Risking lives to save souls in Mexico

Before I left on a mission trip south of the U.S. border this past spring, a Facebook friend was so kind as to post a State Department warning for all of us “crazy enough to travel to Mexico.”

That same day, I read a wire service report where one source suggested that mission groups going to Mexico “bring a body bag along.”

Still, I chose to trust in God and go on the trip. But I prayed hard when a convoy of trucks filled with men toting machine guns and sporting green military uniforms zipped past our church vans and set up a makeshift checkpoint. As it turned out, the soldiers behaved extremely professionally as they examined cargo in our caravan of 13 vans. They assured us they were trying to protect us from any potential threats. I used the trip as a peg for a Christian Chronicle news story on “A rocky road for Mexico missions.”

Because of that experience and my previous reporting adventures in places such as Tijuana, Juarez and Saltillo, a Los Angeles Times Column One feature on evangelical missions in Mexico piqued my interest. The headline of the front-page story touted Americans “risking lives to save souls.”

A chunk of the top of the 1,400-word report:

MONTERREY, Mexico — Pastor Andres Garza had told the American evangelicals to stay away from his troubled city. The drug war made it too difficult to guarantee their safety.

But now they were back, in their golf shirts and sensible shoes and halting Spanish, happily milling around Monterrey’s new headquarters for evangelical Presbyterians.

Garza smiled at his old friends. Al Couch, 81, a retired pharmaceutical salesman from Nashville, had come here so many times in the past that he’d earned the nickname “Monterrey Jack.” But this was his first time back since Garza had warned the Americans early last year that the violence had grown too intense. …

The way Garza saw it, the Americans’ return on this September weekend was part of an epic spiritual battle for a city, like Babylon, that had fallen into decadence and was in need of salvation. There was also a little of Jesus’ story in their visit.

“They came from a very secure place, the way Jesus came from heaven, to a place that isn’t very secure,” he said — and they had come to save souls.

The writer does a nice job of setting the scene. In fact, the entire story is filled with compelling details and anecdotes on the security situation and crime concerns in a modern, once fairly safe big city (I recall riding a public bus by myself in Monterrey just a few years ago and feeling totally secure).

However, the full report left me with a hollow feeling as a reader. The old men who ignored warnings to stay home and not travel to Mexico came across as rather shallow figures to me. To illustrate, consider this section of the story:

Most of the Americans figured they would be safe because they were short-timers with no connection to the drug world. Over breakfast, they spoke with a common strain of fatalism: Who’s to say I won’t get hit by a bus back in San Antonio? Or murdered in my sleep in Dallas?

“I pray they’ll keep us safe,” said Montana resident Jim Routson, 61. “But when your time’s up, your time’s up.”

There was talk of the renowned Protestant missionaries who had spread the Gospel in dangerous places in times past: Adoniram Judson, who survived a wretched imprisonment in 19th century Burma. Jim Elliot, slain, in 1956, by Waodani warriors in the jungles of Ecuador.

“Once you’re not afraid of death,” said Whited, 76, the retired pastor, “life gets a lot easier.”

Do these men really share a common strain of fatalism? Or would faith be a better word to describe their outlook? Why aren’t they afraid of death? Could there be a spiritual reason for that?

Trust me, I’ve interviewed old men before. With certain old men, I can imagine that a reporter trying to delve deep into their souls might inspire frustrated grunts in response to probing questions. Nonetheless, a few more pointed follow-ups might have gone a long way toward busting the “religion ghosts” that haunt this piece.

Then again, maybe I expected too much based on my personal experiences. By all means, read the whole story and weigh in.

The Mexicans are coming! The Mexicans are coming!

Fears of a gun-toting death cult overrunning the United States drives Middle America’s fear of illegal immigration from Mexico.

No, I am not a loonie. I am merely repeating a sentiment expressed in a recent item in the Daily Telegraph’s political news blog. The article, entitled “A Mexican death cult is fuelling America’s anti-immigration backlash. This is about crime, not race,” discusses the effects on U.S. opinion on the prevalence of the Mexican cult, Santa Muerte, among drug dealers.

Perhaps I should not be so critical of an article slotted into the news blog section of the newspaper, but this story just doesn’t cut it. This piece combines faulty logic with a lack of political and religious sensibility about the North American scene. It is also an object lesson in wasted opportunity and of stepping on a story by letting untested assumptions drive the narrative.

