First sight having just stepped off the bus into town.
Join me for the story of a young man who trained as a drug cartel killer by American mercenaries, and the love and spiritual adoption that joined our hearts as powerfully as any father and son. This is my fulfillment of a promise I made to him to take his story to the outside world.
The first thing we saw of the town of Tepic, Mexico as we exited the bus that had meandered its way from Puerto Vallarta to the interior, was a gang of about ten motorcycles, ridden singly and in pairs by men in all black suits, black helmets, black bullet-proof vests, black balaclava over the face, and machine guns slung at the ready. My first thought was, are these good guys or bad guys? And if they’re good guys, I’d hate to see the bad guys! Of the group, I’m proud to say that I was the only one who overcame the shock and took some pictures as this squad rode noisily through us on this tiny side street. We had chosen to minister to a city that until six months ago was rated the most dangerous city in the world. Drug cartels owned the town outright until six months ago when a new government decided to make some real change. It turned out the military police cover their face to prevent reprisals on their families.
A few days later, we were on our way to a prison with our young translators from the church, bouncing uncontrollably in two derelict Ford super-vans over some of Mexico’s approximations of streets. Our van was driven by Rebecca, the 22 year old missionary’s daughter. These vehicles ran more by prayer than by mechanical virtue, but Her idea of fun is to try to get air with as many people as she can cram into the vans. If there had ever been seat belts in these cars, there was no evidence of it, and still they’d be outnumbered two or three to one by passengers.
Our team of Bethel students from Redding, California, was heading for a juvenile high security prison. But don’t let the “juvenile” part fool you: the Mexican government considers these inmates highly dangerous and hardened. A large part of the prison population were soldiers of the drug cartels that had practically owned this town.
Tepic derives its only income from the sugar cane industry. Unfortunately sugar cane only benefits the handful of owners of the land and the processing plants. And the practice of burning the fields tucks the city under a blanket of smoke for six months of the year. The average income for most jobs is around 6 to 8 dollars…per day! And if you think money goes a long way there, think again. You could easily spend a day’s pay at the grocery store, just to feed yourself. And as you’ll learn from our story, poverty drives many otherwise normal people into working for the drug lords.
Ten of our young men were scheduled to play soccer opposite the prison team, and surely I wasn’t the only one wondering just how rough this might get. I had visions of the 1974 version of “The Longest Yard”, about a prison football team. The machine gun towers rising on the perimeter walls did little to dispel our unspoken apprehensions. This was no ordinary juvenile prison, but one built as much to keep inmates in, as to keep the cartels out. In spite of the fears that would have run rampant in any sane person’s mind, none of us really had any such emotions. After all, if we are to trust our lives to the veracity of the Gospels, then “perfect love casts out all fear”. For this absence of fear, I credit the tangible, living water of God’s love that was flowing through us all as we touched the people around us on the streets, churches, hospital, and even prisons of Tepic.
In case you might think that love is an intangible, I have proof to the contrary. We slept on the floor on old mattresses or box springs. Yes I did say “or”, and mine was a box spring. But the real issue was my snoring. And although on the last morning there I found one of the guys sleeping in the hallway and the others all bunched up on the far end of the room, not once was there even the slightest complaint. Given that my wife can hardly tolerate the racket, I’m thinking this makes a very good love-o-meter. But I digress.
We were not to wear any items of black clothing as the new military police wore black. We also were instructed about the many things, including wallets, watches, jewelry, cameras, money, and more that we could not take with us into the prison. But as we casually entered the jail, not only were we not searched, we weren’t even counted. For once, a little more security would have given me more of a warm fuzzy that things were under control.
The senior pastor of the Mexican mega-church hosting us, had told me in a private conversation, that the men in this prison were so hardened that the church had given up any further attempts to visit there. But as we filed past the prisoner soccer team, single file, what I was experiencing reminded me of the soccer games my boys had played in their early teens. Before every game, the two teams would file past each other and shake hands. Now, here I was in the line myself, expecting the best out of a very unlikely situation, exchanging what I assumed was the indigenous hand shake of choice, of a knuckle bump and a palm slide.
To be continued…