TIJUANA, Mexico—Just a 10- to 15-minute walk from the U.S. border, women wearing skintight clothing and very high-heeled shoes stand holding phones near the walls of bars and brothels. It’s 11:30 a.m., and a drunken man who appears to be a young American in his mid-twenties looks down from a restaurant patio and loudly calls out to a group of prostitutes standing just below on the sidewalk.
In Zona Norte, Tijuana’s red-light district, sex work is legal within the neighborhood’s three-block radius. However, locals say law enforcement is lax in the area, despite the heavy presence of authorities such as the federal police, ministerial police, tourist police, state police, municipal police, and the Mexican army, who all conduct frequent patrols in Zona Norte.
Some patrols drive the streets in unmarked cars in civilian-style clothing. The presence of the police doesn’t seem to impede the prostitution that brings in steady income to local business owners and their cartel affiliates.
Next to the women being cat-called, a man publicly feels up an Asian woman wearing an outfit and heels that appear consistent with that of the prostitutes. He’s holding cash in his right hand while wearing large black sunglasses.
“The restaurants in Zona Norte are like the old excuse that men read Playboy magazine just for the articles,” missionary Stan Lee, a resident of Tijuana, told The Epoch Times. “People do not go to these restaurants just for the food.”
Further down the sidewalk, a man standing within inches of a prostitute speaking perfect English extends an invitation to his restaurant, a bright yellow building several stories high just across the road.
“I have a beautiful woman there just for you,” the man said. “Come with me and I will take you there, now. There are so many [women].”
Meanwhile, Lee leads the way toward Iglesia Cristiana Bethel, the only church operating within Zona Norte.
Wedged between bars and strip clubs, common fronts for brothels, the 85-year-old church was originally developed as a stand-alone entity before the chaotic development and businesses of the Red-Light District.
“Despite the character of the area, we are not affected in our ministry here. This place is ground zero for broken hearts,” ministry worker Rosario Acuña Hernañdez told The Epoch Times. “And we do not plan on leaving. People offer good money to buy the property and relocate the church very often. I’m sure they would love to make us disappear, but God has protected us all these years.”
To this day, the church continues to operate despite threats that include bomb scares. In the 1990s, drug dealers within Tijuana’s crime syndicates threatened to destroy the church using explosives.
More recently, a group of men had even planned to rob the church, but after mounting the church steps, the men were said to have become overwhelmed with fear and fled the scene.
Just to the side of these steps, bullet holes mark the walls where local gangs shot a man who died in 2021 in front of the church.
“There is an option for a better life with God at this place,” Hernañdez said. “A different life, a life with Jesus that does not need brothels and bars.”
A Light in the Darkness
When Pastor Heriberto Martínez accepted God into his life, he was serving time in a Tijuana prison for a crime he had committed. He had no idea that the church of the people who consistently came to visit him and share about the character of Jesus Christ would eventually be the place he would pastor for 31 years and counting.
“We have had bad experiences here, and we have had good. But God has always watched out for us and kept us safe along the way,” Martínez told The Epoch Times. “It has been by the grace of God moving forward, and He has given me the strength to pastor day by day.”
It was soon after Martínez started attending Iglesia Cristiana Bethel that his interest in God developed deeper into a love and passion for understanding the Christian faith. It would lead him to seminary school in 1964 in Baja Norte, after which he became the pastor of a church in the world’s most violent city.
As the third head pastor over the course of the church’s history, Martínez preaches to Bethel’s church members both in-person and online through its website amid the chaos of Zona Norte.
“I consider a great opportunity God has given us here in Zona Norte. A wonderful blessing to preach the good news,” Martínez told The Epoch Times. “Even through the spiritual and financial challenges we face here in the neighborhood, God has provided for us.”
For decades, Martínez has seen a consistent flow of sex tourists cross over from the United States, saying that customers can find anything they want in the red-light district.
“There is even child prostitution here,” Martínez said. “What you saw today on the outside was bad, but the worst is behind the walls.”
Despite these tragedies, Martínez remains encouraged by the radical changes he has seen within congregants of the church that range from former criminals to drug addicts.
