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EL PASO A cyclist on a 701-mile bike ride across Texas is Pedaling for Justice to raise awareness about Mexican citizens who like him are fleeing violence and seeking a safe haven in the U.S.

'We had to go through something very cruel, difficult. We're not here because we chose to leave,' said Carlos Gutierrez, 35.

Two years ago, Gutierrez owned a successful food and beverage company in Chihuahua city.But when he could no longer pay thousands of dollars in extortion money, criminals cut off the lower part of his legs.

'I was tortured... mutilated,' Gutierrez said.

He survived the attack and fled across the border to El Paso, where he is now among a growing number of Mexicans citizens seeking asylum. Some have formed a group called Mexicanos en Exilio (Mexicans in Exile), which offers legal assistance in the U.S. while seeking justice for victims back in Mexico.

Most asylum cases involving Mexican citizens are denied. While waiting for a decision about his case in El Paso, a chance meeting changed Gutierrez's life.

It was Thanksgiving 2011 and Eddie Zepeda, a certified prosthetist, was at an outlet mall with his wife and children when he spotted Gutierrez.

'When I saw this young man in that power wheelchair without his legs, I just couldn't't help myself,' Zepeda recalled.

Zepeda approached Gutierrez and said, 'I just want to make sure you know that you can walk again.'

He helped Gutierrez get his first set of prosthetic legs, and helped design the lighter pair that he is using on the 701-mile bike trip from El Paso to Austin.

'Eddie is my angel,' Gutierrez said. The two men have become close friends.

''It doesn't matter how you fall; it's how you get back up again.' And that came from him,' said Zepeda, who has a prosthetic practice in Las Cruces, New Mexico. 'I think I'm going to frame that,'

Gutierrez left from El Paso on Monday as a crowd of well-wishers chanted 'justicia' -- justice.

He and a small team of riders will travel across West Texas to Central Texas, making stops in Marfa, Del Rio, and San Antonio before reaching Austin, their final destination. A rally is planned in Austin on November 9, the day Guitierrez is expected to arrive.

Gutierrez hopes his story of survival inspires others.

'I'm still standing, and I want to keep fighting, said Gutierrez, who once feared he would never walk again.

E-mail akocherga@belo.com

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