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Teaching Amidst a Drug War

May 27, 2011

By Sister Beth

In September 2009, my first year teaching in Laredo, Tex., an alarm rang, followed by an announcement over the loud speakers that the school was now in “lock down.” Although I had been involved in “lock down” drills before, this was the first time in 30 years of teaching that I was in a real “lock down” situation. As I sat on the floor with my eighth grade, I realized that I was the only one who had never experienced this frightening reality.

It has been here, at St. Peter’s School in Laredo, Texas, that my eyes have been opened to the dangers our children face every day in the midst of a drug war.

Since we are located just three blocks from the international bridge that leads into Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, approximately 60 out of our 170 students travel back and forth from Mexico every day. Of the remaining 110 students, 40 are from Mexico but live with their family in a second home here in Laredo during the school week. These latter students from Mexico are able to avoid being late because of traffic, check point delays and/or international bridge closure due to an eruption in violence. Sometimes, the violence in Nuevo Laredo occurs during the school day, preventing those who live in Nuevo Laredo from getting home at night. Therefore, each child must have an emergency contact in Laredo in the event they can’t get home. Sometimes being stranded in Laredo is for the better as there are times when these students, crossing the bridge, pass by staged, headless dead bodies on the road.

Since that day in September 2009, our school has been in four additional “lock downs.” Two of those were the result of shootings around the school (we can even hear the gun fire), one was because a grenade was found in the court house parking lot and the fourth was a precautionary measure due to the trial ending and the delivery of a verdict on a drug cartel member. On one of these days, we went into “lock down” just before dismissal. Knowing we needed to dismiss the children, the border patrol sent a stealth helicopter to sit above the school courtyard. Although we could not hear the helicopter, it was so close to the ground that we could see the soldiers with rifles.

Although the “lock downs” are not an everyday occurrence, there are daily reminders of how close we are to the border and the danger. The border patrol cars often sit outside the gate while their helicopters fly over the school, a Catholic elementary school surrounded by fences with barbed wire on top. Government officials from Nuevo Laredo send their children to the Catholic schools in Laredo, and they show up with body guard in armored vehicles.

We are mostly made aware of the stark reality in Mexico through the daily stories and lives of our students. For example, we know that kidnapping happens a lot in Mexico. This year a family from one of the Catholic schools in the Diocese of Laredo was kidnapped during spring break. Another student from the same school was with them; he is also missing. The mother of two students from St. Peter’s was kidnapped about three years ago. She has never been found. Needless to say, these students have a heavy heart. They may never have the closure they desire. Some of the teachers would love to take me to Mexico and show me their home country; however, because I have blue eyes, they believe the danger of me being kidnapped is great.

I have a great concern that the children I teach will become desensitized to all the violence around them. I know that I have become so used to the helicopters that I don’t hear them anymore. Therefore, in my religion classes we take time to process what they see and hear. (The U.S. news reports very little of what really goes on in Mexico ). During one of these sessions a student told of attending a public school in Mexico when two members of the Zetas came into the class with guns, told the teacher they wanted a particular student, who was the son of a high-ranking member of the cartel, took him and another student who tried to stop the Zetas, and killed both of them. Other students had played soccer with them just the night before. I was stunned that no administrator or teacher at the school tried to stop this from happening. Yet they have families that would be in danger if they did try.

The students asked me if I would try to stop someone from kidnapping them, since the La Familia Cartel and the Zetas groups from Mexico are now targeting children.  Without hesitation I said I would try everything in my power to prevent that from happening and make sure everyone was safe. They informed me that I would probably be dead, and asked: “would you really die for us?” I said, “of course” — and I would.

Even though these children live every day with the threat that they or someone they love could be kidnapped or killed, they care very much about each other. When they say goodbye at the end of the day they don’t think about it all the time but in the back of their minds they know they may never see their friend(s) again. They truly live day to day.

Although everyone in Laredo knows what is going on in Nuevo Laredo, we do not hear about it in our churches. The people of Laredo and Nuevo Laredo are faith-filled people, yet the church remains silent. Maybe out of fear, or maybe because the church has become desensitized to what is happening. However, I believe that this is the time for the church to become a “Loud voice of Peace”.

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