A religious war on drugs

Cuahtoemoc, Mexico- Every evening, Mennonite families in the plains of Northern Mexico gather around their radios in their stark, adobe farmhouses & tune into Blanca Peters' community newscast.

The broadcast, in Low German sprinkled with Spanish, usually gives a thorough update of Mennonite life in the area, detailing everything from how tall the corn has grown to who has fallen sick & who has given birth.

But one weekend last fall, Mrs. Peters left out one notable item: a police raid that netted crack cocaine & a 9 mm pistol, shaking the foundations of this conservative community as it faces an increasing culture of drug dealing & addiction. Six Mennonites were arrested in the raid.

" Based on their own community's comments, we're sure there are a lot more crack houses than just those two," said Enrique Villagran, police chief of Cuauhtemoc. "Their leaders are very worried about this, given their traditions, customs & highly religious, moral lifestyle."

About 9,000 Mennonites moved from Canada to the desolate plains of Chihuahua state in 1922 to preserve a way of life rooted in working the land & cherishing family, God & tradition. Mexico was the last stop on a long journey to uphold their refusal to fight in wars, which took them from Germany to Russia to Canada.

In Mexico, they kept to themselves for decades, living in remote "camps" with names like Manitoba Colony & valuing simple life, much like the Amish. Few speak Spanish. Many resemble the over-all clad man & primly dressed woman of Grant Wood's famous painting "American Gothic."

While only two decades ago they lived without electricity of cars, now Mexico's 50,000 Mennonites are battling to keep the vice of modern society at bay as stores, pick up trucks & John Deere tractors have seeped into their once-remote camps.

In the past decade, U.S. & Mexican authorities have arrested dozens of Mennonites for drug dealing & smuggling.

Drug dealers are recruiting members from within the Mennonite Churches in northern Mexico, according to the August issue of the Mennonite Brethren Herald, a local monthly.

"More than 100 Mennonites are in prison for drug dealing, & that is only the tip of the iceberg," Jacob Funk, a Mennonite minister from Canada who visited the area in March, told the newspaper.

"The most common problems are drugs, alcohol & marital infidelity," Mr. Funk said. "There's a real hunger for a message of hope."

A year ago, Mexican police for the first time started patrolling 56 Mennonite camps at the request of the community leaders worried about crime, & plans are under way to open a drug rehabilitation center for the camps.

Police in northern Mexico believe a group of young Mennonites has hooked up with drug traffickers who have long operated in the region & formed a "Mennonite mafia" not only to sell drugs in their community, but also so smuggle them across the border into the United States.

Last year, U.S. Customs agent arrested three persons with Germanic last names from Cuauhtemoc. Each was caught smuggling more than 100 pounds of marijuana into Texas. All three are believe to be Mennonites, although the Customs Service does not ask the religion of those it arrests.

Manuel Caracosa Alvarado, who runs a drug rehabilitation center in Cuauhtemoc, says he treats an average of 100 Mennonites a year, many for addictions to hard drugs like powder cocaine, crack cocaine, & heroin.

Francisco Friessen checked himself into the center after he flipped over his tractor while drunk, trapping himself beneath it.

" I know a lot of people in my camp who should be getting help for their alcohol or drug addictions," said the shy man wearing a shiny maroon silk shirt & purple jeans.

Once by the time Mennonite boys could hold a pitchfork, they would work alongside their fathersfrom dawn till dusk on prosperous farms, tending corn crops that stretched to the blue horizon & churning out the Chihuahua cheese t hey developed< that is now a big part of the state's economy.

But a ten year drought has left barely enough work for even the fathers. Many who do not have more than a middle school education & speak only the Mennonites' dialect of Low German pass the time lying in the sun-drenched fields smoking cigarettes or sneaking off to discos in nearby Cuahtemoc. Dancing is still frowned upon by conservatives.

Others have left their protected communities in search of work in nearby cities or in the United States & Canada.

"Some have lost the faith," said Minister Cornelio Peters, a father of seven sitting in a living room with only a few chairs, a grandfather clock & a wood burning stove. "We need more land so the young can work alongside their parents & not be running around loose."

"Those who know the Bible know that evil continues to grow," Mr. Peters said. "These things will continue growing until they end the world. There is a lack of faith in God. They need to stop thinking about trafficking drugs, about taking drugs. When we were young, there weren't these influences."

A year ago, a conservative faction of the community moved to the southern Mexican state of Campeche to return to a life without electricity or cars, just as their grandfathers did when they came to Mexico seven decades ago.

But Margarita Neufeld, 25, says her people can't run forever.

A lot of Mennonites do not want to see reality, said Miss Neufeld, whose short bobbed hair, make up & flared pants contrast sharply with her mother's cotton frocks & braided hair.

Miss Neufeld, a clerk at a grocery store in the camps, wants to write a telenovela, as Mexico's popular prime-time soap operas are known, about Mennonites.

Maybe it will cause people here to face what's happening," Miss Neufeld said. "A lot of young people like to go out to the discos because there is not place to go & have fun in the camps. There are drug addicts, lost of drug dealing, people are marrying Mexican's & if their parents don't accept it they leave."