Mennonites in Mexico Battle Temptations
*The austere sect sought to escape the world, but worldly vices -- alcohol, drugs -- are a forbidden fascination now to some.

By Sam Quinones, Los AngelesTimes Staff Writer

CUAUHTEMOC, Mexico (Oct. 24, 2004) — As a child in his Mennonite settlement in northern Mexico, Jacobo attended a one-room school, where he did his lessons in chalk on a small black slate, and barely learned to read and write.

As a teenager, he was forbidden from listening to music, playing sports, dancing, even yelling, by Mennonite authorities intent on protecting their people from the world.

Instead, those good intentions left Jacobo vulnerable — unprotected — when the real world beckoned. As an adult, he became an alcoholic, then a crack cocaine addict. So did dozens of his Mennonite friends and acquaintances, he says — by the late 1990s, Jacobo could have his crack home-delivered.

By the time he quit the drug, he had lost 70 pounds and owed his dealers, also Mennonites, tens of thousands of dollars. "So many times I went to bed and wished I wouldn't wake up because I was living in hell," says Jacobo, now 37 and four years sober.

Traditional German Mennonism, a denomination that is the doctrinal cousin of the Amish, was founded on adherence to the Bible, pacifism and pious, humble living. That is still the case for many Mennonites in this community who fled to northern Mexico 80 years ago to escape the world and live according to their traditions. But for others, the high life has become a forbidden fascination.

Some Mennonites have become drug smugglers, believed to be affiliated with the Juarez drug cartel that controls the flow of narcotics through Ciudad Juarez, on the border with West Texas, into the United States. Dozens of Mennonites are locked up in prisons in Texas and Mexico's northern state of Chihuahua for running drugs north.

About 50,000 Old Colony Mennonites — as the most conservative Mennonites are known — live in five Mexican states, about half of them in settlements near Cuauhtemoc, a bustling agricultural town in Chihuahua. Their fields of corn and oats stretch wide and clean north of town and are marvels of agricultural efficiency.

Mennonites often shop in Cuauhtemoc, struggling sometimes with Spanish, and standing out for their physical appearance — fair-skinned, blue-eyed, blond women in bonnets and men in overalls and straw hats. To local Mexicans, they're peaceful, God-fearing people, strangers from an earlier time.

For years, Mennonites used buggies, refused electricity and had tractors with iron wheels. They kept to themselves, teaching their children only Low German, a largely unwritten dialect of German. Today, about a third of the colony has opted for full modernity, education and industry.

In the last decade, the Mennonites have been buffeted by the same global economic forces that have crushed peasants here and elsewhere: scarce credit for small farmers, cheap cheese imports, low rainfall and their own overpopulation. Large Mennonite farms have grown as small farmers sell out. Young, poor Mennonites have joined the global workforce, immigrating illegally to the United States to work as farmhands in Texas, Kansas, Iowa and Oklahoma.

For some youths who remain behind, Sunday has evolved from the Lord's Day into a day to get drunk. A curious Mennonite version of cruising takes place every Sunday after church. Old Colony young men, inebriated, drive their pickups wildly along the unpaved country roads of their settlements, looking for girls or groups of friends to get drunk or high with, before they have to return home by 6 p.m. to milk the family cows.

"Every week we find Mennonites getting drunk, using drugs and driving vehicles in the scariest way," says Manuel Enriquez, Cuauhtemoc's police chief.

A nearby 22-mile highway straddled by Mennonite settlements is one of the most dangerous in the state, Enriquez says.

Seven Alcoholics Anonymous groups serve the Mennonite settlements near Cuauhtemoc; Mennonite members say many more groups would have formed by now had not some traditional pastors labeled AA a cult to be avoided.

In March, Mennonite authorities opened what is believed to be the first drug and alcohol rehabilitation center in North America to exclusively treat German-speaking Mennonites. The center, in the countryside near Cuauhtemoc, has beds for 60 people, including 30 minors.

"We see it as a very serious problem," says Jacobo Dyck, pastor of the modernist Mexican Mennonite Conference church near Cuauhtemoc, who pushed to build the center and runs Bible classes for the patients. "And I don't think we even know half of the problem we face, especially among our youth."

In fact, no statistics exist on the rate of alcoholism and drug addiction among Old Colony Mennonites. The numbers probably are no greater than in the society at large, and may be less.

Still, that these are problems at all is jarring for a group with a history of cloistered, modest living.

"We have the image of people who are honorable, humble and simple," says Juan Loewen, a bishop of the 13,000-member Manitoba Rhinelander Old Mennonite Church, the largest church in the settlements near Cuauhtemoc. "Often, we're not."

Abraham Harms, a local Mennonite mechanic and farmer, was the first person to bring drugs to these communities, Mennonite sources and police say.

Harms apparently began smuggling marijuana in the mid-1980s, proving adept at designing hollow-walled trucks and other ingenious hiding places for contraband.

He was imprisoned in Canada for drug smuggling for several years, and in 1996 was killed in a car crash, and immortalized in a corrido — or ballad — by a local band.

U.S. narcotics officers allege that his sons have since diversified the family smuggling operation to include cocaine imported from Colombia and exported to the United States.

Their drugs, for example, were behind the largest narcotics bust in the history of Oklahoma.

In 1999, Oklahoma narcotics officers used a Mennonite informant, Abraham Wiebe, and wiretaps of cellular phones to build a 10-month investigation of a drug ring allegedly run by the Harms brothers.

Eventually, agents arrested 16 people in Oklahoma, indicted eight others and confiscated 10,000 pounds of marijuana and 2,300 pounds of cocaine, all of it shipped from the Mennonite settlements around Cuauhtemoc, says Jesse Diaz, the agent with the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics who ran the investigation.

Oklahoma narcotics agents don't know the quantity of drugs coming from Mennonites near Cuauhtemoc into the United States.

But another informant from the Harms family organization later took the agents on a cross-country tour of places where the family sends its drugs.

"We drove to Nashville, Wyoming, Chicago, West Virginia, Denver, Kansas City — to all these locations where their trailers unload," Diaz says. "In our case in one month, 4,500 pounds marijuana and 2,300 pounds of cocaine was taken off…. It's a lot of dope."

As Mennonites here have collided with the goods and vices of the modern world, they have left unchanged what helps make them defenseless today: an antiquated education system.

One place to see this is in a settlement a few miles north of Cuauhtemoc, near a country crossroads, in a schoolhouse with sawdust on the floor that seems plucked from a Willa Cather novel.

Children ranging in age from six to 12 sit on wooden benches. To the right, 11 boys intently copy Biblical verses. To the left, six girls work arithmetic problems on black slates.

Before them is 33-year-old Pedro Friessen, a clean-shaven man in blue overalls. Friessen was a dairy farmer. But that was difficult, Friessen says, "so when the teacher here left, I took the job and tend my cows before and after school."

Friessen has only had seven years of school himself, one year more than the oldest child in his class, and he doesn't read or write well.

"For years, Mennonites were farmers. You could survive with a little bit of reading, writing and some arithmetic," says Abraham Schmitt, a modern Mennonite bilingual teacher. "But nowadays, education is more important than ever. The world has changed so much in the last 100 years."

In the 21st century, Mennonite life here is a jangled mixture of archaic schoolhouses and Dodge Ram pickups, of traditional cheese and AA meetings.

"They say we shouldn't be worldly. 'It's Mennonite tradition,' " says Jacobo, the recovering crack addict. "But they're isolating their people spiritually. Instead of doing them good, it harms them."