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In a drug-ravaged part of Mexico, a young priest fights to keep youths out of gangs

Father Andres Larios counsels teens in the rural valley region in Mexico’s south called Tierra Caliente, where he grew up – and where some 15,000 people have been killed in drug-related violence since December 2006.

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Father Andres Larios counsels teens in the rural valley region of Mexico's south called Tierra Caliente, where he grew up - and where some 15,000 people have been killed in drug-related violence since December 2006.

Tony Avelar/The Christian Science Monitor

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Teens everywhere face pressures, but those growing up in this city face more than your garden variety adolescent woes.
Here, Heidi Garcia is never surprised when she hears another classmate from elementary school is working for a drug gang. Throughout this rural valley called the “Tierra Caliente” or “Hot Land,” where the Mexican government is battling the grip of organized crime, Juan Guzman says the traffickers have come out as the heroes in the eyes of many his age. Some teens have even joined a youth group run by drug traffickers that reportedly preaches to new recruits the merits of staying away from alcohol and handing over drug-trade proceeds to their parents and siblings.
That is where the Rev.Andres Larios steps in, running a parallel youth group called The Rainbow, whose aim is to steer teens such as Ms. Garcia and Mr. Guzman away from the temptations of quick money that drug trafficking offers here.
“We have to fight against the culture of the drug trafficker,” says Father Larios, a Roman Catholic priest who does not look much older than the teens he counsels. “The other day I asked adolescents what do they want to be? They say drug traffickers. They say traffickers have the prettiest wives, the best houses in town, and the best cars.”
Drug gangs have long had a presence in this sweltering valley in Mexico’s south. But with a government crackdown that began in December 2006, groups have splintered, territory has been disputed, and violence that often includes dismembered body parts featured on front pages has intensified. Some 15,000 people have been killed since then.

Gangs target poor youths

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