They were watching.
From the sides, from the back, near the triple-locked gates, hugging the walls where barbed wire jabbed the inaccessible blue of a midday sky, mocking their lack of freedom.
It was unnerving, knowing that our every word, movement and facial expression was being scrutinized by the wary eyes of these young offenders. We had spent the first two days trying to get to know them through simple games –difficult to do under the stern and suspicious gaze of armed guards. On the third day we had been allowed to divide into small groups to share our mutual stories, and it was then that we began to understand the depth of brokenness contained within the walls of this high-security juvenile prison in Colima, Mexico. It was now day four. Would they let us pray for them?
Pastor Carlos they knew; we were the strangers that came but once a year.
“They trust you, at least,” I commented under my breath.
Carlos nodded, looking at the boys. “Every Friday I come here, I teach them. Some, they become believers, and so I disciple them.” He paused, and turned to face me. “I prepare them to die well.”
That is what discipleship looks like here.
The gangs are always near, always watching. When the young prisoners are released, gang members are the first to meet them outside the prison walls, using threats and bribes to lure them back into service. Should they refuse, they face torture and death; if they are lucky, it will be a single bullet to the temple.
The pastor looked grim as he explained this to me. He had already lost two recently-released young men to such deaths. He hopes that they died well, trusting in the Saviour to whom they had entrusted their souls while in prison. I listen, but this is beyond my comprehension.
“Yo primero! Me first!” The boys, released to approach us, suddenly swarmed our prayer stations. The silent watching, as it turned out, had been but thinly-disguised anxiety. Would we have time to talk to them all one by one? We would try. The stories they told were painfully similar.
Fatherless, abandoned, rejected, abused, adrift in the deep and abject despair of poverty, and longing for a sense of significance, many of these vulnerable young men had been targeted by gangs when they were still only boys of eight or nine years of age. In the villages bordering the state of Michoacan, such boys are always being watched. Watched by those who see their potential usefulness as scouts, drug mules, dealers and - should they rise high enough in the ranks - assassins. Gangs are always watching for strays, watching for an opportune moment to befriend hungry children and seduce them with oily smiles, easy money and the false euphoria of drugs and alcohol. Then they gradually expose the children to increasing levels of violence until, one day, their innocence forever stripped away, they go through a rite of passage and make their first kill, while the gang leaders watch.
“They always watch,” one young man named Manuel told us, “to be sure that we do it.” It’s kill or be killed. At seventeen, Manuel was halfway through a seven-year sentence for multiple homicides.
Then there was Fernando, who had learned to cook crystal meth by age twelve. And Luis, who had been given a gun and been sent to a local elementary school to target the children of rival gangs; his shots went wild and the deaths were far more than he had planned. He had felt nervous, he said, because he knew that his boss, his jefe, was watching from across the street, ready with a machete in case he tried to run away. The images that filled our minds as he spoke were intolerable.
“I ran away when I was nine,” Joselito told us. “They beat me, beat my sisters; I was too small. I could do nothing.” Running into the countryside, he had survived by picking fruit and begging for food. For over a year he then worked in the sugar cane fields, but it was too much for his scrawny, malnourished body, and in the end he reluctantly made his way back home. When he came to his house, he heard his sisters screaming. They were being abused by his aunt, just as he had been since the age of three.
“I went crazy,” he said. “My aunt, she hits them.” Joselito stopped, struggling to speak. “I could not think. I just,” he continued hoarsely, his voice cracking, “I just want to stop her. I do not think to kill. I was only eleven years old!” Joselito was fighting back the tears, knowing that we and the other boys nearby were watching him. But we were not the only ones. Suddenly a hand was thrust into the midst of our circle, a crumpled wad of clean toilet paper gruffly offered. It was one of the guards, himself fighting to maintain control of his emotions. Although the guards would all have known the specific nature of the infractions for which each prisoner had been remanded, few had heard the details of their lives.
“God loves you,” we told him with aching hearts. “He brought you here to be rescued, to meet him.” Over the next few minutes we led Joselito in a prayer of repentance and petition, and rejoiced quietly as he began the transformative process of turning his life over to Jesus. There were four others that afternoon who also exposed their pain, receiving a gift of unfathomable grace and pardon through faith in Jesus.
While we watched.
Will you keep watch with us? Pray that God, who sees all, will watch over these young men and women as well as the leadership of Pan de Vida, who themselves may become targeted by local drug dealers and gangs for their efforts to truly set prisoners free. Watch and pray, as Jesus asked of his disciples in Gethsemane. May those in prison feel God’s gaze upon them, watching them with love according to the promise in the Psalms, “I, the Lord will keep you from all harm; I will watch over your life; will watch over your coming and going both now and forevermore.” (Psalm 121:7-8)
By Nikki White
Nikki and a team from North Langley Community Church (BC) are part of an ongoing initiative with the Pan de Vida church in Colima, Mexico. Other MB churches in Mexico are also open to exploring a relationship of mutuality and mission with more established churches in other countries. For more information, please contact our long-term workers in Guadalajara, Mexico, Trever and Joan Godard, firstname.lastname@example.org