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Wednesday, July 5, 1995 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Drug Trade Corrupting Mexico's Once-Sturdy Mennonites

Dallas Morning News

CUAUHTEMOC, Mexico - When God-fearing Mennonite farmers saw strange crops growing in Isaak Enns' cornfields, they sought answers from the local authorities. The response sent them running for their Bibles.

Enns was growing marijuana.

For Mexico's Mennonites, a German-speaking Protestant sect that migrated to Mexico from Canada 73 years ago, the discovery two years ago on the Enns farm was the most jarring evidence yet of the extent to which the temptations and greed of the modern world had invaded their close-knit community.

Concerns about automobiles replacing horses and buggies and the proliferation of radios and television sets have faded, replaced by alarm at the corrosive effect that the drug trade has had on a people known for their pacifist, spiritual views and simple, traditional lifestyle.

Since 1989, U.S. and Canadian customs officials say, more than 30 drug seizures have involved Mennonites. Officials say the seizures represent part of a sophisticated organization run by Canadian-Mexican Mennonites that smuggles millions of dollars of drugs inside cheese, furniture and the tires of tractor-trailers bound for Canada.

Canadian drug-enforcement agents say the Mennonite drug ring accounts for about 20 percent of the drugs smuggled into Canada.

"Unfortunately, the lust for ill-gotten drugs crosses all barriers and borders, whether it's ethnic or religious," said Joseph Weber, deputy special agent with the U.S. Customs Service in El Paso, Texas. "The Mennonites are proving that."

Hard times add to temptation

Leaders of the Mennonite smuggling ring have formed links with Mexican drug kingpins, U.S. and Mexican authorities say.

But officials - and leaders of the Mennonite community in Cuauhtemoc, a city of 50,000 about 220 miles south of El Paso - say they don't know who first came up with the idea of using Mennonites to smuggle drugs: Mennonites motivated by greed or drug smugglers who noticed the ease with which Mexican Mennonite traders made frequent border crossings into the United States and Canada.

And now, amid the worst economic crisis in a decade and a severe drought, the temptation of quick profits threatens to entice more Mennonites, considered some of the best farmers and cheesemakers in the world, to become drug smugglers.

"I have been approached by friends who urge me that on my next trip to the border I hide an amount of marijuana inside the cheese," said Jacobo, a young cheesemaker who asked that his last name not be used. "Initially, my immediate answer was no. Now, there is no rain, everything is so expensive, and I'm having a hard time selling cheese to anyone. It's hard to turn down an easy $1,000."

The first sign of trouble occurred on Thanksgiving Day in 1989. According to court records and U.S. Customs agents, Cornelius Banman was heading to Canada through El Paso with what appeared to be a truckload of traditional Mennonite-made furniture.

U.S. Customs officials were ready to wave Banman through, but a drug-sniffing dog began to bark loudly and paw the ground near Banman's truck. When surprised agents ripped open the furniture, they found 238 pounds of marijuana destined for Canada inside.

Banman was convicted of drug smuggling and is expected to be released from federal prison next year. He declined to be interviewed.

The most recent arrest, and the biggest seizure so far, was made in April when 31-year-old Jacobo Froesse-Friessen was arrested and charged with attempting to smuggle 761 pounds of marijuana across the border. He sits in El Paso County Jail awaiting trial. Through his attorney, Froesse-Friessen declined to be interviewed.

Mennonites chafe at suspicion

Because of heightened inspections of Mennonite vehicles at the border, U.S. Customs officials believe the ring may be hiring less identifiable smugglers.

And while smuggling cases involving Mennonites have dropped this year, Mennonites in Cuauhtemoc say they hope such a shift in strategy will mean an end to what they call the harassment they now receive at the border.

"Before, we would simply be waved in, no questions asked," said Pedro Neufeld, 30, who crosses into El Paso on routine business. "Now, because we're Mennonites, we're all suspects."

Only a few Mennonites are involved in the drug trade, authorities said. Most Mennonites in Cuauhtemoc continue to follow a way of life that for decades has remained mostly unchanged.

They left Canada for Mexico

The Mennonites are members of a Protestant denomination that originated in Europe in the 16th century. They emphasize a simple style of life and worship, and they believe that the Bible forbids them from going to war or holding offices that require the use of force.

The Mennonites arrived in Mexico in March 1922 after the Canadian government threatened to draft them and incorporate them into the country's educational system.

About 5,000 Mennonites, encouraged by the land reform enacted after the Mexican Revolution, settled in northern Mexico.

Today, Mennonites in Mexico number between 60,000 to 100,000.

Their homes are simple and plain. The men dress in overalls and straw hats, and the women cover their heads with scarfs and wear dark, calf-length dresses. Most shun television and radio. They appear to be a people frozen in time.

But time is catching up fast. The home of 62-year-old Catarina Friesen reflects the change occurring in many Mennonite households. The traditional cold room has been replaced by a refrigerator. A stove and toaster have replaced the wood-burning oven. A Grand Marquis replaced her horse-drawn buggy.

And popular ranchero singer Vicente Fernandez mostly has replaced the religious music coming out of Friesen's boombox.

"The world has really changed," she admitted. "There is no place to hide anymore from anyone or anything, especially from drugs."

Indeed, in some Mennonite schools, students now listen to tragic stories of drug and alcohol abuse, recited by recovering Mennonite addicts, said teacher Helen Ens.

"In the 40 years that I have been here, I would say the best thing that has happened for Mennonites is an increased understanding between them and the Mexicans," she said.

"The worst thing I've seen is the introduction of alcohol and drugs. I can't say that the two go hand in hand, but drugs are affecting everyone and threaten much of what we have known and the good we still try to maintain."

Trust in the power of prayer

Local police now suspect that some families are growing marijuana in their basements and have started recruiting pushers within the Mennonite community.

On a recent afternoon, two young Mennonites discreetly drove up to one particular house that is under the watchful eye of the local police, handed over some cash to a woman dressed in traditional Mennonite garb and then sped away.

As in the past, the Mennonites have responded to the present crisis by trusting in the power of prayer.

Two years ago, after the discovery of marijuana plants growing in Isaak Enns' cornfields, Mennonite families gathered at the farm as Mexican military helicopters sprayed herbicides over the area.

A minister read passages from the Bible while the Mennonites bowed and prayed silently that this would bring an end to the drug plague.

"We thought that would be the end of the marijuana," said farmer Abraham Ens, 24, who participated in the prayer session.

It wasn't. And today, Enns, who has replaced his horse and buggy with a moped, gazed over the same cornfields and searched for something positive to say.

"Yes, what happened here is tragic," he said. "But at least people now know that we're not perfect people. We're only human."

Copyright (c) 1995 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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