Mass Arrest: Christianity and the Deadly Mexico Drug War
The bold interruption of a Sunday Mass to arrest a drug lord in August illustrated just how desperate Mexico's war on drugs has become—and how religion is no longer a neutral observer.
Roman Catholic leaders condemned the invasion of sacred space as federal police entered a Michoacán sanctuary August 2 to arrest Miguel Angel Beraza, a leader of La Familia. (The brazenly violent drug cartel supports its actions with rhetoric purloined from evangelical sources such as John Eldredge.) Beraza's arrest came as escalating violence in Ciudad Juarez and Tijuana has killed thousands, disrupted the usual summer wave of mission activity by evangelicals.
"Mexico is living an unprecedented crisis," said Jaime Hernández Ortiz, an evangelical law professor at the University of Guadalajara. "It is expected that the next three years will be the same or worse."
Observers noted that the Roman Catholic Church, long one of the most respected institutions in the world's second-largest Catholic country, appears to have lost its sheen of immunity in the narcotics conflict.
The Conference of Mexican Bishops reports that 7 bishops and 120 of its 16,000 priests have received death threats this year. Assailants killed a Catholic priest and two seminarians leaving a Mass in the southwestern state of Guerrero in June.
Drug-related violence has claimed over 11,000 Mexicans since President Felipe Calderon effectively declared war on the Sinaloa and Gulf drug cartels in 2006. Flooding troubled states with 25,000 federal troops has yet to produce significant results. Instead, once-shocking news of tortured bodies, beheadings and abductions has become common. Gunmen executed 18 men at a Juarez drug rehab center in September.
"Generalized violence is growing every day and the most horrifying thing is that all the people are getting used to it," said Joel Sierra, a Monterrey pastor and a vice president-elect of the Baptist World Alliance.
Surveys by Catholic bishops reveal that drug trafficking and drug use are the primary problems facing families in their dioceses—problems that didn't even make the list five years ago. In August, Mexico made it legal to possess small amounts of narcotics, raising fresh concerns.
Evangelicals have stayed out of the drug war's headlines. But leaders say the religious minority, which composes about 5 percent of Mexico's population of 107 million, faces the same risk of kidnappings and extortion as the general population.
Alejandra Ortiz, an InterVarsity staff member in Tijuana, said at least five pastors were kidnapped this past year. "In Tijuana, we're used to hearing about shootings and people being kidnapped," said Ortiz. "But now it is much closer to everyone."
Tijuana and Juarez, key trafficking points for U.S. demand for Mexican cocaine and methamphetamine, are two of the main hotspots of drug-related violence. (Nearly 3,000 have died in Juarez and over 1,000 in Tijuana since 2007.) Both border cities are also epicenters for U.S. evangelical missions activity in Mexico.
Several ministries active in Juarez told CT that while the narcos haven't directly affected their work, what has affected them is fewer churches sending mission teams because of the headlines they read.
"The violence has just destroyed [Juarez] as far as missions goes," said Zach Brining, executive director of Alabama-based Hands and Feet Ministries, which lost all of its Juarez home-building teams this summer.
"It's sad that ministries are pulling out," said Brining. "What are we saying? 'Now that times are the hardest, we love you guys but see you later.' It's important that we retain our witness."