The Isthmus of Central America is a land bridge between North and South America, with the narrowest point being only thirty-eight miles between the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean and no point of the isthmus being more than one hundred and twenty-five miles from the sea.
Before the invasion of the Spanish conquistadores, who searched for gold, plundered and raped everything in their path, there were Maya city-states with kings, given the right to rule by the gods. The Spanish king established the Kingdom of Guatemala in the isthmus and bestowed ecclesial power to the Roman Catholic Church to convert the souls of the indigenous population. At the same time, the people were being decimated by disease introduced to their lands by their European overlords.
The Central American Federations gained independence from the Spanish colonizers in 1821 but in 1840, were unable to hold together the United Provinces of Central America because of regional interest and ideologies that fragmented political power – not even the liberal president of the republic, Francisco Morazán, could save it.
Since the middle of the twentieth century, the evangelical protest missionaries have been the new ecclesial power in the isthmus, preaching the word of God, showing the path to salvation through belief in Jesus Christ, the son of God sent to earth to save the souls of man.
Christi, a born-again Christian from Grapevine, Texas is in Tegenalpa – the capital of the small republic in Central America – in a bus with eleven members of a youth mission. They are driving from the Tincotin airport to the slum of Torocagua, the mission of the Grapevine Church of Life in Faith, to help build an annex to the church and bless the local congregation. The youth group has the windows of the bus open and is imbibing the sounds and sights of Tegenalpa. As they drive through the heart of the city, there is a constant melody of beeping horns. Sirens always seem to be approaching in the distance, no matter where they are, and the traffic is congested, almost at a standstill. Every time the bus arrives at a stoplight, vendors approach, selling everything from bottles of water, popcorn, and candy to soft drinks in a bag, having long poles which allow them to place the products in the faces of the missionaries as they sit in the bus. The vendors do not take no for an answer when the missionaries motion that they are not interested – expecting the rich gringos to purchase from them, at least out of pity.
As the bus slowly makes its way through the narrow streets, the young missionaries observe men sleeping on the sidewalk, laid out like they are dead. No movement, comatose-like, with the hot midday tropical sun relentlessly beating down on their scorched skin and ragged clothes. They seem to be at peace and even have big smiles on their faces, sleeping there on the sidewalk in Tegenalpa. They sleep as a horde of pedestrians effortlessly walk over them with their cellphones placed to their ears, in intense conversation, waving their free hands in the air, back and forth, as if the person on the call can see their gestures. The drunk sidewalk sleepers have passed out at the point they could not walk anymore, after having been on a twenty-four-hour drinking binge the day before, spending their entire weekly income. Their families again will go hungry – such are the ways of certain fathers in the small republic.
Christi calls out to the young missionaries, “Please keep your hands and head in the bus, we are driving through the bad part of town.”
“Please keep your hands in the bus. Pastor Zapata explicitly gave us these instructions, listen to sister Christi,” says Pastor Gregory Fermin, the leader of the group, who is a twenty-nine-year-old youth minister of the Grapevine Church of Life in Faith. The teens have saved for this trip all year long by working odd jobs and receiving special offerings. The mission group has plans to stay in tents by the church mission, which is managed by Pastor Julio Zapata and his family.
Torocagua has been taken over by the 18th Street gang. The gang has entirely run out the local pulperias – local mom-and-pop mini grocery stores – that used to be on almost every corner before they showed up. The pulperias operated from a bedroom that had a window facing the walkway or street, or a living room, and were stocked with the weekly provisions and offered to the local community on the street block, where rows of small houses existed. They were like a shared pantry, where the community came together to buy the weekly essentials necessary for survival on their meager salaries. Where every household pulled together to make ends meet. The pulperias were the social pillars of the community, making things whole, where the residents gathered, talked about politics or gossiped about each other, and maybe even watched TV if they did not have one in their choza – shack. Supplanting poverty with the sense of security, where the locals in the barrio could depend on the availability of a small portion of rice and beans, a little bag of milk, a piece of bread, cooking oil, anything that the community needed to cook the daily meals, and sometimes they could even acquire fiado – a loan.
