When about 60 heavily armed Mexican police dressed like Robocop recently surrounded the gates of the Nueva Jerusalén community, residents played music, sang and danced.
"We are at peace. If something happens, it will be God's will," said one woman with her head covered and dressed in what appeared to be a kind of nun's habit that covered her entire body. On this particular day, three violins, two guitars and a cello were played while young girls danced in a circle to a monochord tune. Outside the fierce-looking officers waited with assault rifles.
On August 27, the Mexican government sent in the police force to this religious community in Michoacán state to persuade its leaders to stop violating Mexico's Constitution.
According to the third amendment, all "elementary, secondary and normal education in Mexico" must be secular and "not connected to any religious doctrine." But the religious community has its own laws, which state that its only chief of state is Holy Virgin Mary of the Rosary, not the government nor the federal police.
"They are Christians living in a time war" says an anthropologist
According to followers, the Virgin Mary last July ordered them to destroy the only public school in the community. Squads of men demolished the building with pickaxes and hammers while a choir of women sang praises to the Lord. They burned textbooks and even the Mexican flag.
Classes began on August 20 throughout Mexico but not in Nuevo Jerusalén. Parents who wanted their children to receive a normal state education, like in the rest of country, tried to initiate classes at a private home, but the sect's supporters, who are the majority, blocked the entrance of the building to prevent the public school teachers from entering.
Two weeks later the entire country is still asking itself how a rural commune hidden in the mountains can believe that the Virgin of the Rosary overrules the laws of Mexico. But Nueva Jerusalén lives in a different time. Even its clocks are not turned forward for the spring as in the rest country "This is the hour that our Holy Father has set," says one follower.
"They are Christians living in a time warp under the Catholic Doctrine before the Vatican II Council," explains Elío Masferrer, president of the National Anthropology School of Mexico. Masferrer said that they are "not a group of crazies" but instead "a phenomenon" spawned by their own conservative traditions and a refusal to modernize.
The community was founded in 1973 after a poor woman from rural Mexico, Gabina Romero, claimed to have seen an apparition of the Virgin Mary, who told her that the world was going to end soon and instructed her to build a town in her name. Romero spoke to the local priest, Father Nabor Cárdenas, who was irritated by the recent orders coming out of the Vatican II Council, which, among other things, did away with many ancient liturgical rituals, including the use of Latin during Mass.
They began gathering followers throughout Michoacán and other states such as Guerrero, Oaxaca and Chiapas, mostly poor and uneducated people. "We were duped," says Priscilla Domínguez, who now regrets having moved to Nuevo Jerusalén. "They told my husband the end of the world was near but that a crack would open there and we would all be saved."
The priest anointed himself as the town's spiritual guide and took on the name of Papá Nabor , the number two in command of the community. Romero, in the guise of Mamá Salomé , became the leader. When Nabor Cárdenas began ordaining priests, he was immediately excommunicated from the Catholic Church.
Now with three apocalypse predictions failing to take place - the world was supposed to end in 1980, then in 1988 and 1999 - and with both Romero and Cárdenas dead, a new leader has emerged: a man who calls himself Martín de Tours, after the French saint. De Tours does not give interviews and is rarely seen outside the compound.
About 3,000 people live in Nueva Jerusalén but they are divided into two camps: about 2,000 traditionalists support De Tours while the rest of the 1,000 moderates reject him. They are also politically divided with the De Tours supporters following the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) and the moderates leaning toward the leftist Revolutionary Democratic Party (PRD).
Nueva Jerusalén is like no other place. At its entrance is the large El Torreón tower; no one knows exactly why it was built. The structure is empty and its stairwell runs all the way to the top. The windows have no glass is them. But El Torreón isn't the only strange thing at Nueva Jerusalén. A large man with white hair from the United States approaches. He doesn't speak much, only voicing vulgarities in Spanish and goes by 17 different names. His body shakes and his eyes dance; he appears to be sick.
The community's residents repeat three or four times a day different phrases to explain that Nueva Jerusalén is a peaceful place. Part of the sect's doctrine states that its purpose is "to save humanity for all eternity" but there have been some darker sides. One so-called medium, Agapito Gómez, was accused of raping and impregnating an 11-year-old girl. He was arrested in 1998 but acquitted and released some months later. There have also been three murders linked to power struggles inside the community.
Critics say that the traditionalists "are not crazy" and are "prepared for anything." There is an old photograph that has been circulating showing some of the residents holding guns. Salvador Barrera, the PRD mayor of Turicato, where Nueva Jerusalén is located, says that for years there was a secret airstrip inside the compound that was used by drug runners. He doesn't rule out the possibility that the sect is armed.
The sect's leadership recently said that they would "defend with their lives" their right to give their children a religious education. "They don't want smart children because they fear they will grow up not obeying them," says one teenager who belongs to the moderates.