Mormons in Mexico confront violence with hope and faith

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CIUDAD JUAREZ, Mexico -- In the mirror of a humble room in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, Laura Cardenas posted a note with her wish list, little objectives that would motivate her to be better. There the list stared back at her each day, posted on the mirror with tape, handwritten and without mistakes. Its title: “Short-Term and Long-Term Goals.”

Laura listed the dreams of a 19-year-old woman: “Make it on the swim team. Work really hard to pay for school … Paint the house in September. Get new chairs for the dining room. Get new shoes. Read Plato. Be nice and kind to other people.”

On Jan. 23, Laura was kidnapped by a member of a local cartel and never returned to her Juarez home. Her case is one of hundreds of cases of people who everyday are kidnapped or killed by the increasing violence that affects this northern city in Mexico.

Since 2009, many people continue to encounter challenging living conditions with waves of violence striking ever more closely against the inhabitants of Juarez and El Paso, Texas.

More than 15,000 people were killed because of drug-related violence in Mexico last year alone. EL Paso officials recorded a small number of murders in 2010, while neighboring Ciudad Juarez had an estimated 3,000 deaths. All of these victims suffered the violent consequences of a drug war that neither the United States or Mexico has been able to put to rest.

Unfortunately, violence has changed our lives in Juarez.

–- Gabriel Saenz, Juarez resident

Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints try to stand as islands of peace on troubled waters, sharing their faith, hope and testimony during perilous times.

“Unfortunately, violence has changed our lives in Juarez,” said Gabriel Saenz, a returned missionary living in Juarez. “It’s not the same; I just came back from my mission in Chile and things are totally different (here). There’s a lot of violence and people are worried for their safety, even members of the church.”

Local LDS Church leaders have encountered difficulties while attempting to keep members of their wards and stakes safe.

In a ward on the north side of Juarez, leaders close the vehicle entrance to the grounds to prevent unknown cars from coming into the church parking lot. This is an example of one of the many measures that leaders and members are taking to protect themselves.

As a measure of security, LDS families try to get home early and to stay in constant communication during the day.

For some residents in Juarez, the general fear felt among is often more debilitating and has a greater day-to-day effect on their lives than the knowledge of the violence and murders. The streets are empty at night; people try to be home as early as they can to be safe. Daily life has changed for the residents of Juarez, and their once carefree trips to the store or outings to the local park are tainted with fear and caution.

“It’s hard to live in a city where violence is a common thing, especially for our kids,” said Leticia Orozco, an LDS Church member living in Juarez. “We teach our kids that they need to be valiant and not be afraid, that God will protect us, if we trust him and pray for protection. It’s a great way to develop faith and prayer together.”

Other attacks against members of the LDS Church were registered in the same state in Mexico. In 2009, former temple President Meredith Romney was abducted from his ranch property near Casas Grandes, Chihuahua. The U.S State Department, the FBI and Mexican authorities worked together on the investigation. Finally, Romney was released after his family succumbed to the blackmail conditions and paid for his freedom.

Members of the LDS Church from El Paso suffer the consequences of the violence in Mexico as well. Like the case of Arthur H. Redelfs and his wife, Lesley A. Enriquez, both U.S. citizens and living in El Paso. They were killed on March 15 in their car near the Santa Fe International Bridge linking Ciudad Juarez with El Paso.

The couple was returning from a child’s birthday party with others when gunmen stopped their cars at an intersection and open fired. Redelfs was a member of the LDS Church.

“In El Paso there is a lot of fear to travel to Juarez,” said Yahaira Andrade, an LDS member living in El Paso. “Many people have been robbed as they travel to Juarez, mainly because of their car’s plates.”

Members of the church in El Paso belong to the Ciudad Juarez Mexico Temple disctrict, which serves members from 10 stakes and one district based in Chihuahua and Texas.

Members from two different stakes in El Paso attend the temple in Juarez, and recent violence makes attending the temple more difficult.

We teach our kids that they need to be valiant and not be afraid, that God will protect us, if we trust him and pray for protection. It's a great way to develop faith and prayer together.

–- Leticia Orozco, Juarez resident

“President Paredes extended a promise to the members of the church that if they go exclusively to the temple and not for shopping or for fun, they will return home safe,” Andrade said. “My husband and I can testify that it’s true. We go just to the temple once a month, and many times we feel that angels watch over us as we drive across the border. We know that if we do our part, the Lord will do his.”

For the members of the church in Juarez and El Paso, the temple is the place where they can find peace and inspiration amongst the fear and turmoil.

“We are blessed to have a temple in Juarez. That helps us to find spiritual strength and look for protection,” Saenz said. “But as members of the church, we try to avoid dangerous places. Basically with everything that’s going on around us, we just need to stay in holy places where, hopefully, we will be safe.”

As a result of the multiple kidnappings, people of all faiths have united to support each other during these difficult times. In May, members of the LDS community joined with members of other religious communities to protest against the lack of security in the different areas throughout the state.

Recent figures published by Chihuahua government officials indicate that middle-class families, professionals and businesses are fleeing out of Juarez looking for safer areas in the U.S and Mexico because of soaring violence among drug cartels and widespread petty crime in Juarez.

“People from the colonies were forced to move to El Paso or south of Mexico due to the violence and kidnappings many times involving their families and neighbors,” said Glen Lyons, a BYU student and resident of the colonies in Chihuahua. “No one was untouchable. Politicians, farmers and even lower-income families were victims of the kidnapping spree, sometimes demanding a ransom for a member of their family for only 50 American dollars.”

Even when the situation is difficult, current analysis found that U.S. border cities are statistically safer on average than other cities in their states, and that murder, robbery and kidnapping rates were all on the decline. The analysis drew from more than 10 years of detailed crime data reported by more than 1,600 local law enforcement agencies in four states as well as federal crime statistics and interviews along the border from California to Texas.

Nevertheless, since recent elections in 2010 for new government in the state, things have changed positively because of increased enforcement requested by the newly elected governor.

“Many families have moved back to their farms and businesses due to diminishing crime rates, especially kidnappings,” Lyons said. “However, murders are still a daily occurrence. But civilians think that as long criminals kill each other and not civilians, they will continue their daily lifestyle in their lands they still call home.”

Over the past year, the U.S. State Department has issued repeated warnings about travel in Mexico. Some of these warnings are specific to certain stretches of highway, while others are broader and focus on cities or regions.

As residents of Juarez, the main difference that we have that can sustain us is our faith in Christ, the knowledge of the plan of salvation and most importantly our efforts to attend the temple as much as we can.

–- Gabriel Saenz, Juarez resident

“Mexico, it’s still a safe place to live and visit,” said BYU student Victor Peynado. “There are specific places that authorities recommend to avoid. The rest of the country is prepared to welcome visitors, so they can enjoy the beautiful places that the country has to offer.”

Members of the LDS Church hope that things will get better in the north of the country and that the violence will be controlled by the authorities.

“As members of the church, the only thing we can do is to practice our faith by being obedient and avoid places that can bring us problems,” Saenz said. “As residents of Juarez, the main difference that we have that can sustain us is our faith in Christ, the knowledge of the plan of salvation and most importantly our efforts to attend the temple as much as we can.”

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