Narco-thugs for Jesus (no not that One)

There are so many positive things that I want to say about the gripping Time news feature that ran under the following double-decker headline: “Mexico’s Meth Warriors: Fueled by Evangelical zeal and America’s appetite for meth, a provincial Mexican gang breaks into the big time.”

The story is packed with details, including some striking information about the bizarre brand of religious zealotry that runs through the veins of the true believers in this gang. I could quote all kinds of passages that will make your hair stand on end. I should also note that it’s hard to find art about the gang that does not include images of its artistic trademark — severed human heads.

However, at the moment, all you can read at the Time website is a short summary of the piece, unless you are a subscriber. However, that summary includes some of the work that I want to criticize. Alas, many of the passages I wanted to praise are not there.

For starters, I believe that the headline writer meant to say “evangelical zeal” rather than “Evangelical zeal.”

Yes, the story presents evidence that the gang is selling a very twisted brand of faith that has been influenced by Evangelicalism in Latino cultures (and also, famously, by twisted fragments of the hyper-masculine writings of John “Wild at Heart” Eldredge). But does the reporting justify using that uppercase “E” and some of the other language used in the story? Here is some crucial material from the online summary:

Mexico’s newest drug cartel, and certainly the most bizarre, is La Familia Michoacana, a violent but Christian fundamentalist narco-gang based in the torrid Tierra Caliente region of western Michoacan state. The group is infamous for methamphetamine smuggling, lopping off enemies’ heads and limbs, and massacring police and soldiers. (Most recently, on June 14, a band of Familia gunmen ambushed a federal police convoy in Michoacan, killing 12.) Yet La Familia’s leader, Nazario Moreno — aka El Mas Loco, or The Craziest One — has written his own bible, and his 1,500 minions hold prayer meetings before doing their grisly work.

This mini-version of the piece even ends with this ominous note:

… (T)he war against these criminal Christian soldiers may have just begun.

I have seen some wild religious labels in my decades on the Godbeat, but I have to say that “Christian fundamentalist narco-gang” takes the cake.

OK, let’s back into this. If you are trying to decide if you are dealing with religious believers who are in any meaningful sense of the word “Christian,” it is not a good sign when their leader writes “his own bible.” I think it is also fair to ask this question: To whom are these neck-chopping narco-thugs praying? The God of the Bible? To Jesus of Nazareth? We need an answer to that question.

Also note that, once again, we have the word “fundamentalist” brought into play, only this time with the adjective “Christian.” So we are supposed to be dealing with a band of conservative Protestants who actually believe in an inerrant Bible, hold a premillennial view of the second coming of Christ, believe that salvation is through faith in Jesus Christ, alone, etc., etc.? They are literally “Christian fundamentalists” and they identify themselves (think Associated Press Stylebook, again) that way? Really?

Now, please remember that I praised the article for many of its details about this twisted religious vision that flows from El Mas Loco to his disciples. The question here is whether these believers deserve to be called “Christians” and, yes, “Christian fundamentalists.”

It helps, I think, to jump back to a 2009 Time piece (“Drug-Dealing for Jesus: Mexico’s Evangelical Narcos”) that, as you can see, has some similar language issues.

Once again, there are scores of disturbing details and, once again, these dots are connected to that “Christian” label. There are even quotes from the new “bible” that is at the heart of the story. Here is a big slice of that piece:

Gangsters have long financed their own music genre (drug ballads) nurtured their own fashion style (buchones, crocodile-skin boots alongside designer bling) and revered an early 20th century bandit, Jesus Malverde, as a narco saint. But the effort to forge their own religious sect is new, proof of a cultural autonomy to match their fearsome ability to defy Mexico City and Washington with impunity.

Federal agents seized one copy of La Familia’s Bible in a raid last year. Quoted in local newspapers, the scripture paints an ideology that mixes Evangelical-style self-help with insurgent peasant slogans reminiscent of the Mexican Revolution. “I ask God for strength and he gives me challenges that make me strong; I ask him for wisdom and he gives me problems to resolve; I ask him for prosperity and he gives me brain and muscles to work,” Moreno writes, using terms that could be found in many Christian sermons preached from Mississippi to Brazil. But on the next page, there’s a switch to phrases strikingly similar to those coined by revolutionary Emiliano Zapata. “It is better to be a master of one peso than a slave of two; it is better to die fighting head on than on your knees and humiliated; it is better to be a living dog than a dead lion.”

