Drug cartels are treading on the heels of churches in Mexico, extending their gripping power beyond the northern states where, for many years, they have been harassing entire communities ruthlessly.
A very common practice drug traffickers have implemented to control whole communities in the territories where they operate is a “tax” collection system used to charge churches and businesses for the right to exist.
“It is a very common practice of such criminal organizations to charge churches or businesses for the right to remain open or to be allowed to organize a public meeting—similar to a public license—to collect a percentage of the proceeds of a business just like an income tax or to charge for protection. These “taxes” are commonly known as derecho de piso (floor right) or venta de protección (protection rackets),” explains Dennis Petri, the Open Doors Manager in Mexico.
A couple of pastors who have been leading a church in the center of Cuernavaca for more than 15 years, and whose names are kept anonymous for safety reasons, mentioned in an interview with Open Doors that, “charging this ‘tax’ to pastors and churches is now a common occurrence,” they explained.
More often than not, the imposition of these unlawful charges by the drug cartels on churches and businesses goes unreported. This is the most common form of extortion in Mexico.
“This is a recurrent theme in most of the interviews I have conducted in recent years and by far the most significant threat on church life in Mexico,” says Dennis. “According to government officials, only 10% of the cases are formally brought to court. Most of the people I interviewed indicated that this is a massive phenomenon affecting virtually all churches, while many others appear too afraid to speak about it.”
Next to extortion, kidnapping for a ransom is another prevalent threat in Mexico. It is another income-generating activity carried out by criminal organizations, one which affects churches and businesses alike.
Going to Church – Risky and Dangerous
In the areas controlled by the organized crime, attending church meetings can be particularly dangerous. Worshippers are at an increased risk not only of extortions and kidnappings but of violent and often deadly attacks as well, especially in those churches where drug cartels have placed severe restrictions on services and the right to congregate.
“Church services are not allowed in certain areas,” Dennis comments, “and there are reports of churches that have been closed by order of drug cartels. Moreover, there are reports of individuals who are prohibited from attending church services or have the obligation to report to the drug cartels whenever they visit a particular church.”
Threats and violence against Christians and other communities in Mexico also come from self-defense groups or vigilantes, groups of armed men now fighting the drug cartels. An Evangelical Christian shared his testimony of how he was threatened by members of one of these groups in his home state of Michoacán:
“In Michoacán, we see these groups of armed men, most of whom were drug dealers before, now fighting the drug cartels. They recruit children and teenagers for their cause. On one occasion, they threw us out of our community using sticks and machetes. They threatened to kill me if I dared go back to my community,” he said.
Pastors Preach Under Threat
One of the greatest challenges for pastors preaching in areas under the control of the drug cartels is how to deal not only with the illegal charges but also the very real violent threats and intimidation.
“They are very well organized,” said a pastor who talked to Open Doors anonymously about the drug cartels, “and they can follow your every move. One cannot go anywhere alone; protection is needed all the time.”
The pastor who left his previous church for his safety and resettled somewhere else with his family said vehemently: “I am alive because I didn’t accept anything from them.”
“Speaking out against injustice—whether it is violence, drug consumption, drug trafficking or organized crime—and above all speaking publicly, from the pulpit or in another setting, is extremely dangerous and can result in many forms of intimidation by drug cartels, including beatings, attacks on houses of church leaders, or even killings,” explained Dennis.
Open Doors is on-the-ground in Mexico, and through your support, our field workers bring hope and urgent resources to the spiritual and material needs of persecuted believers in the Mexican church.
*Names and images in this story are representative.