“My hobby was fighting with police officers. I used to get drunk and look for the slightest pretense for a brawl with the cops. I wanted to become a hitman for the local drug cartel—the quickest way to make money and settle my accounts.”
With his friendly brown eyes and pleasant smile, Pablo doesn’t look like a violent man. The now gray and stocky pastor and church planter has undoubtedly come a long way since he became a believer. His story is one of highs and lows, and miraculous interventions by the Lord.
“I grew up in a low-income family in Sinaloa and wanted to become a teacher,” he says. “There was no money for me to pursue a study and career.”
Pablo applied for a free boarding school for rural teachers and, to his surprise, was accepted.
“Looking back, I realize that God opened the doors for me to become a teacher, to prepare me for the ministry He later called me to,” he says.
Pastor Pablo is a former cartel member who is now reaching communities in the Sinaloa Mountain Range.
Back in those days, Pablo had nothing to do with Christianity. On the contrary, he points out:
“As a student, I joined a communist guerilla group. We were against the ruling political system. Our goal was the revolution—to destroy everything that represented that system and establish a pure communist regime. We believed that would serve the common good. The writings of Karl Marx were my Bible. Marxism says that religion is the opium of the people, so I used to read the Bible and confront believers, telling them how wrong they were.”
Sorrow and Struggle
The gnawing poverty and social disruption in Sinaloa were fertile soil for militant factions like Pablo’s. Located in northwestern Mexico, the state is famous for the canyons and forests of the Sierra Madre Occidental mountain range.
Behind the natural beauty of the area lies a world of sorrow and struggle.
“Sinaloa is a hot and humid place, where small communities are scattered across the valleys,” Pablo describes. “The roads are not paved, and there is no public transport. There’s also a lack of schools, so most children don’t have access to education. Many of them start working in the fields at the age of 12.”
And that’s where the trouble starts.
“Families encourage their children to work for the drug cartel, which has a massive presence in Sinaloa,” Pablo says.
It’s common to associate the cartel with only drugs and violence, but for many in Mexico, the cartel is a bittersweet institution. The cartel is a source of income and security for many rural communities. Daily payment for cartel workers is more than a week’s income for typical fieldwork. The cartel also maintains peace in communities where there is no police presence.
But the bitter side is that the cartel recruits new members from these communities, starting with kids. Children are becoming addicted to drugs as young as 9 and 10 years old. They are hired as hawks, then later they are trained as hitmen.
Just five years ago, Mexican authorities captured El Chapo, one of the world’s most powerful drug traffickers and kingpin of the Sinaloa Cartel. But even with the leader’s imprisonment, the cartel still has a powerful presence in the area.
As a young man, Pablo became entangled in drug-related violence himself. He was working as a teacher but didn’t make enough to survive. His brother invited him to join the cartel in Los Angeles, and Pablo accepted without a thought. Joining the cartel meant making more cash.
“Part of my job was to go after debtors; I beat them until they paid me,” he says. “Many wanted me dead. I loved the adrenaline of having the Drug Enforcement Administration on my heels.”
Pablo’s brother died in a tragic shooting accident which unleashed a chain of killings. The situation became too hot for Pablo in Los Angeles, and he decided to return to Mexico and regain his position as a teacher. An old acquaintance offered him a job at a school in El Fuerte, a small town in the mountains and he worked there for six years.
El Fuerte in the Sinaloa Mountain Range. Pastors avoid these areas, and no other ministries serve here.
When his contract ended, he was back in his hometown of Ruiz Cortines with no money. He had married Elisa, and they had a daughter together. Debts became a burden for Pablo once more, and he considered becoming a hitman for the Sinaloa Cartel to earn quick money. He searched the town for his cartel contact but couldn’t find him. The Lord put someone else in his path that day—a friend from Los Angeles.
It had been years since the two had seen each other, and Pablo was shocked to see his friend in Ruiz Cortines. The two went to lunch and Pablo shared his plan of rejoining the cartel. The response was surprising. “With wide eyes, my friend replied, ‘Don’t do that! God loves you!’” Pablo recalls. “Laughing at his startled face, I said to him, ‘What’s wrong with you man, are you high or what?’ But all he said was, ‘I am now a pastor in a Baptist Church, and I know God loves you.’”
The next day, Pablo’s friend bought him a Study Bible, and the two started reading the Word together. Soon, Pablo accepted his friend’s invitation to come to church.
“When I entered the church hall, the congregants were praising the Lord, and when I joined them, suddenly, I started to cry,” tells Pablo. “It was a loud cry, about 10 minutes long. And when I stopped crying, I opened my eyes, and I thought, ‘If someone is laughing, I’m going to ring him.’ But no. Everyone was minding their own business, and I had a great peace,” he says.
“That was an encounter with God which changed everything.”
