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From guns to prayers for Ciudad Juarez priest

20 may 2011, 14:02
The tattooed arms and legs of evangelist priest father Nunez give a glimpse of his past life as a gangster in Mexico's most deadly city of Ciudad Juarez, including 21 years behind bars, AFP reports.

"There are only two solutions: the Bible, or death," for the city's gangsters, according to 35-year-old Pedro Martin Nunez.

The stout priest said he first entered the jail in the city opposite El Paso, Texas, aged two-years-old: with his mother after she stabbed his father to death.

Nunez stayed there until he was 11.

"I grew up in an empty, damaged place where there were no principles or values. You join a gang, and then you start by selling drugs," Nunez told AFP.

He stole his first drugs from his sleeping mother, he said with a sad smile.

Ciudad Juarez is rocked by feuds between gangs hired by the Juarez and Sinaloa cartels involved in drug smuggling, extortion and kidnapping.

They are fighting for control of the major drug smuggling hub, which channels up to 60 percent of the total cocaine smuggled to the United States, according to the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).

Nunez returned to the city's jail on charges of car theft, aged 16.

"They sent me to a prison where my brothers were born, where my mother lost half her youth ... I came out with tattoos, other bad habits, other drug habits," he said.

Mexico struggles to manage its overcrowded prisons, particularly in Ciudad Juarez. A riot between opposing gangs in the city's municipal prison left 20 inmates dead in 2009.

Nunez returned there several times, after starting to kill for his gang.

But his cycle of violence stopped during a 14-year jail term, when he met evangelist groups visiting the jail and found redemption in religion.

He now works to convince other gangsters and drug addicts to follow his example in a city where more than 3,100 people died in attacks blamed on drug violence last year alone.

Nunez has set up "Former Prisoners Transformed to Transform," a refuge in the center of Ciudad Juarez which houses around one dozen families.

The group also built a church in a dusty neighborhood on the outskirts of the city, with a few plastic chairs and musical instruments inside a large hall.

They have their work cut out for them as they try to extract criminals from gangs, Nunez said.

"You risk a lot. At the first attempt, they'll break your hand. Then it'll be a foot. Then they'll kill you. It's not something to take lightly."

As well as prayers for former criminals, Nunez helps to negotiate jobs for them.

They receive half the salary and the other half is paid to their wives to look after their families -- a necessary measure, according to Nunez.

"Some fathers have spent all their lives stealing money from their spouses or their families," he said. "Ciudad Juarez is in such a mess because most of its problems start inside the home."

The priest still attracts police surveillance with his green tattoos of skulls suggesting gang ties, but he says he can usually turn them away these days.

"I tell them: 'That life is over, Christ is in my heart. You also need Christ in your heart.' The officers usually stop the conversation at that point and we can leave," he said, laughing.

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