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Associated Press/Photo by Guillermo Arias

Terror in Tijuana

Crime | Latest south-of-the-border drug violence reveals cartels with more weapons, less fear of harming the innocent

Issue: "'To stay is to be killed'," Nov. 29, 2008

SAN DIEGO-In Baja Calif., weekends are a different kind of blast. On Saturday, Nov. 15, masked gunmen burst into a Tijuana pool hall and opened fire with shotguns, killing five people. On the same day, two men and a 14-year-old girl died in a shootout in a Tijuana street. The murders occurred shortly after at least 1,000 people, protesting the region's spiraling drug-related violence, marched through the city's streets carrying signs that said "Dios nos ahorra."

God save us.

Tijuana, a border town south of San Diego, has notched more than 600 murders this year as rival drug cartels clash with each other and Mexican security forces. In all, more than 4,000 people have died in Mexico's drug wars in 2008. Increasingly, cartels are targeting people-children and clergy-once considered off limits even for the lowest criminals.

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On Nov. 13, a banner found hanging at the door of a kindergarten in Ciudad Juarez threatened to attack schoolchildren if the teachers didn't surrender their Christmas bonuses. Police suspended classes while deciding what to do. On Nov. 3, Manuel Jesus Tec, a Southern Baptist pastor with a church in San Diego, was released after being held for 11 days by kidnappers in Tijuana who whipped him with barbed wire whenever he prayed or talked about God.

Since August, cartel battles have shaken Playas de Rosarito, a popular coastal tourist destination on the Baja peninsula. But while tourism has dropped by half since the killings began, evangelism has not, said Juan Flores, pastor of Horizonte Rosarito, a nondenominational church there. In October, Flores accepted the offer of an American church, Calvary Chapel San Jacinto, to show the Jesus film at an outdoor venue in Rosarito. Twice, people close to Flores advised him against holding the evangelistic outreach.

"Do you think it would be wise to gather a crowd?" they said. "Would it make a good target for the cartels?"

In the end, Flores decided to go forward, showing the film on a portable screen in a dirt lot across the street from a mom-and-pop store. Out of a crowd of about 90, the pastor said, only four people did not come forward to profess faith in Christ.

Flores stood in the lot and cried. "I thought, what if I had listened to those people who said, 'Don't do it. You might get killed'?"

Ironically, Horizonte has also been able to reach drug dealers with the gospel message specifically because of the drug violence. After cartel thugs in September beat a low-level associate named Bernardo nearly to death, Flores went to visit him in the hospital. Bernardo had left his wife and was living with another woman.

"I talked to him and his family about what God wanted for their lives," Flores said. After the pastor's visit, Bernardo reunited with his wife and children, and the church helped the family relocate to another part of Mexico so that Bernardo could escape the cartel.

Tanto Husain, an assistant pastor and church planter, has worked in the city of Aguascalientes, six hours north of Mexico City, for a year. During that time at least 30 police officers have died in major gun battles involving heavy weapons and grenades, he said. "We're talking Main Street in broad daylight," said Husain, 28, who works with youth in Capilla Calvario Aguascalientes, a local church, and also plants churches in other parts of the country.

One church member, Abel, owns a small car stereo business on Avenida Lopez Mateos. In September, members of a criminal gang visited every business on the street, threatening violence unless each proprietor coughed up "protection" money-a $10,000 up front retainer, plus a monthly fee. Abel could only afford $5,000, but agreed to pay because the enforcers threatened his wife and family.

When Husain heard the story, he asked Abel, "Why didn't you just go to the cops?"

"I was afraid they were corrupt," he said.

"We prayed for Abel all week," Husain said. "It's crazy. What can you do in a situation like that?" But the pervasive violence has not kept people from braving the streets to attend church, Husain said. It has also changed the prayer lives of the members of Capilla Calvario. "We have a prayer meeting every Sunday and Tuesday. We pray for the safety of our city, our state, and our country."

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