But this has all changed now because the extortions of the gangs – Impuesto de Guerra – have run most of the pulperias out of Torocagua. Only the gang-operated mini-supermarkets exist now. The local taxi and bus drivers must pay monthly extortions or they are killed to be made an example of – and many have been killed. Committing violent crimes is but a means to an end for the gang’s hold on power, and with this power, there is money, enough money to buy dirty cops and fund the campaigns of politicians who allow them to sustain their operations.
On some occasions, the gang provides the local drug lords with protection for transportation services, or they contract out their sicarios – hired assassins – to the highest-paying drug lords against other drug lords or politicians, policemen or ordinary citizens – anybody who needs to be taken out – provided they have the money to pay the gang. The gang is a micro-trafficker in the barrios, of cheap cocaine that does not make it north, which is ten times cheaper because of excess supply, the small republic being a hub for the cocaine on its way to the great consumer market to the north. If there were no demand, there would be no supply – a common theme in the small republic.
The 18th Street gang has a monthly income of cash that goes into the tens of thousands of dollars, which allows their nefarious criminal organization to form a local fiefdom in the slum, where every citizen must pay their respect in one way or another. The police and military seldom venture into this part of Tegenalpa; it is the gang’s territory. The forced taxes work as a political system within a system – one system of absolute control and hierarchy based on the threat of violence. As a citizen of Torocagua, there is no way out – the sons and daughters are subject to be incorporated into the gangs and become street soldiers at a very young age. The law is gang-imposed, the gang rules, and the serfs have to adhere to the law of the 18th Street gang. The only other option is to leave.
Pastor Zapata, on a prior visit to the Grapevine Church of Life in Faith, Texas, gave Pastor Fermin assurance that the gang would not be a problem during the youth group’s visit to the slum. The pastor simply took Pastor Zapata’s word, not having made any other mission trip to the small republic before – having undertaken other mission trips to developing countries with great success, saving souls and preaching the word of God, he knew that Jesus would protect them. Pastor Zapata had explained that even though the 18th Street controlled the barrio of Torocagua, they had allowed him to have church services without the request of an extortion payment – a mentirita. He further explained that he is permitted to distribute milk and bread for breakfast every morning for twenty or so children of the barrio, who without this help would starve. Pastor Zapata had solicited financial support for the church he had built in the barrio, willing to make it a mission of the Grapevine Church of Life in Faith, Texas, for a little monthly financial support. Pastor Fermin had agreed because he and the ekklesia endeavered to preach the word of God and save souls. A complete sermon was dedicated to the mission to the republic, and a special offering every month has been taken since Pastor Zapata’s visit. A monthly newsletter is sent out to other churches that do not have the local contacts in the republic or the organization but want to be part of the mission – the church networking – allowing them to bless even more souls.
Christi is a five-eight, full-figured blond from Texas, with a beautiful, radiant smile, clear, snow-white skin, a round, slightly chubby face with lush, rosy cheeks and prominent, crystal-clear blue eyes. She speaks in short, sweet sentences, almost always invoking the name of God, Jesus, or a biblical name or verse. She is an only child but has the Grapevine Church of Life in Faith as her second family. Her mother and father have worked all through her childhood; she spends a lot of her spare time at the church, working and helping out. She believes that nothing is more important than volunteering her time to the church.
But Christi does have one other passion in life, other than following the ways of God and the church, and that is guns. She loves guns and believes it is her God-given right to carry and defend herself in in the event of someone wanting to cause her harm. She loves to hunt; she kills a deer almost every season and is her father’s hunting companion on the family deer lease in West Texas. The hunting trip to the deer lease is a year-long-planned, seven-day excursion and is the only time of year that she sees her other blood relatives, as a rich uncle foots the bill for the whole family. There is a lot of shooting, drinking – which Christi and her father, a recovering alcoholic, do not partake of – and talking politics – a Texas pastime.
