Christians in Mexico are vulnerable because their actions, stemming from their Christian convictions, form "a direct threat to the interests of organised crime". (Photo: World Watch Monitor)
Christians in Mexico are vulnerable because their actions, stemming from their Christian convictions, are “a direct threat to the interests of organised crime”. (Photo: World Watch Monitor)

A new report looking into the “endemic phenomena” of organised crime and corruption in Latin America highlights the failure of governments to protect active Christians from violence.

The inability or unwillingness of Latin American governments to stop organised crime encourages a “criminal freedom” that “makes specific sectors within society become an easy target for the continued use of violence against them”, as is the case with members of churches active in society, the report says.

Latin America: organised corruption and crime – implications for Christians, by Open Doors International’s research department, focuses on two “hotspots”: Mexico and Colombia, ranked 39th and 49th respectively on the 2018 Open Doors World Watch List of the 50 countries where it is most difficult to live as a Christian. Both countries also rank in the lower half of the 180 states listed on the latest (2017) Corruption Perceptions Index by Transparency International.

Given that the vast majority of people in both Mexico and Colombia would identify as Christian, an Open Doors researcher, speaking to World Watch Monitor last year, said “it’s important not to look so much at their identity as Christians, but more at their behaviour that results from their Christian convictions. Whenever a Christian starts to engage in social work – for example setting up a drug rehabilitation clinic or organising youth work, that is a direct threat to the activities and interests of organised crime because it takes the youth away from them, so it is a direct threat to their market”.

Another example of why active Christians are easy targets comes from the perception that churches and their leaders have a lot of money, so congregations offer a ready source of cash – cartels can simply enter, lock the doors and ask the congregation to empty their pockets.

The persecution of Christians due to the failings of Latin American governments is at an “alarming” level, concludes Open Doors’ new report, which adds that the problem is probably much bigger than its data shows. “The magnitude of what is really happening in Latin America is very often veiled by the victims’ fear of reprisals if incidents are reported,” it says.

To remedy the problem the report recommends a “thorough reform” at all levels of state. Organised crime, it says, is “embedded in state structures”, and the rule of law should be implemented in favour of the nation as a whole, not “as now happens, in favour of corrupt officials serving as accomplices in attacking vulnerable sectors of society through their economic and political alliances with criminals”.

According to the report, Latin American governments “largely ignore” the concept of religious freedom, considering active Christians to be “second-class citizens” when it comes to acknowledging the crimes committed against them. This particular human right is fighting against the “high presence” of corruption in the region, which the report says has “taken root” in the Latin American culture, making the presence of corrupt government officials and politicians “an accepted fact”.

The implications for Christians of freely practising their faith in such corrupt and crime-ridden societies is threefold, according to the report:

  • Firstly, Christians are vulnerable because they “preach against” crime, opposing the “fundamentals of a ‘mafia’ existence”. Knowing they might be targeted by criminals attacking with impunity inhibits free expressions of the Christian faith.
  • Secondly, Christians evangelise amongst criminals, which undermines the control criminal leaders have over their gang members.
  • Thirdly, non-Catholic Christians are more vulnerable because criminals often hold back from attacking members of their traditional Roman Catholic family faith.
Threatening messages were scrawled on outside walls of this church in Arauca, east Colombia, where Christians continue to face oppression by armed groups. (Photo: World Watch Monitor, 2012)
Threatening messages were scrawled on the outside walls of this church in Arauca, east Colombia, where Christians continue to face oppression by armed groups. (Photo: World Watch Monitor, 2012)

Mexico and Colombia serve as “hotspots for the presence of criminal groups and corruption networks, which – separately or jointly – act against Christians living in those territories”, says the report.

Christians are a “recurrent target” for violence in Mexico, where there is “corruption in all government spheres” and the authorities have become dependent on profits from the drugs industry, according to the report. “Narco states” exist, it says, where criminal groups “have far exceeded the government’s response capacity”. There were an estimated 78,109 deaths that could be attributed to organised crime in Mexico between December 2012 and November 2015.

Mexican Christians are vulnerable to gangs wanting protection money, or to being punished for their lack of collaboration in criminal activities. Christian leaders are punished for helping with social initiatives like drug rehabilitation centres because it “interferes” with the criminal fraternity. Mexico has become known as the most dangerous place in Latin America to work as a Roman Catholic priest because of the volume of kidnappings and killings.

Christians in Colombia suffer from the sheer scale of problems caused by the country being the world’s largest producer of the raw material for cocaine, says the report. Like other victims they are terrorised by criminal gangs controlling the drugs trade, while being left vulnerable by a government that has to finance its fight against drugs and which cannot afford proper levels of local policing. As in Mexico, Colombian Christians are left vulnerable to criminals wanting protection money, and wanting to dissuade Christian leaders from preaching against crime. Unlike in Mexico, attacks on Christians in Colombia “have a greater intensity, scope, frequency and more types of aggressors are involved”, says the report.