“When they came into this church, they received an upgrade in their life through God,” Martínez said. “The first thing is the gospel in the lives of the people who came into this church. Amongst the prostitutes, drug dealers, and the gunmen who God changed are part of the many miracles we have seen in lives changing around here. These testimonials are so powerful.”
The Next Generation
Translating for Martinez was Obed Quiñonez, a former successful architect who has been attending church at Iglesia Cristiana Bethel since infancy.
“My grandfather went to church here, my father, and now my family and I,” Quiñonez told The Epoch Times. “God has given us such a great opportunity here, and it is so important to us to be persistent in our ministry in Zona Norte.”
After years of a career in architecture, Quiñonez and his wife felt as though they were led by God to care for Tijuana’s orphan community, which has now grown to an estimated 5,000 children.
“My friends and colleagues thought we were crazy to do this,” Quiñonez said. “But you see these kids and you see what they go though, and it’s our calling from the Lord to respond to this.”
Quiñonez and his family run an orphanage with 18 children, and he also runs the Kids Club ministry at Iglesia Cristiana Bethel.
The ministry was started by Martínez three decades ago, and it gathers on Saturday mornings at the church, where children from Zona Norte are served a hot meal, sing worship songs, play games, and have fellowship together.
“These kids here have emotional scars trying to adapt to this environment,” he said. “With all of the drugs and prostitution in Zona Norte—it has an effect on them. But you start seeing positive changes within them soon after they show up here on Saturdays.”
Quiñonez said that after a few attendances, the neighborhood children, whose ages range from 3 to 15 years old, will start showing up clean and wearing nicer clothing without being told to do so.
“Many of these young kids will come cussing and using bad language, but it slowly disappears with their new surroundings at the church, and they start learning values and how they apply to themselves,” he said.
Some of the children attending Kids Club have parents working within the bars and brothels located inches away from the church.
Recently Quiñonez recalled asking a little girl attending Kids Club what she wanted to do when she grew up. In her response, the four-year-old started to slowly dance.
“I want to dance like my mother does,” she told Quiñonez.
Her mother was a dancer at one of the local strip clubs and would eventually take her daughter with her as she moved across town to live with a man who was presumed to be one of her customers.
“Zona Norte is trying to take the lives of these kids,” Quiñonez said. “We are trying to show them that there is a way out.”
Just then, there was a pounding at the door, but it didn’t seem to surprise Quiñonez.
After the metallic creaking of the heavy door opening came the voice of a small child who came to quickly say hello to Quiñonez before running off down the sidewalks of Zona Norte.
“He is nine and lives in the neighborhood with his grandma,” Quiñonez said. “Families here know they can come to us at any time because they know we are in this ministry for the long run.”
Working with the children of Zona Norte and seeing the effect the harsh environment has on kids without adult supervision, Quiñonez has plans to expand the church’s outreach toward neighborhood families.
“Our goal is to create a daycare here in Zona Norte, and we are in the final stages of receiving our government permits and approval,” Quiñonez said. “When parents are working in the bars and clubs, the kids roam the streets, which are full of drugs and crime and no schooling, but that doesn’t have to be. We will be providing a safe environment for them where they can learn and grow in values.”
The current challenge is finding the right location. One opportunity for a building became available, but it was 10 blocks from Zona Norte and too far for working parents.
“The idea is to find something near Zona Norte, but not in it. The location is important due to the practicality of parents dropping their kids off.”
Quiñonez is confident that they’ll find the right location and that God will provide the funding needed for the operation moving forward.
“One location about a block away cost around $150,000. We are partnering with the Genesis Dream Foundation in fundraising for these efforts. God is faithful, is providing, and will provide for our new building.”
In 2020, the U.S. State Department reported that Tijuana is a “critical-threat location” for crime directed at or affecting official U.S. government interests.
Statistics show that Tijuana has the highest per capita murder rate in the world with 2,208 homicides in 2019, down from 2,519 in 2018.
“This church is a light in the darkness here,” Quiñonez said. “We see a lot of bad things, but the opportunity for the gospel is flourishing and will not be stopped.”