El Paso Catholic Church Suspends Charitable Work in Mexico Because of Violence
December 31, 2008Texas Charities Curb Mexico Outreach Amid Violence
At least two church groups have chosen not to send members over the border to aid the poor because of the ongoing drug cartel war.
"It pains us. The violence is out of hand. We actually had a parishioner who was kidnapped, so it's too close to home," said Monsignor Arturo Banuelas, of El Paso's Roman Catholic diocese.
Banuelas, whose young nephew was shot and killed in an ambush in the west coast state of Sinaloa earlier this year, said parishioners from El Paso would normally make trips to a city jail and several missions around Juarez to deliver food, clothing, blankets and Christmas gifts at this time of year.
But because of the ongoing drug cartel war--more than 1,300 people have been killed in the city of 1.3 million this year--he canceled the church's outreach.
Officials with the Abundant Living Faith Center in El Paso also have canceled trips to orphanages and local ministries in Mexico that aid Juarez's poorest.
Pat Rodriguez, the center's outreach director, said her church group has been forced to wait for aid organizers from Mexico to cross the border and pick up supplies. And even that effort has waned as the violence in the sprawling city across the Rio Grande has mounted in the last year.
“Some of them don't come now," Rodriguez said of her Mexican colleagues. "I'll go two or three weeks, or even a month without seeing them."
Rodriguez said before the situation in Juarez became so volatile, aid workers would make weekly trips to her church's food pantry. But criminals have forced many of those groups to scatter or dramatically reduce their own efforts amid threats of violence, she said.
Both Rodriguez and Banuelas said their churches have historically taken youth volunteers to pass out food or do community service, but the risk is simply too great now.
For Banuelas, the final straw came this summer when a youth group returned from an outreach mission south of Juarez. Shortly after the group left, more than a dozen people were killed in the same small town.
"So we just decided that it was too dangerous," Banuelas said. "If it was just persecution against the church, or against what we believe, I'd be the first one there." But he said, "It's just drug and cartel violence."
Warring cartels have been fighting for control of the city's lucrative drug and human smuggling trade. Mexican authorities have stationed thousands of soldiers and additional police officials in the city, but the fighting has only intensified.
Armed robberies and kidnappings for ransom have increased across Mexico. Officials estimate that more than 5,300 people died in Mexico in organized crime-related slayings in the first 11 months of 2008.
Despite the violence, Banuelas said many of his parishioners still want to go to Juarez. Instead, he has directed their efforts at impoverished communities in and around El Paso.
He estimated that thousands of people in Juarez are likely to be cold and hungry this winter because so many local charities in El Paso are too afraid to cross the border and help.
George W. Grayson, a Mexico expert at the College of William and Mary in Virginia, said the churches' fear is well-founded and likely to continue until the Mexican government regains control of Juarez.
"One speaks of failed states, Ciudad Juarez is a failed city," Grayson said. "It's a no man's land. It's totally out of control."
Grayson said more than 500 street gangs are thought to be working for the powerful and violent Juarez cartel and terrorizing the city. Until that changes, the city's poor will continue to languish, Grayson said.
Though Grayson said aid groups from El Paso or elsewhere aren't likely to change the overall poverty situation in Juarez, "every little bit helps."
Making things worse this year, Grayson said, is that officials in Mexico estimate that as many as 5,000 businesses have closed since violence started to spike earlier this year. That likely translates to more people who would need help from anyone who can offer it, he added.
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