Christi and her father, on top of owning hunting rifles, each own an AR-15 and love to shoot them. At least once a month, they visit a shooting range in Grapevine, Texas. During a typical visit, Christi will use ten magazine clips of .223/5.56 of thirty rounds. The barrel of the AR-15 turns red hot and would easily sear the skin of the palm if touched. Christi has developed into a very good shot over the years, maintaining a very tight grouping at the fifty-yard range, one-shot proceeding the other every tenth of the second. She is a born-again Christian who believes in the Lord Jesus Christ and the right to carry a gun and owning an assault rifle. She believes in the second amendment right, ratified by the US congress in 1791, but has been wantonly expanded from the right to carrying a musket that could shoot three rounds a minute by a well-regulated militia, being necessary to the security of the state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, that shall not be infringed.
Other than the yearly hunting trip, Christi very seldom sees her relatives, the uncles, aunts and her grandmother – her family is the church, the congregation that calls each other “brother” and “sister” and that always lends a helping hand when members are in need. Christi’s church family is completely separate from her blood relatives, other than her parents, who also belong to the Grapevine Church of Life in Faith. Christi believes her relatives are too materialistic, competitive and greedy, which is not the way of the Lord. Instead of sharing each other’s family origins and the love, warmth and worth of their mutual ancestral folklore or history, her relatives are caught up in the pursuit of wealth and the purchase of material things which they like to show off to demonstrate their success – the pursuit of the almighty buck, the most salient of things.
Christi sees the daily grind of trying to get ahead and out-of-control consumerism unfulfilling for what she wants in life – it doesn’t fill her soul. Thus, she belongs to a church that seems to give her a sense of purpose. In her church, there is a man, a figure that can talk directly to the Alpha Omega – the beginning and the end of all things – every Sunday morning. Christi feels that she is but a sheep. She follows the pastor’s spiritual teachings for guidance in her life and volunteers to go on mission trips, preaching the word of God when she can.
Having arrived at the mission, the youth missionaries begin to unload the bus, Pastor Zapata greets them and says, “Hola, Dios les bendiga hermanos.” And then, in broken, very heavy, deep, double-rr-accented English that almost runs off the tongue as well as his native Spanish language, “We welcome you to the mission of the Torocagua Church of Life in faith. Please, bring your belongings inside church for moment. I want talk to you. Unfortunately, last night, we received note on door of the church from the Barrio 18 gang, ordering us pay ten thousand a week to permit us open our church and allow congregation to gather. Never before been bothered by the Barrio 18.” Another mentirita by the pastor, since he has been paying the monthly extortion for some time now.
But this time, he has not paid the extortion tax because his little daughter needs medical attention to save her life. She has leukemia, cancer of the bone marrow and blood, and needs treatment. This has taken all his disposable income, his savings, the church offering and what was being sent from Texas for the construction of the annex building the last two months so that they could start the radiation procedure. He did not mention this in Texas because he thought he could handle the gang – the pastor’s somewhat naïve extrapolation. The 18th Street gang does not take IOUs; you either pay or you are made an example of, this is the law of the kingdom.
“This is only place congregates feel safe from the gangs. We do not have money pay them and feed the twenty barrio children each day. And just last week, Sister Lourdes fifteen-year-old daughter kidnapped walking home from school, the family believe that one of Barrio 18 gang took her and she is in one of their compounds. The people here in Torocagua hardly make a living anymore. The only authority here is Barrio 18. We have pray to Jesus to help us make right decision and keep us safe, so I would like let you know that, if possible, it would better for you to stay at the hotel during the night instead of sleeping in tents beside the church,” states Pastor Zapata.
Brother Gregory answers, “Pastor Zapata, we will stay here amongst your congregation. God will protect us from the gangs.”
Pastor Zapata replies, “But please, stay in church, hermano.” Brother Gregory, with a grateful look in his eyes, nods his head in acceptance.
