Antonia and Antonio. They lived in the same barrio; both were members of Our Lady of Refuge Parish in Nuevo Laredo, the Mexican city just south of Laredo, Texas; and I saw both on the same day about eight months ago.
It was the day of Antonia’s funeral Mass. All her mourners remembered the señora as the grandmother who never said “no.” They remembered her as a young mother of three who helped her husband in the fields, even while she was pregnant with twins. They remembered her as supernaturally patient, not only with the failings of her children and grandchildren but also with her poverty—and her surprising joy in the midst of it.
Antonio lived a chasm away. Imprisoned, tortured, and released by the military, at sixteen he was given permission from his cartel’s comandante to be at home for a few days to heal. Antonio belongs (assuming he is still alive) to the most ruthless criminal organization in Mexico, the one that controls the city where I serve. I met him when his mother begged me to pay him a surprise visit in order to convince him to look for other work.
Antonia had lived a long, full life. She had suffered but lived in hope. She had been light, salt, and leaven for neighbors and family. She gave, she enriched, she loved and was loved and cherished. In the midst of poverty and corruption, and more recently in the midst of war, she had listened to the Holy Spirit, who taught her from childhood that (in the words of Gaudium et Spes) “man . . . cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of himself.” She probably could not have found the beatitudes in the Bible, but she knew that the merciful, the meek, and the just are blessed.
Most of the two thousand folks that come to Mass here weekly have a lot in common with Antonia. The Mexican laypeople with whom I serve are sacrificially generous. Many of my ninety catechists work ten-hour days in factories for eighty-five dollars a week, and yet they still make time to teach catechism and come to Mass.
Faithful, participative, prayerful Mexican Catholics have brought beauty and honor to their country for centuries, with their love for family and life, their joyful hospitality, and their great trust in God. “Si Dios quiere” (If God wills it) is ever on their lips. Thanks be to Christ, and Our Lady of Guadalupe, for people like Antonia.
Antonio, on the other hand, wanted an SUV. When I saw him on the day of Antonia’s funeral, he explained to me why he had joined the drug cartel: It was the ride. He envied the Cadillac Escalade the comandante drove.
With the worsening of the Mexican border economy caused by the tightening of the border after 9/11 and exacerbated by the recession in the United States, his father could no longer afford the old car they used to drive. By the time Antonio was sixteen, they could not afford gas and auto parts. His dad was riding a bike to work, and the Cadillac SUV was calling Antonio’s name.
I reasoned with him in my best street Spanish: “Look at your options like a scale. On this side of the scale you have life itself. You know you won’t last to see twenty if you keep working for the mafia. You have your parents on this same side of the scale, their love for you, the love of your little sisters, the possibility of marriage and having children, of watching those children grow up over the years, a real job where you can earn money without remorse. You won’t need to hide; you could walk down the street in peace.
“On the other side of the scale . . . you have a stolen SUV. Which side weighs more; which side is really more valuable to you?”
He didn’t argue with my logic. His broken ribs and burnt hands were on my side.
But he wanted that SUV. It wasn’t the machine gun that he carried; very few join the cartels because they want to kidnap or kill. Some youth are seduced by the possibility of supporting their parents. For Antonio, it was the shiny car.
The educational emergency in Mexico, broken families, corruption and inefficiency in the distribution of the nation’s resources, injustices in international trade that mean fewer jobs, and those poor-paying, for Mexican youth—all these contribute to organized crime and to common crime, but it is still true that every boy born into poverty is a potential saint as well as a potential assassin. Every son of a corrupt policeman and every son of a holy catechist is a potential saint and a potential assassin.
As the Mexican bishops say, “The fundamental root of violence is in the orientation of the heart of every human.” Evil is not in what surrounds us, but in the heart, “from whence come evil designs” (Matt. 15:19). Poverty did not oblige Antonio to chose avarice and envy. He is free, and that is a good thing. There is no sinner without a future, just as there is no saint without a past. The sixteen-year-old who has already followed orders to kill is making himself subhuman, but he is still free; he is still capable of conversion.
The Mexican bishops in a recent pastoral letter teach pointedly that poverty in itself does not cause violence: “There is no direct correlation between violence and poverty. There is such a correlation, on the other hand, between inequality and violence. There are among the wealthy those who promote violence and injustice.” The full gospel unto personal conversion is the cure for sin in the white-collar neighborhoods.