The sect also uses the Internet to spread its gospel. On one online forum, hundreds of supporters sing the praises of Christ and La Familia. “Victory to La Familia Michoacana, gloryfying Jesus by helping others,” writes one aficionado who calls himself Fran. “Evil will only reign until Jesus stops it,” writes another who calls himself the Messenger.

So, “Jesus” is at the heart of all of this. The Time team says that these thugs “sing the praises of Christ and La Familia.” So that is a key fact in the story, a key clue that points toward the “Christian” label.

But wait a minute. There may be praises to “Christ” in the gang’s writings. But are we shown examples of that? I see several references to praising “Jesus.” Then again, we are also told that these believers revere or, perhaps even worship, a bandit-saint named “Jesus Malverde.”

So are we sure that they are taking part in some heretical form of worship in praise of the Christ of Christianity? Maybe not. Maybe we are talking about praises focusing on an exalted figure raised up to demigod status by the author of their bible and the warlord of their realm. You see, we do not know.

I’d like to know. That would be an amazing story. I hope someone at Time writes it. Maybe then the labels thrown around in the headlines would be justified.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • John M.

    You are correct, Matt. There seem to be alot of questions about what exactly is the theology at play here.

    The big question to me is if La Familia Michoacana is actually Christian in any meaningful sense of the word, or if it just co-opts (and I would say, twists) symbols and iconography to create it’s own violent culture and beliefs. If the case of the latter, than this gang no more a Christian gang than the Crips are an example of a Jewish Gang (the Crips use a blue Star of David as one of their rallying symbols).

    Definitely many questions are yet to be asked.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    OK, all anti-Catholic and anti-Evangelical comments will be spiked.

    There is plenty of journalistic meat to chew in this one. Skip the religion bashing.

  • Dave

    They can be small-e evangelical and write their own bible but they can’t be fundamentalist and write their own bible. La Familia is a subject that needs more than the AP stylebook; it needs reporters with a grounding in theology and religous history. (lotsa luck :-( )

  • http://www.post-gazette.com Ann Rodgers

    All I know about this is what I’ve read on GetReligion, but this reminds me of a quasi-Protestant version of quasi-Catholic religious phenomena such as Palo Mayombe, in which Christian and pagan elements are blended in an amoral faith that also associated with drug-running. There may also be parallels to something like the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda, which features a drug-crazed leader who kidnaps young people and terrorizes them into becoming terrorists for God. And, speaking of which, the parallels to what Al Quaeda and the Taliban have done with traditional Islam are also pretty strong, in my opinion.

  • http://www.post-gazette.com Ann Rodgers

    Correction to my own comment. I meant to say pseudo-Protestant and pseudo-Catholic rather than quasi-etc. Quasi implies that they’ve sorta got it right, and they’re obviously missing that whole, sin, repetance and redemption thing.

  • http://www.religionnewsblog.com/ Anton

    Reuters described La Familia’s leader, Nazario Moreno, as an “evangelical Christian.” The agency wrote that “‘La Familia’ (The Family) uses Bible scriptures to inspire its traffickers and has taken over smuggling in the state of Michoacan, gaining power despite Calderon’s near three-year assault on cartels in the state and across the country.”

    However, the Wikipedia entry on Nazario Moreno González
    says “According to news reports, Moreno González is a ‘new age philosopher’, who forces his men to carry a ‘spiritual manual’ that he wrote himself and contains aphorisms for self improvement.

    Wikipedia also has an entry on Jesus Malverde, the ‘generous bandit’ or ‘narco-saint.’

    It appears that terms such as ‘evangelical Christian’ or ‘Christian Fundamentalists’ is being used by reporters who simply don’t know (or don’t care) what those terms mean.


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