In a drug-ravaged part of Mexico, a young priest fights to keep youths out of gangs
Father Andres Larios counsels teens in the rural valley region in Mexico’s south called Tierra Caliente, where he grew up – and where some 15,000 people have been killed in drug-related violence since December 2006.
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Threats and extortion from drug gangsSkip to next paragraph
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But being a role model for youths has its own set of challenges here. Like business owners or other local residents, priests face threats and extortion from drug gangs. A few years back, in a community outside Apatzingan, Father Larios was giving a sermon to those in the pews, urging them not to be intimidated, especially into voting for political candidates favored by La Familia. He says that after the mass he was approached by a man who admonished him not to talk about drug trafficking.
Four months ago, Larios received a voice mail on his cellphone from a man telling him he had better show up at their ranch and conduct mass.
“I had no choice but to do so,” he says. “Sometimes living here gives us a feeling of impotence. Teens feel it, too, and try to close their eyes to the reality.”
The leadership of the Catholic Church in Mexico is beginning to address drug violence and could play a major role in allowing priests and parishioners alike to feel empowered, Larios says. In November, the Mexican Council of Bishops made insecurity and drug trafficking a theme of its semiannual meeting. While the bishops did not make specific recommendations on steps the church should take, as was anticipated, they did release a statement. “Enough already! Stop harming yourselves and stop causing so much damage and pain to our young people, our families, and our homeland,” it read.
The bishops plan to release recommendations in the future.
For now, the approach to fighting drug trafficking is up to each congregation. Here in Apatzingan, at least, some young people feel the church has provided them with an alternative.
Teens listen to narco-corridos, the songs that celebrate the exploits of drug traffickers, and believe that is what is “in,” Guzman says. “They do not do anything productive,” he says. “They just want guns.”
Larios shows teens another way of being “in.” “He understands us,” Garcia says. “In Apatzingan, we see all of this violence as normal.... [With Larios] we learn that there are other options.”