Churches in Mexico pay 'taxes' to drug cartels to remain open

(Reuters/Daniel Becerril)Residents walk by the San Juan Bautista church in the municipality of Badiraguato, in Sinaloa state, Mexico, January 9, 2016.

A pastor in Mexico has revealed it has become common for churches to pay "taxes" to drug cartels in order to remain open.

"Charging this 'tax' to pastors and churches is now a common occurrence," the pastor, who wished to remain anonymous, told World Watch Monitor. "The cartels are very well organised and they can follow your every move. One cannot go anywhere alone; protection is needed all the time," he continued.

He said that the problem used to be common in the northern cities bordering the U.S., but it is now becoming an issue for the rest of Mexico.

According to Dennis Petri, the Open Doors Manager in Mexico, the taxes are commonly known as "derecho de piso" (floor right) or "venta de protección" (protection rackets). He said that most of the cases are unreported even though it has become "very common."

"According to government officials, only 10% of the cases are formally brought to court. Most of the people I interviewed indicated that this is a massive phenomenon affecting virtually all churches, while many others appear too afraid to speak about it," Petri explained.

Petri noted that there have been reports of the drug cartels ordering the closure of churches. There were also individuals who were reportedly prohibited from attending church services or were required to inform the drug cartels whenever they visit a particular church.

Apart from extortion, kidnapping for ransom has also become a problem for people in Mexico. Those who attend church meetings also face an increased risk of violent and deadly attacks.

Christians are also under threat from vigilantes fighting the drug cartels. One evangelical Christian recounted how he was threatened by members of a vigilante group in his home state of Michoacán. He said that most members of the group were former drug dealers who are now trying to recruit children and teenagers to fight the drug cartels.

"On one occasion, they threw us out of our community using sticks and machetes. They threatened to kill me if I dared go back to my community," he narrated.

Petri said that speaking publicly against the activities of the cartels could result in beatings, attacks on the houses of the church leaders, or even killings.

At least 31 church leaders have been murdered in Mexico in the past decade, according to Centro Católico Multimedial.

Mexico is ranked on the Open Doors World Watch List as the 40th country in which it is difficult to live as a Christian. Petri said that the most significant threat to Christians in Latin America is violence related to organized crime.

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