Trip Start Apr 26, 2007
2Trip End May 01, 2007
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Most of us think of Mazatlan, Mexico as a paradise with grand hotels, beaches that stretch for miles, and drinks served in hollowed-out pineapples. I've been to that Mazatlan. But today I'm in a Mazatlan where kids go hungry because their parents can't afford to feed them. Drug trafficking has a deadly grip on the city and the affects of the situation are sitting here, sleepy-eyed, singing worship songs, waiting for breakfast.
Mazatlan has a few things going for it when it comes to illegal drug trafficking. First, the surrounding area is perfectly suited for growing marijuana and opium abundantly. Second, Mazatlan is about midway between Columbia and the U.S. And third, the government and police are in on it.
Mexico is the largest supplier of marijuana to the U.S. and is the primary shipping route for 90% of the cocaine trafficked into the States. This didn't surprise me when I got here four days ago. But for some reason I was surprised to discover that Mazatlan, the Mazatlan that I'd traveled to for family vacations, is a major player in all of it.
God's Kids, the organization that I work for, is building a feeding center for children in the heart of Mazatlan because this cycle of drug use, poverty, and crime is catching up to the most vulnerable part of the population in the city. The kids are living in shacks made of whatever materials can be found - sheet metal, tarps, shipping pallets, boards and planks of all shapes and sizes.
Some of them are living with a parent who's still addicted to cocaine or heroine while the other parent serves time in prison for robbing a store or kidnapping someone else's kid for ransom. Others are living on the streets. Either way, at nine or ten years old, with no one looking after them, they become survivors and take care of their younger siblings on their own. They're orphans, not of war like the kids we work with in Liberia, Africa, but of the crime and drug world that has enveloped Mexico.
So we've partnered with a man that's working to change his city, one neighborhood at a time.
"Imagine a big ship sinking in the ocean, and all the people are crying for help. I want to save all of them, but I have only a small boat."
This is the image that Carlos, a native Mexican who turned to a life of Christianity over twenty years ago, uses to describe how he feels about his mission in Mazatlan.
The average family in Mazatlan needs about twenty dollars a day to make ends meet. The majority of employers, including the hotels and restaurants, pay minimum wage - five dollars a day. A full day's work is worth a combo meal! So people get desperate. The illicit drug industry pays much better.
"Everywhere there is drugs." says Carlos. We pass by a group of men two doors down from the feeding center, "They sell drugs." The hotel maids and restaurant waiters, they sell drugs. Carlos points to his neighbors on both sides, "They sell drugs." This is the environment that the children are in.
"Why don't you turn these drug dealers into the police to keep them away from the feeding centers?" I ask Carlos naively.
So he begins to explain in a way that tells me he's explained this before. Each drug dealer has marked off a certain territory of the city for himself. He meets with the highest ranking police officer in that territory and they strike a deal. The drug dealer agrees to pay the officer maybe $800 a month. In exchange, he's allowed to do business without being bothered by the law. It's like paying rent. It's that easy.
The prison, where Carlos preaches three days a week is no different. The guards act as wholesalers to the inmates running a drug business inside the prison walls. "What do you need this week?" says the prison guard to the inmate. "I need three bags of marijuana and some cocaine," is the answer.
Carlos has been ministering to poor families and men in the Mazatlan prison for fourteen years. He's built three feeding centers/churches in different parts of the city, and the fourth is scheduled to be finished in July.
The centers serve a number of purposes beginning with providing a meal to kids in the area before they go to school. They also become the neighborhood church holding worship services and helping broken people - the true purpose of church. After spending four days here, I can see that the feeding centers in many ways become the gravitational center of each community.
Carlos hires a strong family to run each center. In return, they live there for free and eat meals with the kids. Most of the men working for Carlos are former prisoners.
Take Enrique for example. "He was a very dangerous man," says Carlos as we watch Enrique strum his guitar and lead about 40 children in singing. "He and some others robbed a store with guns. They killed a man. And he was the boxing champion of the whole prison."
Now Carlos calls Enrique his left hand in the ministry. Appealing to their spiritual needs, both the children's and the prisoners', is the only way to keep them out of the drug world, says Carlos. Those who accept Jesus' teachings finally see a real reason to live differently. Their passion for children and for serving God and their community fills a hole that any addiction expert will claim is the primary reason for drugs' powerful hold on people.
With only a small boat, Carlos will rescue as many people from this sinking ship as he can. He knows that it may not be many, but maybe some of them will have their own small boat, and they will rescue some more, and those people will have boats too. Either way, Carlos says he will keep paddling until God tells him it's time to stop, and I'll never view Mazatlan the same way again.