At that time, Pablo’s young daughter had a heart condition that required surgery. The next Sunday, Pablo and Elisa took her to church hoping for a miracle.
“I asked the pastor to pray for my daughter,” Pablo continues. “The following Friday, we went to the cardiologist, and her heart looked perfect; surgery was no longer necessary. All of us, including the cardiologist, were amazed. From that day on, my wife and I committed fully to the church.”
Reaching Remote Communities
Within a few weeks, Pablo’s goal in life had drastically changed. He developed a burning passion to lead people to the Lord. No longer intending to become rich, his only desire had become to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ in the mountain villages and towns of Sinaloa, reaching the most remote communities where no evangelist had yet come. He knew better than anyone how much Sinaloa needed the love of Christ.
Pablo is reaching people from all walks of life, but he focuses on children. Often, boys as young as 10 or 12 are recruited as hawks for the cartel.
“Many pastors in Sinaloa say it’s crazy to establish a church in the mountain range. They say it’s not good business. Not if you want to benefit from the Gospel,” Pablo says with a wry smile. “Here you come to give, not to take. We come to love the world as God has loved it, without any conditions, to give ourselves entirely to God’s work without expecting material rewards for service.”
Tools and Guidance
Pablo connected with an organization that partners with Bible League International. He began using Bible League materials in his community and eventually enrolled in Church Planter Training. “The program provided me with the tools and guidance I needed for the work,” Pablo says. “My vision was to establish a church in every neighborhood of Ruiz Cortines. Soon, I opened the first, and many followed.”
Everyone was welcome at his church. “Every time we opened a new church, the nearby bar would run out of customers and had to close. We accepted everyone and didn’t discriminate against anyone.”
Pablo’s churches are open to everyone. He knows firsthand that God is powerful enough to change anyone’s life.
Pablo shared the Gospel with the same policemen with whom he fought. Even some cartel members acknowledged that they needed God, and they allowed Pablo to work freely in the communities of Sinaloa’s mountain range.
“Not only do they let me take God’s Word to their territory,” Pablo adds, “they even warn me when there are problems in the communities. The circumstances they live in have led them to seek refuge in God.”
The mother of the capo— the cartel boss in charge of the area—has opened her home for Pablo to host Project Philip Bible studies. Pablo can relate to the cartel members on a personal level, from a place of experience. “I talk to them about the uncertainty of not knowing who wants to kill you or if you will still be alive tomorrow. Then, I tell them about the peace that only God can give,” he says.
“Alcoholics and drug addicts have come to Christ through the materials Bible League provides us.”
In his vision to see Sinaloa’s mountain range transformed by Jesus Christ, Pablo’s original job as a teacher proves to be an invaluable asset. One of his primary goals is to prevent children from becoming trapped in the cartel’s web.
“Even though I am retired now, I continue to practice my profession,” he explains. “I want to give the children the necessary tools so that they can continue their studies. I want to sow in them the hope of a better life, both earthly and eternally. Thank God the children are open to this positive influence. When they grow up, they will not see the cartel as the solution to all problems anymore.”
Children in this area often quit school at an early age to work in the fields or join the cartel to support their families. Pablo uses his training as a teacher to educate the kids and share the story of the Gospel.
Pablo uses his pension to maintain the community’s soup kitchen, feeding the children Monday through Friday. It’s an essential part of his ministry: showing the love of Christ in every aspect of life. He has implemented that strategy in all the churches he planted in Sinaloa’s various towns and villages.
“Currently, I have Project Philip Bible study groups in six villages,” Pablo shares. The travel to his groups is not always easy. It takes $30 of gas per day just to get there, and Pablo doesn’t always have the money. So some days, he walks five to six miles in stifling heat to be there for his students.
Sinaloa’s always-present shortages and challenges sometimes discourage Pablo, but his strength is renewed remembering where he came from and where he is now.
“God always took care of me,” he testifies. “He prepared me for the ministry, even before I had encountered Him. My old acquaintances—atheists, communists—sometimes confront me with my past. I tell them, ‘That’s who I was; I am no longer like that. Christ transformed my life, and He can transform yours, too!’”
Then, with a smile, Pablo says, “You know, I still think religion is the opium of the people. What really matters is a relationship with God!”
Through your support, God is using Pablo to reach people in an area with no outside support. No other pastors come here. No one but Pablo.
Communist rebel, cartel member, teacher, preacher, church planter—Pablo’s career has indeed been remarkable. Yet, he doesn’t want to sit back and relax now; the love of Christ urges him to continue. And with all the Kingdom work still to be done in Sinaloa, he highly values his partnership with Bible League International.
“We are deeply grateful to the donors of Bible League,” Pablo stresses. “Your work is so important to us; your love encourages us. I carry you in my heart. Thank you so much for the great work you do. All we have achieved is thanks to the materials and training you provide us. Will you please continue to pray for the people in Sinaloa so they can all come to know the Lord?”