Finding Hope, Escaping the Gang Life at Church in Ciudad Jurez

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 Juárez. He called the crimes “easy money,” while gang activities offered a sense of belonging and an adolescence of parties, girls and underage drinking.

Alanis recalls seeing gangs on every corner of his neighborhood. “It 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.”

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Then 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 Juárez. “That’s 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 is scheduled to visit Ciudad Juárez on 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 hope Francis 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 2012.

Ciudad Juárez was once the murder capital of the world, an image now out-of-date, according to statistics from the citizen-run Security Roundtable of Ciudad Juárez, which shows a 92 percent decline in the homicide rate since 2010.

Rival drug cartels once clashed over a corridor for trafficking contraband to the United States. Gangs in the city previously preyed on the local population. They also preyed on young people, who became “cannon fodder” for a conflict.

“Organized 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 this was a partial cause of the decrease in crime. “They wrongly thought it would be easy money. That’s why there were so many victims.”

Church officials say the problem persists, though at a lower level. “We see that there are kids, probably 12 years, who are being approached by [organized crime],” said Juan Carlos Quirarte, a Salesian priest, who also participates in the security roundtable.

Kids “don’t see many other options, and they mythologize these figures,” he added. The 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.’”

At Corpus Christi Parish, crime was so problematic that thieves stole the bell and cars were robbed during Sunday Mass. The Rev. 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, including getting to know young people in the parish area.

“The 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 has been 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.”

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