Rev David Beaumont, a Franciscan priest from Hempstead, N.Y. is the American missionary who brings solace to a drug-torn Mexican region.
When Beaumont arrived here 20 years ago as a young missionary, the roads were unpaved, there was no electricity, and there was little to eat besides beans and tortillas. He'd been sent to serve dirt-poor Pima Indians, some of whom were still living in caves, but they ran and hid whenever he arrived in their villages.
"Sometimes I think it was easier back then," said Beaumont, 50, laughing at that memory as he rumbled along a dirt road in a pickup truck and the tattered brown friar's habit he wears over bluejeans. With his long beard and hair, and 6-foot-3 frame, he is an emissary for peace, humility and love in one of the largest and most dangerous drug-growing areas in the world.
Today, Beaumont speaks four local indigenous languages, and English so seldom that his pronunciation has taken on a Mexican lilt. "David has dedicated his life to this place," said Cesar Lozano, an apprentice friar on a one-year assignment to help Beaumont. "He embraces the people wherever he goes, and he does not judge them. He is completely devoted to Christ."
Beaumont has also lived in the Sierra Madre long enough that he does not mention the cartels by name, nor speak out against growing marijuana and opium poppies. The friar's habit is not a bulletproof vest.
"I know the first person who planted marijuana here," Beaumont said, laughing again. "He still comes to Mass sometimes."
After a particularly vicious killing of a 73-year-old man, the people were terrorized.
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Three weeks later, Beaumont organized a religious procession along the highway. A thousand people came, marching with icons of Saint Francis and the Virgin of Guadalupe. "The message we wanted to send was: We live here, we have the right to live here, and we will continue to live here," Beaumont said. The Pimas returned to their homes.
"He brought a sense of tranquility and faith back to the people," said Isaul Holguin, a town official in Yecora. "They feel he protects them." The military also put a new checkpoint along the highway. The armed men from Chihuahua have not come back.