Mexican tradition in terms of refugees,” he said mildly.

The foreign minister added that he could not fault the American withdrawal from Kabul. “It’s not easy to organize the evacuation of thousands of people in a short period of time when you are withdrawing from some country,” he said.

The Mexican government is now looking to extend similar protections to other journalists and to women who are in danger in Afghanistan, Mr. Ebrard added.

“We are deeply grateful for the help and generosity of the government of Mexico,” A. G. Sulzberger, the publisher of The Times, said in an email. “Their assistance has been invaluable in getting our Afghan colleagues and their families out of harm’s way. We urge the whole international community to follow this example and continue working on behalf of the many brave Afghan journalists who are still at risk.”

Many Afghan journalists remain unable to get into the airport — including most of the staff of the U.S.-government operated Voice of America and Radio Azadi, a U.S. official said.

Mr. Sulzberger said the assistance would not affect The Times’s coverage of Mexico, describing it as a humanitarian matter and noting that “everyone who has assisted us understands that our coverage is totally and completely independent.”

Mr. Ebrard is a large figure in Mexican politics, a former Mexico City mayor who is often mentioned as a possible successor to President Obrador. He’s also known for a lighter touch with the press than the president, who often castigates news organizations (including The Times) at lengthy news conferences. But the foreign minister said he didn’t expect any favors from the newsrooms that Mexico had helped.

“I think that those newspapers have different positions about the government, very critical ones, and I suspect this will not change,” he said.

The Mexican government is trying to stem a tide of migrants from Central America, and I asked how it could justify admitting Afghans while pressing Nicaraguans to stay home. Mr. Ebrard said the government’s actions were consistent with the Mexican push “to make clear the difference between economic migrants and the people who are looking for refuge and asylum,” he said.

Mr. Ebrard said he didn’t expect much domestic criticism for moving fast to accept Afghans. “The people in Mexico are very sympathetic with refugees right now in Afghanistan,” he said. And he said he’d be at the airport Wednesday morning to meet the Afghans himself and to say, “Welcome to Mexico.”

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