In a drug-ravaged part of Mexico, a young priest fights to keep youths out of gangs

Apatzingan, Mexico - Teens everywhere face pressures, but those growing up in this city face more than your garden variety adolescent woes.

Here, Heidi Garcia is never surprised when she hears another classmate from elementary school is working for a drug gang. Throughout this rural valley called the “Tierra Caliente” or “Hot Land,” where the Mexican government is battling the grip of organized crime, Juan Guzman says the traffickers have come out as the heroes in the eyes of many his age. Some teens have even joined a youth group run by drug traffickers that reportedly preaches to new recruits the merits of staying away from alcohol and handing over drug-trade proceeds to their parents and siblings.

That is where the Rev.Andres Larios steps in, running a parallel youth group called The Rainbow, whose aim is to steer teens such as Ms. Garcia and Mr. Guzman away from the temptations of quick money that drug trafficking offers here.

“We have to fight against the culture of the drug trafficker,” says Father Larios, a Roman Catholic priest who does not look much older than the teens he counsels. “The other day I asked adolescents what do they want to be? They say drug traffickers. They say traffickers have the prettiest wives, the best houses in town, and the best cars.”

Drug gangs have long had a presence in this sweltering valley in Mexico’s south. But with a government crackdown that began in December 2006, groups have splintered, territory has been disputed, and violence that often includes dismembered body parts featured on front pages has intensified. Some 15,000 people have been killed since then.

Gangs target poor youths

Yet the main gang dominating here, called La Familia, also enjoys widespread support. Members have turned into Robin Hood-like figures who woo the poor, not just with alternative jobs that pay well on the margins of

legality but even by paying for social services in rural towns, putting up lights or constructing schools.

George Grayson, the author of “Mexico: Narco Violence and a Failed State?,” says that the gang finds many young recruits at drug rehab centers. “They target young people who are poor and from broken homes who really are looking for una familia,” he says.

One alleged leader of La Familia, named Rafael Cedeno Hernandez, was reported as saying in the local press that in 2008 he indoctrinated more than 9,000 recruits, a training that consisted of emphasizing personal achievement, values, and ethics.

This code of conduct is similar to the one that Larios teaches to his teenagers – about a hundred of whom sign up for Catholic extracurricular education each year. He dismisses the learning that goes on in organized crime circles. “They call themselves Christian,” he says in disgust.

The Rainbow is not unlike most religious youth groups, he concedes, but the pressures that its young members face differ. Some have approached the priest and told him they are stuck in organized crime, or that they have no choice but to continue because they have to bring income to their families.

Larios grew up in one of the rural villages that dot the “Tierra Caliente” and joined the seminary at age 12 – back in a time when youngsters that age were allowed in. A family friend, a priest who used to visit his town, inspired him to serve God, he says.

Now, as a youthful priest, he easily associates with teens, some of whom he recruits by signing up for and participating in basketball tournaments. His office is adorned with photos of him riding a jet ski or donning fashionable sunglasses, photos that resemble a cool older brother – not the stereotypical local priest.

“We understand each other,” Father Larios says. That might include listening to the same music, watching the same movies, and telling similar jokes. “I speak their language.”

Threats and extortion from drug gangs

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.”