As Christi unloads then unpacks her belongings in a corner of the main auditorium of the church, she is approached by John, a short, stocky, black-haired high-school junior with big, brown lazy eyes and a large protruding nose. He always looks to Christi for advice and confides in her with his problems. John is living with his mom – his dad had abandoned them when he was very young. His mom works two jobs to support them, and John has grown up alone, watching TV and eating ready-made food that you can stick in the microwave. On occasions, he visits his grandparents who live in the country. John loves visiting them. He feels so alive when he is with them. His grandparents make him feel like someone cares about him. They are not just acting out of a sense of duty, rather they share caring moments with him that he never forgets. Over the years, this has helped him increase his sense of self-worth. He especially enjoys the outdoors and loves going fishing with his grandad. But his immediate family – when he is not visiting his grandparents, which every year is becoming less frequent as he increases in age – is the church, which is increasingly becoming his social lifeblood, a place where he feels a sense of belonging as the hard realities that come with adolescence begin to set in. He is probably going to end up in some low-income job, like a supermarket or convenience store cashier. He just doesn’t have the drive to do better for himself; he has no direction, no guidance, no social network or family ties that can take him far and beyond his reality, living with his single mom, who, unfortunately, subconsciously blames John for her woes. Instead of grasping the situation and trying to make a better life for her son, she distances herself from him, and John has become nothing but competition for her time and an evoker of memories of her ex-husband since he looks so much like him. When he talks to her, she is there only in a physical sense, emotionally, she has no time for him. She is a sister in the Grapevine Church of Life in Faith and is fully immersed in the activities of the church. With any spare time she has, this is her solace, a place where she can gain a sense of belonging; there is no escape from her situation by economic means. They have lived in the same one-bedroom apartment for ten years. There is no way out, just paying the bills and repeating the seasons, the monotony of living but not experiencing anything new, such as a new country, a different culture or understanding that there are different ideas and interesting things to see in the world.
John asks, “Christi, can I bed down close to you, I really do not like the way this place smells. Did you see the bathroom? There is no toilet cover, and there are only newspapers on the floor, and the shower is very small and right next to the toilet, which is nasty and smells like sewage. I forgot to bring toilet paper, did you bring any?”
Christi answers, “Yes, John, I brought toilet paper. I can give you some of mine, we are here to do the Lord’s work. You need to keep focused on serving the Lord and listen to Brother Gregory’s instructions, and God will guide you through this. You will become spiritually stronger after this mission trip.”
The mission group has a little prayer service with Pastor Zapata and his wife and two little daughters before they turn in to sleep in the church. They begin singing and clapping and praying out loud, praising Jesus Christ, thanking God for giving his only begotten son, who came to this earth to save them and forgive them of their sins. Then, suddenly, Pastor Zapata begins speaking out in another language, in a tone and pitch over the voices of the others in the small group and blurts out gibberish words that make no sense. It sounds kind of like a language that could be ancient in its origins, but it is not; it’s words made up in the subconscious to sound profound and as if a higher being is using the pastor as a conduit to convey something of deep importance to the group, that everyone present in the group spiritually supposed to understand. But only one person can translate the language, and that is Pastor Zapata, but even he cannot do so word for word but rather the implied message he feels he wants to share. However, the wife of Pastor Zapata, Hermana Isabella, believing that God has given her the ability to understand this language, gives the group an interpretation of the gibberish. She says, “Brothers and sisters, we live in difficult times. The Lord says that we must give our souls to him to overcome the trials and tribulations on this earth, and he will show us the path and the light. He will always protect us; the mission by the Grapevine Church of Life in Faith will accomplish great things in the next weeks, and new souls will be saved.”
The youth group looks at each other with joy and a sense of purpose, and brother Gregory says, “Amen and hallelujah! Thank you, Jesus,” and there is a brief silence.
