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Faith is the bird that sings when the dawn is still dark. --Rabindranath Tagore

Fear Not the Narcotraficantes

--by Nicole Huguenin, syndicated from servicespace.org, Jun 03, 2018

Another sacred story from Ann Sieben, the Winter Pilgrim that I have been honored to capture and share here. This particular story is from her pilgrimage in 2010:

Fear Not the Narcotraficantes
A Glimpse From Pilgrimage #4
-Denver to Mexico City: Dedicated to Our Lady of Guadalupe
-Start: Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish Church, Denver, CO, USA, Sunday, October 10th, 2010
-Finish: Basilica Our Lady of Guadalupe, Mexico City, Mexico, -Wednesday, January 21th, 2011
-Days: 95
-Distance: 3,321 kilometers/2,064 miles

Some events in life define what you really think, even if you never consciously had the thought. Increasingly in my walk south through New Mexico, many people, particularly priests, cautioned, even scolded me about continuing my pilgrimage on foot through the Chihuahua Desert. Not because of the desert itself, with its own inherent dangers, but because of the narcotraficantes, the heavily armed, ruthless, lawless men who control the drug trade in Mexico and across the border. I politely listened to the overly cautious but continued. Priests expressed reluctance to give me hospitality in their parishes concerned that they would later be charged with supporting my wayward and dangerous plan. I persisted, undeterred. Pondering ‘God protects the pilgrims among us…’ there’s a psalm for that.

I never doubted that I would succeed, but the many warnings of the many priests flooded my thoughts, yet equally so, other thoughts retorted that none of the priests had firsthand experience walking through the desert in Mexico, so they’re just reflecting their own fears based, at best, on media stories and statistics. Media stories and statistics can’t predict the singular experience of a pilgrim.

I crossed the border. The American guards who stamped my passport warned me of the dangers and let me pass. The Mexican guards who stamped me in, waived the standard $24 USD entry fee, gave me some chocolate bars, and declared ‘Vaya con Dios’ earnestly. The first night in Ciudad Juarez, I stayed with elderly sisters in their convent on the edge of the city; the priest of the cathedral had directed me there and instructed his driver to take me by car. Hastily constructed block walls lined every street to protect the inhabitants and shops. It was like being in a maze. It was the reality of being in the most dangerous city in the world where people disappear without a trace. The sisters, living isolated as they do, had no advice to offer with regard to progressing southward out of the city. The maps show only the Pan-American Highway, which I judged to be absolutely dangerous and off limits in all occasions. I’d just hoof it across the desert. How hard could it be? It would simply be a matter of finding the first set of huts, then, I was pretty certain and hopeful, those inhabitants could direct me to the next. The sisters gave me plenty of extra bean burritos.

It worked. I found an isolated ranch the first night, the rancher absent when I arrived, but the cook and the ranch hands greeted me graciously, offered food and a place to shower and sleep in one of the very nice but currently unused outbuildings. The rancher returned later that evening, startled by the cook’s report that a gringa peregrina asked for hospitality, and rather burst into the room where I was getting ready to go to bed, John Wayne-esque with an undrawn side arm; the cook in tow. In an instant, he let down his guard. He spoke English flawlessly, obviously a well-educated man, laughing a bit and shaking his head in disbelief. ‘You really are a pilgrim!’ We had a nice conversation, talking about his family, the girls in school in Texas, the hunting parties for trophy lions and wolves (legal, I don’t know). He suggested I stay for another day, we could go by horseback up into the mountains to the east where he’s seen petroglyphs and other signs of antiquity. ‘No, thanks, I’m a pilgrim, I’ll just keep walking.’ He warned me of the dangers, suggesting he drive me to Chihuahua City, more than a week’s distance by foot. No way, I’m here to walk. Incredulous, he instructed the cook to send me off with plenty of food.

I walked without too many concerns in the desert, far from the highway, out of sight from danger, I thought. I was enjoying my solitude immensely. The topography was rugged and irregular, I was walking southward along the base of a long ridge of mountains to the east; to the west, the land was flatter and more heavily vegetated with salt cedars, nopales - tall or wide but never both- mesquite, creosote, yucca, rabbit sage. The land was constantly animated with tumbleweeds blowing around, dust devils spurting up, meandering erratically, then disappearing in a twirl. Jackrabbits, long-eared foxes, plenty of rattlesnake, and occasional clusters of cattle broke the distant views. I was comfortable.

