Tears and Light in Juarez

By Fr Kevin Mullins

The author is a Columban from Brisbane, Queensland, Australia, who has worked in Chile and in Britain. For the past fifteen years he has been in Corpus Christi Parish, Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua, Mexico, just across the border from El Paso, Texas, USA. The parish, along with a presence in El Paso, is part of the Columban Border Ministries of the Region of the United States.

A news report on 7 News, Australia, 2012

Some time ago drug-cartel soldiers visited a house near our parish church. The man of the house was a small-time drug-seller and user. Reportedly he had not paid up on time. The cartel soldiers forced him and his three-year-old daughter to watch as they slit his wife’s throat. Then the child watched as they shot half her father’s face away and left him for dead. The little girl lay for nine hours on the legs of her dead parents and then, in the morning, went outside to let neighbors know that something was wrong.

The violence of the drug cartels in our city is endemic but, for the cartels, it is a means to an end. They prefer their business to be free of violence and so use bribes to encourage collaboration from politicians, police chiefs, state governors, mayors, etc. These are often offered a choice: plata (money) or plomo (lead ie, a bullet).

The primary focus of the cartels is transporting illegal drugs from Mexico to the USA. It affects us directly because the traffic comes through Ciudad Juárez, our city, on the way across the USA/Mexico border into El Paso. Government authorities at all levels, including the police and military, Non-Government Organizations and Catholic Church leaders have consistently shown by their actions that they do not believe that the cartel-based drug business can be brought under control or eliminated solely by repressive means. In the face of the demand for illicit drugs from within the USA and the huge profits to be made, no institution of the State, civil society or the Church has been able to come up with an effective proposal for moving against this lethal business.

Up until recently an average of 15 people were being killed each day in the Juárez area. The Sinaloa artel defeated the Juárez cartel and in so doing gained control of access to the USA through Juárez. These days the killing is down to an average of five people a day as control of the illicit drug business is exercised by the simple logic of reward (money) or punishment (execution). With the Sinaloa cartel firmly in control, business is booming. So, one might ask: How do we go about shaping our lives in this far from perfect society? Is it enough to simply avoid becoming directly involved in drug trafficking? Can we be authentic and yet refuse to tackle this pernicious evil in our midst?

The recent end of the inter-cartel conflict has allowed new signs of life to emerge in the city. The construction industry is quite active. People are going out more to restaurants, night-clubs, dance-halls and theaters. The atmosphere of constant fear is nowhere near as heavy as it used to be. The people of our parish, our diocese and our city look for ways of making sense of their lives despite the context of violence, greed, corruption and brutal injustice.

We are sadly aware that there is so much that we cannot change and yet we are determined to find a way to live authentically in the midst of terrible evil. We have a vibrant parish where we recently celebrated the First Communion of 150 children and the Confirmation of 120 youth. We sent our Confirmation group on an ‘Extreme sports’excursion to open them up to life and adventure outside the poverty of our parish on the fringe. We held a parish mission with faith renewal sessions for participants. Our parish community continues to grow in numbers and one important thing I have noted recently is the increasing mutual respect between youth and adults.

I see our parish and our diocese as beacons of hope for life. We realize of course that we will not ‘put things right’ but we are helping our parishioners grow in resilience, mutual respect and creativity. Our diocese constantly proclaims a message of dignity and hope. Recently the diocese convoked 11,000 youth to participate in a two-day Congress calling to conversion, and emphasizing the value of life. We do not take up the cudgels against all that the drug cartels stand for, but we do propose a different set of values; we offer an alternative way of living.

Catedral de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe, Ciúdad Juarez

The more I see the parish community grow the more I sense that the Church’s liturgical cycle offers parishioners a stable framework for their lives. I don’t think we offer an escape from a pernicious social reality but rather a viable, alternative value system. We would be grateful for your prayers and for any material assistance you can offer to help us in our task.

Fr Kevin Mullins featured on PBS (Public Broadcasting Service) Television, USA, 26 March 2010
Radio interview with Fr Mullins

On 11 January 2013 Father Kevin was featured on National Public Radio in the USA. You may listen to the report here.

Editor’s note: The leader of the Sinaloa cartel mentioned in the article, Joaquín Guzmán Loera, known as ‘El Chapo’ or ‘Shorty’, was arrested on 22 February in Sinaloa in a joint operation by Mexican and US authorities. He was then taken to Mexico City. He was perhaps the most powerful drug lord in history.