A truck is heard outside the church’s shuttered windows and cinder-block walls. From inside the church, they can hear it in the distance, getting louder as it approaches and stops directly in the front of the church, which stands on a corner. Then there are shots, rapid spurts of rounds going off from AR15s – made in the great US of A. The supersonic shots are so near that they ring the eardrums of the young missionaries. The smell of gunpowder seeps through the wooden windows. After thirty seconds, there is silence again. Then the missionaries hear men talking in Spanish, laughter and footsteps – subhuman, without conscience or soul, just a mission to accomplish, to fulfill an order of the head of the clique. The jefe, the patrón, demonstrating his power over a dominion, the power to kill and scare the subjects into submission and to send a message. The men walk back to the truck and quickly speed off. The youth missionaries have all hit the floor. They had been warned that the small republic was one of the most violent places on earth, but they had assumed that they would not be subject to it. Pastor Zapata says, “Brothers and sisters, please, please get up. Is everybody all right?”
Gregory blurts out, “Handa, faba, danda, manda, fababa, janfa, plaba wafa fafa, thank you, Jesus, for protecting us!” Christi raises her hands to heaven and gives thanks, and the other youth missionaries do the same. But John, with a blank stare, looks around and ducks his head a little and hides in a corner.
Then loud screams are heard from outside the church. Women and children are screaming at the top of their lungs, crying and calling out a name, “¡Pedro, Pedro, Dios, Dios! ¿Dios, por qué, por qué? Pedro, mi hijo, mi pobre hijo, lo necesitamos, lo queremos. ¡Dios ayuda a mi hijo! ¿Por qué Dios, por qué mi hijo? Lo queremos, Pedro.”
After hearing the screams, Pastor Zapata thinks he recognizes the voice as that of Sister Julia. She is a member of the church; her husband was killed last year when he refused to pay the extortion tax that the 18th Street gang was demanding. He had a mechanic garage and body shop that had operated for ten years in the barrio, but the monthly extortion tax took all his profits; five thousand a week of the local currency was more than he could afford and be able to support his family too, so he had refused to pay. He was eventually killed by the gang, shot in the head, as he closed up his shop, by a fourteen-year-old clique member with a brand-new, imported 9mm Glock from the great, gun-liberalized, free-flowing market of the United States of America.
Pastor Zapata runs to the front door of the church and is about to open up to the reality in Torocagua – to death and despair and infinite hell on earth, where the tattooed fiends control the territory – organized and incorporated in the great state of California – where chaos and corruption drive the power of the gangs and their ways, where humanity and the way to make an honest living has long ago all but disappeared. Can the young missionaries dare to open the door and step out into the reality of a barrio, a city, a country, a region that has changed and become overrun by these murderers and their overlords who allow them to exist? Brother Gregory motions for the other members of the group to stay inside, just he and Pastor Zapata will venture out into the realm of the fallen and the hallowed souls who have suffered the fate of something much larger than they can comprehend – a way of life, economic dominance and a hierarchy of power that was dealt to them without their consent; the law of the gun, imported from the land of the free – the saints of democracy.
Sister Julia’s face is covered with blood. She has an intense stare and is moaning incoherent words, her three-year-old daughter is crying next to her. She has Pedro’s head in her lap, his eyes are wide open, searching for heaven. Sister Julia is on her knees in a big puddle of blood and muddy water on the corner of hell and nowhere in Torocagua, Tegenalpa, the republic in Central America, the isthmus of pain, a complete zone of terror that has all but lost any tranquility or joy. Pastor Zapata says, “Hermana Julia, lo siento, Pedro ahora se encuentra con Dios,” and reaches his hand out to take Sister Julia’s and lifts her. At the same time, Brother Gregory lifts the lifeless body of the young boy from her lap and slowly drags it out of the muddy, blood-and-water puddle and lays it on the dirt road. The boy’s eyes are still wide open, searching for the heaven that he was promised by his mother; that day has already come. There is a big hole in his back, caused by the supersonic bullet of the almighty and self-righteous AR15, the product of export from the great land of the north, where only a few from the republic are so lucky to live and prosper and where the cost of freedom to own a high-powered assault rifle is nothing but a statistically low occurrence of mass shootings.
