CUAUHTEMOC, Mexico — Every evening, Mennonite families in the plains of northern Mexico gather around their radios in their stark adobe farmhouses and tune into Blanca Peters' community newscast.
The broadcast, in Low German sprinkled with Spanish, usually gives a thorough update of Mennonite life in the area, detailing everything from how tall the corn has grown to who has fallen sick and who has given birth.
But one weekend this fall, Peters left out one notable item: a police raid on two Mennonite homes that netted crack cocaine and a 9mm pistol, shaking the foundations of this conservative community as it faces an increasing culture of drug-dealing and addiction. Six Mennonites were arrested in the raid.
"Based on their own community's comments, we're sure there are a lot more crack houses than just those two," says Cuauhtemoc's police chief, Enrique Villagran. "Their leaders are very worried about this, given their traditions, customs and highly religious, moral lifestyle."
About 9,000 Mennonites moved from Canada to the desolate plains of Chihuahua state in 1922 to preserve a way of life rooted in working the land and cherishing family, God and tradition. Mexico was the last stop on a long journey to uphold their beliefs to not fight in wars, which took them from Germany to Russia to Canada.
In Mexico they kept to themselves for decades, living on remote "camps" with names like Manitoba Colony and valuing a simple life, much like the Amish. Few speak Spanish. Many resemble the overall-clad man and primly dressed woman of the "American Gothic" painting.
Only two decades ago they lived without electricity or cars, but now Mexico's 50,000 Mennonites are battling to keep the vices of modern society at bay as stores, pickup trucks and John Deere tractors have seeped into their once-remote camps.
In the last decade, U.S. and Mexican authorities have arrested dozens of Mennonites for drug-dealing and smuggling.
Drug dealers are recruiting members from within the Mennonite churches in northern Mexico, according to the August issue of the Mennonite Brethren Herald, a local news bulletin.
"More than 100 Mennonites are in prison for drug-dealing, and that is only the tip of the iceberg," Jacob Funk, a Mennonite minister from Canada who visited the area last March, told the newspaper.
"The most common problems are drugs, alcohol and marital infidelity," Funk said. "There's a real hunger for a message of hope."
A year ago, Mexican police for the first time started patrolling 56 Mennonite camps at the request of community leaders worried about crime, and plans are underway to open a drug rehabilitation center for the camps.
Local police believe a group of young Mennonites has hooked up with drug traffickers who have long operated in northern Mexico and formed a "Mennonite mafia" not only to sell drugs in their community, but to smuggle them across the U.S. border.
U.S. Customs agents last year arrested three people with Germanic last names from Cuauhtemoc. Each one was caught smuggling more than 100 pounds of marijuana into Texas. All three are believed to be Mennonites, although Customs does not ask the religion of those they arrest.
Manuel Caracosa Alvarado, who runs a drug rehabilitation center in Cuauhtemoc, says he treats an average of 100 Mennonites a year, many for addictions to hard drugs like powder cocaine, crack cocaine and heroin.
Francisco Friessen checked himself into the center after he flipped over his tractor while drunk, trapping himself beneath it.
"I know a lot of people in my camp who should be getting help for their alcohol or drug addictions," says the shy man, wearing a shiny maroon silk shirt and purple jeans.
It used to be that by the time Mennonite boys could hold a pitchfork, they would work alongside their fathers from dawn to dusk on prosperous farms, tending corn crops that stretched to the starched blue horizon and churning out the Chihuahua cheese they developed, which is now a big part of the state's economy.
But a 10-year drought has left barely enough work for even the fathers. Many youths who do not have more than a middle-school education and speak only the Mennonites' dialect of Low German pass the time lying in the sun-drenched fields smoking cigarettes or sneaking off to discos in nearby Cuauhtemoc. Dancing is still frowned upon by conservatives.
Other have left their protected communities in search of work in nearby cities or in the United States and Canada, leaving them exposed to the influences that caused their grandparents to flee to Mexico.
"Some have lost the faith," says minister Cornelio Peters, a father of seven. "We need more land so the young can work alongside their parents and not be running around loose."