In the poor barrios where I serve, Christ’s shocking gospel love is also the cure. Jesus shocks the world with his witness and teaching against violence. He is no pacifist; he doesn’t stick a daisy in the muzzle of your rifle. No, he spatters you with his blood. He does not teach us to run from violence; he teaches us to confront violence by standing firm and offering our other cheek.
In northern Mexico, organized crime has become ubiquitous, shamelessly public and unspeakably cruel, in just the last five years. The injustice and the terror have affected almost every family in my parish in some way, and we pray for peace with more and more insistence.
Our prayer has matured. A catechist and mother of three small children described her prayer for peace when the terrible violence had only recently broken out: “I prayed to God for peace; in my fear for my children, I asked him that all the evil men in the different gangs would kill one another off.”
We gradually realized that this prayer is not reconcilable with the gospel. When President Calderón replaced the local police force in Nuevo Laredo with federal army forces, we thought the army would soon restore peace. The cartel had threatened and bribed the local police into submission and then into collaboration; now certainly the army would bring order. But there has been no lessening of the kidnappings, extortions, and gun battles between the cartels.
The soldiers now have orders to take no prisoners. When the cartel members throw down their rifles after losing a battle to the military, though unarmed, they are usually executed immediately. The army is sinking to the tactics of the enemies of peace; we must look higher for a savior. As our bishop, Gustavo Rodríguez Vega, said in a homily, “To kill all the malos will not bring us peace.”
Upon consulting the teaching and the life of our Christ, we changed our prayer. We had always prayed for the kidnapped and killed; now we pray, too, for our brothers the assassins. We spiritually adopt them; we fast for them on Fridays. Most of these youth who torture and kill were baptized as infants. They are, ontologically, our brothers; we are children of the same Father, and we have come to desire the best for them, as Christ does. It pains us to think that even one of these dark souls might suffer damnation.
Lately when we pray for peace we do not pray for the disappearance of evil men in the city. We pray for their conversion. We had been praying for an impossible thing: that God would make evil disappear by magic, without the conversion of evil people. But to consult the life of Christ is to know how to deal with cruelty and injustice. Two criminals were crucified with him. He desired the best for both of them; he loved both of them. He wanted both of them to be his brothers for all eternity. The one who accepted that salvific love received it.
We had invoked Christ, but we had not listened to him. Christ asks us to love our enemies, even these new, frightening enemies. Christ tells us to return good for evil, to pray for those who persecute us. Christ promises happiness (beatitude!) to those who suffer with him, who are meek with him, who are poor with him.
This works with our brothers in organized crime. When my parishioners and I have the opportunity to evangelize them directly, we do. Recently two young cartel members running from the army broke into the house of one of the members of my parish council. The soldiers had long gone from the barrio and still she had them sitting on her couch listening to the reasons they should trust in God’s way.
The world holds these criminals in utter disdain. They are human garbage and social scabs. When they hear, therefore, that there are some of us who love them, who are praying and fasting for them, their jaws drop. This Christian surprise-love has led to miraculous conversions among them.
It has also meant our own conversion. We have loved our enemies, and that love has brought us hope, peace, strength, and freedom from fear. The sound of automatic-weapon fire is common some weeks. Two of my Masses have been interrupted by gun battles. But in the midst of darkness, we have found a light that will never be extinguished. Love is denser than lead, more substantial and enduring than bullets and mayhem.
Recently I went to the fosa común, the mass grave, at the local public cemetery. It is long and deep. Dug with a backhoe, next to a pile of garbage at the far corner of the cemetery, this is the final resting place for the unidentified in this war. Several bodies are thrown in, covered with as little dirt as possible (to save having to bring the backhoe to the cemetery too often), then more bodies and another thin layer of dirt, till the fosa is full and another has to be dug.
Some in the grave are guilty of ruthless violence. Their bodies were not identified—in some cases because their parents do not yet know they are dead, in others because their mothers don’t care where they are and their fathers are either dead, disappeared, or incarcerated.
Ironically, poetically, or perhaps providentially, in the same long, deep trench, mixed up with the murderers, are the murdered. It is a metaphor for human life. We are all mixed up in this communion called the human family.
In the same grave with the assassins are the unidentified bodies of innocent men and women whose last days, in some cases, were worse than what most of us would describe as hell. Perhaps their suffering, endured with trust in God, will be the expiatory gift, joined with the supreme loving sacrifice of Christ, that will be a redemptive force even for the guilty lying alongside.
Antonio Anderson, S.O.L.T., is pastor of Our Lady of Refuge Parish in Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas, Mexico.