Note: Don't know him, but have known couple like him. Read his story.
Alamo native, missionary recalls spread of drug gunmen on Mexican
September 22, 2011 11:33 PM
For more information and to order When The Wolves Came: A Memoir,
visit www.whenthewolvescame.com or call (210) 496-5930.
SAN JUAN — Father Francis Theodore Pfeifer thought something had
caught fire in his truck.
The Oblate missionary was on his way up the Pan American Highway to
Oaxaca, capital of the arid, mountainous state of Oaxaca in southern
Mexico. His Jeep pickup truck was making its way around a curve and
smelled the pungent fumes.
"This stuff fell on me from the roof," the priest said. "Then I
realized I was being shot at."
He grabbed his rosary and prayed. He smelled the gunpowder. But his
truck didn't stop.
Pfeifer, now 79, devoted his life to promoting Catholicism in the
remote mountain Zapotec and Chontal native villages of Oaxaca, one of
Mexico's poorest states. Farmers there raised corn and beans as they
could to feed their families, with little left to spare.
Father Pfeifer, better known as Father Ted, had already been living
in the region for more than two decades. He had seen changes. Many of
the crops had shifted from grain to poppy seeds for heroin.
And on this Sunday — March 8, 1987 — he was under attack.
"I was extremely frightened," Pfeifer said in a recent interview in
He made it to Oaxaca and boarded a flight to Mexico City. There, he
told what happened along that highway to his superiors. That night,
he prayed to an image of Our Lady of Guadalupe inside the iconic
Mexico City basilica.
"I cried and I said to her, 'Mary, my mother, please tell me what to
do. I must know,'" he wrote. "Inside, I was hearing, 'Don't be
afraid. Go back to the pueblos. I am your mother.'"
He went back.
Pfeifer detailed his experiences in a book entitled When The Wolves
Came: A Memoir, in which the priest shares what he saw when drug
cartels took over the villages of southern Oaxaca by the early 1980s.
A documentary of the same name is expected to be released by the end
of the year.
Pfeifer tells the gruesome details of drug traffickers' tightening
grip on the region decades before the drug war in Mexico took much
notice in the United States.
The Alamo native priest left the Rio Grande Valley in 1963 to promote
his faith in the remote mountain villages. He talks of how life
changed after drugs swept across the area three decades ago — and how
they ravaged the communities.
"After the carteles, or as we called them, 'the drug people,' came
in, the distrustful feelings they caused — it changed the whole
atmosphere," Pfeifer said.
The drug traffickers' impact at first was small. Small airplanes
would land near the villages, presumably moving loads farther north.
Families were intimidated and lost their land to the gunmen. The men
of the family typically would not confide in Father Ted, but their
wives would confide in him after the sun set.
"It took me a long time to try to get a handle on it — to find out
what was happening and why it was happening," Pfeifer said.
Unlike marijuana, poppies require a cool climate to grow properly.
The communities' proximity to the major highway that spans North
America made it a major smuggling route. Soon, assault rifles came.
Pfeifer initially hesitated to become involved with the changing
climate. But he chose to stand up and shepherd his flock.
For Pfeifer, helping the community went beyond providing spiritual
guidance. He also became a "doctor of the pueblos," delivering babies
and vaccinating children, for years, often only by candlelight —
electricity did not arrive until the 1970s.
Pfeifer had seen the worsening conditions years before gunmen tried
to take his life.
In the book, he recalls a day in February 1982, where he was leading
five seminarians in high school in his pickup truck along a mountain
Three women atop a load on a lumber truck disembarked and told
Pfeifer of what was happening in their village, Santo Tomas Yautepec:
A family with small children fell victim to gunmen, who threatened to
burn them inside.
Alongside a fellow priest, Pfeifer left the young seminarians under a
tree and went to investigate. He made it to the village and pulled up
to the windowless house where the women told him to go.
A man stepped from the house and yelled at Pfeifer.
"Father! Father! Hurry! Hurry!" the man shouted in Spanish.
Gunshots flew past Pfeifer's head. The man fell inside the house.
Pfeifer found his two teenage sons already shot. Five other children
and their mother screamed for help.
Pfeifer shouted to the gunmen to not shoot as he tried to help. They
didn't. The man died as they rushed in his pickup truck from the
village, but his two sons recovered and later joined the army.
Pfeifer said he lost count of the victims killed by drug violence
after the tally surpassed 150. He said he could have sought refuge
after his assassination attempt, but could not bear the guilt of
finding refuge when those he cared about had no choice but to stay.
Father Ted stayed another seven years, until the church ordered him
to move to Mexico City in 1994. He remains humble looking back on his
decades in Oaxaca.
"I would try to do something better," he said.
Jared Taylor covers courts and general assignments for The Monitor.
He can be reached at (956) 683-4439.