For years, the region of Tamaulipas and the city of Rio Bravos in north-eastern Mexico has been in the crossfire of the drug cartels and Mexican army. In the middle of the violence, a ministry has risen up to address the social concerns growing every day for the people of Tamaulipas and growing numbers of migrants. In this feature, first published in the April 2018 edition of Anglican World, Amelia Brown reports on the work of the Revd Elizabeth Bustillos Cepeda of the Anglican Church of Mexico, and her Church of San Esteban Protomartyr.
The Church of San Esteban was founded in 1984, but only existed in individuals’ homes. It wasn’t until 2010, when Elizabeth took on the parish, that it had a space of its own. At first, her focus was on solely the needs of the parish. “I worked in the parish ministry like any member of the clergy, but the needs of the area compelled me to focus on a ministry of social justice.” Elizabeth reflected.
According to Elizabeth, more than 60 million people have died or disappeared in Mexico in the ensuing violence of the so-called War on Drugs. The efforts of the Mexican government to apprehend the cartels have only spread them out across the region, and disrupting existing alliances has only allowed more factions to form. The three main drug gangs, the Cártel de Sinaloa, Cártel del Golfo, and los Zetas, now with fewer rivals, are active in Tamaulipas. Taking them down will not be quick or easy, especially given the high demand for the drugs in the United States, Elizabeth points out.
The violence between the cartels and the authorities, rival cartels, and even violence within the single gangs, affect all areas of life in Tamaulipas. A commander in the Cártel del Golfo faction, los Metros, enlists university students as hitmen, for their easy access to public spaces. He also gives 10-year-old children weapons and radios, recruiting them as lookouts and soldiers. Many of these children, if not killed by the cartel, end up killed by the army in conflict.
In October 2017, school was cancelled for more than two weeks, as no one could leave their homes for fear being caught in the crossfire. In that same month, gunfire between rival factions Escorpiones de Matamoros and los Metros led to the death of a student who had attempted to record the incident on his phone. Another time, the army pursued an armed group of gang members who took refuge in the school around the time that children were going home. An eight-year-old boy died in the crossfire yards from his mother. He had been hit by 10 bullets.
At another point, while she was attempting to alert the army about a drug deal, a soldier warned Elizabeth that if she reported it, there was always a possibility that the lieutenant was in collusion with the cartel, making her and her family targets.
Not even the churches are completely free from extortion at the hands of the cartels. Elizabeth shares that while the churches are not a main focus of the cartels, several churches in her community have been given substantial amounts of money from the gangs. Even she, as a minority parish, has been approached, though she turned down their money. The situation is bleaker still, due to the lack of media attention on their situation: the cartels threaten members of the media if they report accurate facts of fatalities.
While some people turn to God as a source of strength in these times, according to Elizabeth, the faith of the people in general is weak, and in some cases, they blame the lack of peace on God. As for Elizabeth, she remains unwavering.
“The people have a real need for the Word of God and I believe that the necessary measures are being implemented here at San Esteban. We are working hard to sow the seeds of the Gospel and I believe in the future we will reap the fruits.”
Elizabeth focuses on providing her congregation a space where people can be safe, and where they can feel the presence of God. That can mean space for spiritual retreat, discipleship programmes, or youth courses. She hopes to start ecumenical meetings in Río Bravo this year and together fight for the social justice in their region.
It is not only the locals of Tamaulipas who find themselves caught in the middle of violence. Migrants from Mexico and other parts of Latin America also find their way to Tamaulipas, on the way – they hope – to the United States. The cartels take advantage of these individuals, and if they have family in the US, they exploit them as well if they can.
At first, Elizabeth and the congregation of San Esteban provided food and comfort for three such migrants, but their numbers grew. Soon 60 or more migrants turned to the church and San Esteban could no longer provide for them without aid of their own. Some churches from the Diocese of West Texas and the US-based Episcopal Church provided support for drinkable water, electric cables, kitchen and dining room and more. The ministry saw from 60 to 300 migrants each week, and Elizabeth hopes to build a shelter to better care for migrants in the future.
She also ministers to their physical and mental needs. With the help of a local doctor, she provides minor medical attention for migrants. She also attempts to educate them on the ways of the cartels and offers to help them organise the correct papers. These migrants, however, all want to keep seeking out the “sueño americano” – the American dream – and to continue across the border. Most importantly, though, she listens.
“They are people who have suffered much abuse and mistrust, they need to unburden themselves. I give them pastoral counselling, and listen to them, and cheer them up.”
Her final hope for the region is that they can overcome the violence around them. “Faced with the growing wave of insecurity and violence in the city of Río Bravos and the surrounding area, I must say to my people: stop this violence!”