TIJUANA, Mexico — Three times a week, San Diego resident Steve Mock crosses the U.S.-Mexico border to teach preaching students in this violence-scarred city of about 1.5 million souls.
Mock, an instructor at the Latin American Christian Institute in the heart of Tijuana, recognizes the dangers involved.
“I mean, I’m aware of it,” said Mock, a member of the Canyon View Church of Christ in San Diego. “There were almost 900 people murdered in Tijuana last year. But most of them are drug cartels fighting each other.”
Still, Mock said he understands why a number of American church groups canceled annual spring break mission trips to Mexico, while other congregations reassess scheduled summer efforts.
“I have not tried to talk anybody out of it who made the decision not to come this year,” Mock said. “I mean, I still go on. I don’t worry. ... But it would just be a disaster if some student or some college kid or parent was shot in the crossfire somewhere between gangs.”
A 2-year-old offensive on drug traffickers by Mexican President Felipe Calderon has caused gang violence to surge along the 2,000-mile U.S.-Mexico border and claimed more than 7,000 lives in the last 15 months. The 843 killings in Tijuana last year were more than twice 2007’s total of 337.
Despite the Mexican government’s deployment of 40,000 soldiers to combat drug cartels, the security situation remains a major concern.
“We’re in constant prayer for these situations to get better,” said Ruben Medina, a minister at the El Cajon Boulevard church in San Diego, who preaches at two Tijuana congregations each Sunday.
Mock said he hasn’t experienced the violence firsthand but knows at least two Mexican ministry leaders who were extorted for money on threats of kidnapping or harm.
Moreover, some of the Bible institute’s preaching students witnessed a grisly scene of corpses on the way home from church one Sunday, he said.
“The drug cartels will decapitate people sometimes ... and leave them on the side of the road, and the students just happened to drive by,” Mock said.
Medina, who led a Christian Chronicle reporter on a tour of the Miramar Church of Christ in Tijuana, said crime has touched the congregations where he ministers. Thieves have taken tables and chairs from church buildings still under construction.
“There’s drugs all around the neighborhood and the building,” he said, speaking through an interpreter. “We live in moments with lots of hardship. The gangs, the cartels are always fighting among each other for control.”
Nonetheless, Medina appealed to American churches not to let the drug cartels keep them from the Lord’s work.
“When they (mission groups) go to help us, this gives them an opportunity to evangelize and show the light,” he said, suggesting that the security situation is not as bad as the news media portray it.
MEMBERS TOUCHED BY DRUG WAR
About 1,500 miles southeast of Tijuana, Abel Alvarez preaches for the Harvey Drive Church of Christ in McAllen, Texas.
Alvarez crossed the border recently to undergo dental work in Nuevo Progreso, Mexico. Along with rows of tourist shops, low-cost pharmacies and medical clinics, the minister saw tanks and machine gun emplacements.
“It looks like a war zone,” he said.
Some Mexican church members have lost relatives to the violence, Alvarez said. Others have seen family members kidnapped and held for ransom. But most church members in Mexico’s border towns are too poor to attract the cartels’ attention, he said.
“I don’t know that they’ve ever bothered or stopped a church group,” Alvarez said of the cartels, “but nobody knows when something is going to break out.”
A travel alert for Mexico issued by the U.S. State Department kept away some mission teams that, in the past, had used the Harvey Drive church as a rest stop before crossing the border.
The church, less than 10 miles from Reynosa, in the Mexican state of Tamaulipas, also canceled its mission trip to Monterrey for safety concerns, elder Larry Ditto said.
The White’s Ferry Road Church of Christ in West Monroe, La., usually takes 20 to 30 medical personnel to Xilitla, a small community south of Monterrey, minister Mike Kellett said.
For Kellett, who had joined the Mexico mission effort 14 years in a row, the decision to cancel this spring’s trip was difficult.
Kellett said he has witnessed young lives changed through the free medical and dental services and eye exams offered to the poor. The mission has inspired American church members to become nurses and pharmacists. Some plan to take their children on future trips.
“They’ve made it part of their ministry,” Kellett said.
The cancellations are equally disappointing for Mexican Christians, Alvarez said.
Many churches, including the small congregation in Nuevo Progreso, have been hit hard by the collapsing global economy. Mission teams bring much-needed services and funds.
“But it’s not just the money,” Alvarez said. “It’s the camaraderie, the fellowship.”
CHURCHES ASSESS BORDER SAFETY
For nine summers, members of the Westside Church of Christ in Beaverton, Ore., have made a 1,100-mile pilgrimage to Tijuana to help build churches and houses for the poor.
Elder Roy Brower said the short-term missionaries have learned which parts of Tijuana — a mecca for American tourists looking for easy access to drugs and legalized prostitution — are safe and which to avoid.
Brower speaks fondly of Tijuana’s “warm, friendly” people and the close relationship that his daughter Becca has developed with Latin American Christian Institute director Arturo Rios’ daughter Karla.
“Unless someone is looking for trouble or drugs, the city is generally very safe. And we have felt very comfortable moving about, working at building sites, playing at local water parks or attending church services,” Brower said. “We are trying to balance our positive experience with the often-overhyped media accounts of the border violence.”
Concern for the safety of the teenagers who go on the trip has prompted the Oregon church to consider canceling its 10th annual Tijuana mission trip.
“While I believe God will watch and care for us, I also believe God expects us to be discerning and to protect our children,” Brower said.
However, not all mission groups have changed their plans in light of the border violence.
Some, including a team from Lipscomb University in Nashville, Tenn., determined that they could travel safely into Mexico over spring break.
For the fourth year in a row, Lipscomb student Caroline Price joined a team that flew to San Diego, then chartered a bus to go work for a week with orphans at the City of Children in Ensenada, Mexico, about an hour south of Tijuana.
“I felt very secure crossing the border this year,” Price said. “There were numerous check points from Tijuana down to Ensenada. The Mexican military is doing a very good job to keep things under control.”
On the Lipscomb group’s return trip, Mexican soldiers stopped the bus and climbed aboard.
“They asked us who we were and where we were going,” Price said. “We told them we had worked at City of Children and they let us go with no further questions.”
Despite the surging border violence, Price said she never really felt nervous on the trip.
“I knew God was in control,” she said, “and that if something were to happen, I would be in a better place.”