A crowd has gathered, mostly just women and children, all with a stare of terror but nothing they have not seen before. Just another day, another young man taken from his family, another death by the gang. There is no real economic value lost, this unskilled labor input will not be missed, and no one will shed a tear but the poor, desperate mother who loved him so dearly, who had nowhere to turn, who never had much but has lost even that – her only son.
As Pastor Gregory stands over the lifeless body for a few seconds, he has trouble letting go of the boy’s still-warm hand. Looking into the child’s wide-open eyes, he sees, embedded in the dilated pupils, a reflection of the moment of terror, so real and deep that the pastor cannot cope with the anguish. It is like the spirit of the boy is able to communicate one last message, what he felt, the life that he would never have, the joy that he would never know, the inability to feel the warmth of his mother’s hand, to hear the words of love and encouragement from his father, no more and never again to hear the laughter of his little sister. This is it, the last day of his life, gunned down because he was where he should not have been. To live is the past. Maybe the pastor does not understand his total lifelong plight, but he understands the moment and the hopelessness in which he is now a part. The youth pastor says a small prayer to himself and lets go of the hand, not knowing the significance of the moment in time, and the consequence of it all and what the future will bring him.
A police pickup arrives, and five policemen with Israeli-purchased automatic rifles jump out of the bed of the truck, ready to shoot with their IMI Galil up to their shoulders, pointing in all directions. Who is the enemy here? Anybody can be the enemy, but nobody can also be the enemy; it’s just a job, not of any real significance. One of the policemen approaches the youth pastor and starts speaking in Spanish, “¿Qué responsabilidad, gringo, tiene en esta masacre?” Pastor Zapata, interrupting, states that he is a missionary and that they heard the shots and came rushing from the church – at the particular moment that they were praying to Jesus Christ the Almighty, the omnipotent the all-seeing – and only wanted to help and that he is visiting from the United States. The policeman gives the missionary a slight shove in the chest, pushing him back three or four feet, and says, “Gringo, váyase de aquí si no lo llevamos.”
Pastor Zapata grabs Pastor Gregory by the hand and pulls him toward the church. Pastor Gregory reluctantly goes while staring the policeman directly in the eyes, saying under his breath, “God will take care of you.” The policeman turns away and motions for the bystanders to move back from the scene.
The police take out a body bag from the cab of the pickup, no time to wait for the coroner to do a thorough investigation into the cause of death, no time for ballistics or CSI reports; all these individuals are too busy with other murders of somewhat more significant people, socially important people who might spark sufficient external interest to cause a newspaper or TV report. But this boy is just another statistic, another non-person, who has no real significance and does not matter that much in the everyday news cycle of the republic press. He will not rise above being just another murder statistic to be presented in the international media. He is dead, but he is not dead; it is like he never existed. He will not be missed by an uncaring society, since he is an invisible one.
The police turn the boy over, face down, and blood gushes out of the wound on the lifeless body, caused by the tumbling bullet that left the barrel of the AR15 at 3,200 feet per second, hitting Pedro with three hundred and thirty-five foot-pounds of force, whose sole purpose was to kill. In what seems like one more desperate attempt to show to the world that he had existed, Pedro’s blood spurts out, as if trying to reach heaven, defying gravity just for a second in time, in the infinite nothingness of existence, to feel pain no more and to prove that he is not an invisible one or a statistic but a human being, a son, a brother and a unique person in this limitless universe of souls. If he had only had the opportunity, he could have maybe reached his dreams, whatever they may have been, and lived a productive and good life.
The police place Pedro in a body bag and callously throw his corpse into the back of the pickup as if he were a nothing, like a sack of beans or corn, without a care in the world, just another number. No matter this person, he is no one, just an invisible one, not even a lost soul, just an empty carcass to throw away, complete absence of humanity in their actions. They drive away, and the missionaries stand in the entrance of the church, staring in disbelief and horror on their faces.