From gangs to God: In Ciudad Juarez, youth express hopes for papal visit

IMAGE: CNS photo/David Maung

By David Agren

JUAREZ, Mexico (CNS) — Esteban Alanis, 23, once ran with a local gang known as
“Los Parqueros,” which would accost people for their cash and cellphones in a working-class neighborhood of southeast Ciudad Juarez. He called
the crimes “easy money,” while gang activities offered a sense of
belonging and an adolescence of parties, girls and underage drinking.

Alanis survived a shootout in 2010 outside his home — and he turned his life
to God, got out of the gang and likely saved himself from further involvement
in the cycle of violence consuming Ciudad Juarez.

when my conversion started,” he said recently outside Corpus Christi Parish,
where he teaches catechism classes. “I prayed to God that if I survived, I
would give up gang life.”

Pope Francis visits Ciudad Juarez Feb. 17, he is expected to address issues
such as migration, victims of violence and conditions in the factory economy.
Alanis and others working with young people expressed hopes the pope will have positive
words for them, too, as they go about working with a population still somewhat
scarred by the violence that claimed more than 10,000 lives between 2008 and

Juarez was once murder capital of the world, an image now out-of-date,
according to statistics from the citizen-run Security Roundtable of Ciudad
Juarez, which shows a 92 percent decline in the homicide rate since 2010.

drug cartels once clashed over a corridor for trafficking contraband to the
United States. Gangs in the city previously preyed on the local population,
carrying out crimes such as kidnapping, robbery and extortion, likely to
finance the conflicts’ cost, security officials say. They also preyed on young
people, who became “cannon fodder” for a conflict. An attack by
gangsters on a birthday party in 2010 killed 15 young people, an atrocity that
outraged the country even more after then-President Felipe Calderon erroneously
said the victims were mixed up in illegal activities.

crime attracted a lot of young people,” said Mario Dena, the roundtable
president, who said he believes that so many people were killed or imprisoned that it partially
caused the crime rate to plunge. “They wrongly thought it would be easy
money. That’s why there were so many victims.”

officials say the problem persists, though at a lesser level.

see that there are kids, probably 12 years, who are being approached by them (organized crime),”
said Salesian Father Juan Carlos Quirarte, who also participates in the security roundtable.

“don’t see many other options, and they mythologize these figures,”
he added. “They (criminals) always have access to easy money, they have
power, it’s seductive. Hence, it’s not easy to say, ‘Study, if you do, there’s
a career.'”

Corpus Christi Parish, crime was so problematic that thieves stole the bell and
cars were robbed during Sunday Mass. Father Roberto Luna responded to the
rising insecurity in the neighborhood of factory workers — 80 percent originally
from other Mexican states — by doubling down on outreach. It including getting
to know young people in the parish area.

way to promote belonging is to make people feel that this is their home and
they are in their home,” Father Luna said, adding the approach is so
successful he recently removed the bars protecting the building and leaves the
doors unlocked. “Pope Francis spoke of a church with open doors. I said, ‘That’s
it! I’m going to open up the church.’ … And nothing has happened.”

also put a priority on catechism classes, which are no longer scheduled just on
Saturdays, when many workers were having a hard time taking their children to

have no excuse for missing catechism with me, because I have catechism every day
to accommodate the varying factory schedules,” he said.

pastoral approach of creating a sense of belonging and Father Luna’s incessant outreach
and fondness for informality keep people coming to church.

always attends our youth meetings,” said engineering student Daniel
Terrazas, who helps teach catechism classes.

says Mass in a way that’s dynamic, that isn’t boring,” said Francisco
Ramos, 20, who credits the youth ministry for his return to high school after he
dropped out. He said it also helped improve his relationship with his parents
after a rebellious childhood.

a recent Sunday, 23 young people attended catechism classes for confirmation
led by Alanis, who now studies industrial engineering and works in an auto
parts factory.

life was not always so ordered. Alanis recalls seeing gangs on every corner of
his neighborhood.

was a situation of be the aggressor or be the victim,” he recalled. “All
my friends were in the gang. They were popular and admired.”

went through an initiation of fighting another person, then started robbing
people in the neighborhood.

they resisted, we put the boots to them,” he recalled.

wasn’t a priority, though he showed up initially for “girls” in the
youth group. Then the shootout occurred, and he became committed to church
life. Like many in Ciudad Juarez, he’s eagerly awaiting the pope’s arrival.

hope the pope will give me more encouragement in my work with young people,”
Alanis said.

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