The Telegraph’s argument is: Some illegal aliens from Mexico are devotees of the Santa Muerte cult. Americans do not like illegal immigration from Mexico. Therefore, fears of Santa Muerte lie behind opposition to illegal Mexican immigration.

Sorry.  This won’t do.

The bottom line: Correlation does not imply causation.

Cum hoc ergo propter hoc, my old Latin master used to say. This is a logical fallacy: “A occurs in correlation with B. Therefore, A causes B.” Passage of a quarter century has not erased my memories of having had to write this 100 times in my copy book. But enough about me; let’s turn to the story.

The article has a nice opening that details the connection of some Mexican drug dealers with the Sante Muerte cult. The author then gives his view of what this all means.

Europeans complain mightily that Muslim immigration has introduced fundamentalism to their secular continent. Yet they tend to look upon Middle America’s fear of illegal Hispanic immigration with contempt, as if its paranoia was motivated entirely by racism. Reporting on new legislation designed to drive illegal immigrants out of the Deep South, The Guardian’s Paul Harris writes that it heralds, “The prospect of a new Jim Crow era – the time when segregation was law – across a vast swath of the old Confederacy. [The legislation] will ostracise and terrorise a vulnerable Hispanic minority with few legal rights.”

Indeed it will, and that is a tragedy. But the debate about illegal immigration isn’t just about competition over jobs or lingering white racism. Many Americans share the European fear that mass migration is subverting their democratic culture from within. In the same way that exotic cells of Jihadists have established themselves in London and Paris, criminal gangs motivated by bloodlust and kinky spiritualism have been found living in the suburbs of Boston and Atlanta. One of its many manifestations is the cult of Santa Meurte.

The author advances some strong claims. Now let’s see him defend his argument. He begins with a description of Santa Muerte.

Santa Muerte is part Virgin Mary, part folk demon. The image of a cloaked saint wielding a scythe is supposed to offer those who venerate it spiritual protection.  .. For the poor of Mexico – a nation torn between extremes of wealth and injustice – Santa Muerte is a very pragmatic saint. Like the gang leaders who offer hard cash in return for allegiance, she provides material blessings that the Catholic Church can no longer afford to bestow.

Tens of thousands of Mexicans living in America venerate Santa Muerte and have no association with crime. Nor is the cult purely ethnic .. But the prevalence of Santa Muerte imagery among drug traffickers injects an interesting cultural dimension to the debate over illegal immigration. It accentuates American fears that the drug war in Mexico is turning into an invasion of the USA by antidemocratic fanatics.

The article turns to a discussion of the Mexican gangs and their drug wars, and notes the “warring cartels are bound by a perverse ideology, with Santa Muerte as a unifying icon that terrifies opponents into submission.” However, this is not substantiated.

Having started off hard left, the article closes hard right, stating:

Nevertheless, Americans of every ethnicity are legitimately concerned about their country being poisoned by a criminal subculture that blends political corruption with ritualised murder. Europeans should not be so quick to judge their transatlantic friends. Americans face a vicious threat of their own.

Now there is a story here. Some Mexican gang members are votaries of an esoteric cult that venerates death. Mass migration to the United States is bringing this cult north of the Rio Grande. Coincidentally, it also follows a domestic political fracas surrounding revelations that the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) and the Justice Department permitted guns illegally purchased in the United States to “walk” into Mexico to arm the drug gangs in an operation called “Fast and Furious.”

I find this fascinating and would want to know more about the cult: its origins, number of adherents, relationship to folk religions or indigenous beliefs, a response from the Roman Catholic Church and the voices of its followers. Are all members of Los Zetas, one of the gangs named, devotees?

The New York Times has done some great reporting on the intersection of crime and religion in Mexican society that raises the issue of whether a church should accept money earned through criminal activities. The Telegraph does a great job in being provocative, painting Middle America in harsh, condescending tones, but it has not been true to the story. The necessary reporting is not present. Instead, we are offered a theory.

Perhaps this is permitted in an item that has strayed from the opinion pages to the halfway house of a news blog. However, to support the claim that American perceptions of Mexican migration to the U.S. are influenced by fears of this cult needs evidence. Am I being unfair? Petty? Prickly?

What say ye?