Then in the distance, tipped off to my presence, maybe by my tracks or by one of the ranch hands from the ranch, there came a big king-cab pick-up truck, its tires modified for off-road conditions of the desert, turning toward me and moving fast with a trail of white dust. I could make out four men standing on the bed, each behind a mounted weapon. The men with bandoliers and sidearms, not at all like John Wayne. The truck came fast with the men shouting, and pulled across my path. Quick as can be, four men, also heavily armed with assault weapons, bandoliers, and sidearms, jumped out of the cab and circled behind me. Eight men. Eight men! I absorbed the situation immediately despite their aggressive babbling roaring shouts… having only a rudimentary understanding of the language has some benefits. I had no idea what they were actually saying, but I got from the tone that they were upset about something. It sort of pissed me off, but I got hold of those emotions right away and smiled. Almost laughing, I assessed who looked like the boss. ‘Quien es el jefe?’ I tried to sound cordial, but hurried to be the initiator of the conversation, so I sort of blurted it out. Honing in on the eldest, maybe around 40, and making the assumption that he was the boss, I smiled broadly, almost laughing while pushing the weapon he had leveled at my head aside with a sweep of my left forearm so that I could see him as I addressed him. ‘Verdad?’ Really? Eight men! For just one small woman? It was something of an attack on their collective manhood, ‘Really, how cowardly’ was what I was saying, but by laughing it off, I gave him a chance to smile back. It almost worked, not yet, though. His questions were as reasonable as they were fast, his weapon raised again, 'Who are you? Where did you come from? What are you doing here? Who sent you? Who else is with you? What’s in your backpack? Why aren’t you afraid of us? Are you crazy?'

I tried to calm the situation and succeeded. “Tranquilos amigos,’ I urged with a relaxed pose, ‘I’m a pilgrim. I’ve walked from Denver; I’m going to Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City'. Some of the men lowered their weapons for a moment and crossed themselves. 'See, no need for violence. I understand I’m a visitor passing through the desert, but I’m just passing through and don’t mean any harm…’ I conveyed all of this in bad Spanish and truly relaxed.

I was gaining their confidence. ‘No one would be alone in the desert, it’s too dangerous, alone?’ Easy answer, ‘con todos los ángeles y los santos’. I smiled. ‘But why aren’t you afraid?'. Here’s where the rubber hit the road, unrehearsed, unprepared, unpracticed, but the words coming right through my lips in absolute raw honesty hearing it for the first time myself, ‘I’m a pilgrim heading to the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Either my pilgrimage ends in Guadalupe or my pilgrimage ends in heaven. For me, it’s equal. You decide.’ . No bluff, I meant it, there under the wide blue sky of the desert wilderness, surrounded by eight armed men each with a weapon leveled at my head. The crucial moment of action happened right there, perhaps the most crucial moment of my life up to that point. The wheat was separated from the chaff. I meant it. Either my pilgrimage would end in Guadalupe or my pilgrimage would end in heaven; it was equal. I believed it. I have no death wish, I wanted to get to Guadalupe with nothing untoward happening to me, but I was doing something noble, not just adventurous. I believed. To be anything but calm would have been irrational.

My calmness carried the day, a true grace from God, I realize. Weapons were released fully, not to be raised against me again. The boss thought about my words for a moment, 'really, pilgrim?’ He looked around at his companions. ‘Would you pray for me?’ ‘Yes! Of course!’ I reached into my side pocket and brought out a little notebook and pen. ‘Write your prayer intentions here, with the others. I’m bringing them all to Our Lady.’ ‘No, no, no, then, don’t pray for me, pray for my boy, José, I don’t want him to grow up into this life like me. I want something better for him.’ Wow, what a serious lesson I learned from this converted aggressor. In my entire life up until that moment in the desert, I never attached anything but abstract meaning to the words from Jesus. ‘it’s not enough to love those who love you back, you must love your enemies as well.’ Until that moment in the desert, I never thought of myself as actually having enemies. Sure there are plenty of people I don’t particularly like, and those who don’t particularly like me, but I wouldn’t have considered us enemies. There in the desert, well, these men certainly all have killed and have done other heinous things, the narcotraficantes are not my friends, but who am I to judge? I don’t have any idea of the events in these men’s lives that led them to where we all were standing at that very real minute. I don’t dismiss whatever heinous crimes and injustices they may have committed, but I’m not going to make any guesses and then condemn them based on my guesses.

I showed them trust. They responded in kind. This is the role of a pilgrim. What a clarifying episode of pilgrim life. I was there to build trust. By the grace of God, it worked.

From then on, side discussions ensued as the notebook passed around. I heard one man say something like ‘pray for my Grandmother, she worries herself sick praying for me…’ The boss, Father of José, offered, ‘get in the truck, we’ll drive you to Guadalupe.’ ‘No! A pilgrim goes by foot.’ ‘It’s very far.’ ‘I’ll enjoy every step.’ ‘Where will you stay tonight?’ ‘There’s a small ranch not far from here. I’ll ask for hospitality there.’ ‘I know it, we’ll take you.’ ‘No! I can’t arrive with armed men, can I?’ ‘Okay, pilgrim, vaya con Dios, you will pass in safety.’ I did pass in safety. I encountered other narcotraficantes in other regions to the south, but never with the same lay-it-on-the-line risk and intensity (probably because I had already laid it on the line, so nothing afterward seemed so intense). I have no way of knowing the after story of the men. Did any of them have a lasting conversion of heart? Would they look down the gun barrel at another person some day and remember my God-given tranquility staring back at them and have a change of heart? Are they even still alive? Our exchange in the desert lasted only minutes; how long the impact of our exchange lasts is beyond me. For me, it will last the rest of my life. That pilgrimage ended in Guadalupe. I never felt afraid for my life, not even with those eight men. The last pilgrimage ends in heaven. I show up and let God do the rest.




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