‘We saw four burning school buses’: KC youth group returns from Mexico after violence following arrest of El Chapo’s son

A routine mission trip to Mexico for a KC-area youth group turned into a harrowing escape after the arrest of Ovidio Guzmán, son of Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán.

The 16-member group from…

A routine mission trip to Mexico for a KC-area youth group turned into a harrowing escape after the arrest of Ovidio Guzmán, son of Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán.

The 16-member group from Countryside Church in Overland Park, Kansas, was scheduled to leave Jan. 5 after serving in a town northeast of Los Mochis in northern Sinaloa.

However, violence followed Guzmán’s arrest as the Sinaloa drug cartel affiliated with El Chapo threatened retaliation. The conflict caused airports to close, canceling the group’s flight to the United States.

“Airplanes from the airport have been shot at, 13 police have been killed and now it is cartel vs. military,” said Chelsi Slater, homeschool mom of three and mother of one of the youth on the trip, in a text message that day. “War is all they hear, cars on fire is all they see, plans have changed with an unknown future.” 

Changing itineraries

Slater’s 17-year-old daughter, Kierstyn, had joined the youth group for her first mission trip, leaving Dec. 29 for Mexico.

“I just wanted to see how God can work in different parts of the world,” Kierstyn said. “We had some idea, but it was a completely different experience actually going.”

The group learned about the cancellation only a few hours before the flight, said Jennie Smith, a homeschool mom of six.

“It was going to be like Wednesday before they could fly out,” said Smith, whose 17-year-old daughter, Katie, had joined the group on her first trip outside the country. “It was quite a shock.”

Over the next 24 hours, organizers worked out their options that involved getting 16 people safely out of the country. One teen had some medical supplies that would run out before Wednesday, Smith said.

Even during the confusion, Kierstyn appreciated the leadership of the organizers in keeping the group united and focused. 

“We saw four burning school buses, and fires in the distance, and cell towers set on fire, and semis to block roads, but the way God provided for us was just insane,” Kierstyn said. “He kept us safe.”

Evidence of the violence as the group traveled (Photo courtesy of Kierstyn Slater)

The group still attended previously scheduled activities that day after multiple scouts ensured the routes were safe.

“It was quite amazing because they still wanted to have us to have a good time, but they also wanted to keep us safe,” Kierstyn said. “We know people there who were stuck in their houses because of these roadblocks, and still we were able to pray for one another and grow closer together and grow closer to God, which was just incredible.”

Coming home

Eventually the group drove from Mexico across the border and into Tucson, Arizona. 

“It was an 11-hour drive, but there was a big back-up at the border,” Smith said, adding the increased traffic was normal for the season between Christmas and New Year’s. 

After spending the night in Tucson, the group caught two more flights before arriving in Kansas City at 12:15 a.m. Monday. 

“There was that moment of, ‘OK, this is a scary situation. It has the potential of having something really bad happen, but at the same time we have that potential here in Kansas City too,’” Smith said. “It’s just a challenge to remember that God had her safe in Kansas City, and God had her safe in Mexico, and whatever happened to her and to the team, that we could just trust God with that.” 

Now the trip is over, Kierstyn said, she’s grown in her faith and friendships with all those who served alongside her. 

“Spending all of this time with 16 individuals, you start to realize how much you care for them,” she said. “It just opened my eyes to a new world. Witnessing it firsthand is completely different than just hearing it.” 

‘An interesting dynamic’

Smith tried hard to keep news of the unrest in perspective, knowing much of it was happening 3 hours south of the group’s location. 

“Stuff that happens in Des Moines or Omaha, I don’t feel personally threatened,” she said. “So that did help to see it was 3 hours away.” 

Smith also cautioned others to read international news stories with discernment, as she believes they don’t always provide enough context for understanding the situation. 

“A lot of this was political stuff, political moves between the government and the cartel, of just trying to manipulate people’s emotions,” she said. 

Two of Smith’s older children had gone on the same mission trip, once in 2018 and again in 2021. 

“It is rife with violence, but also the area they were at was safe because of the drug cartel, which is kind of an interesting dynamic,” she said, explaining how a drug cartel leader lives close to the missionaries. “They don’t want to bring violence there because that’s where they live, and they want their people to be safe.” 

Now safely back home, Katie already wants to return to Mexico sometime. 

“I felt safe the entire time,” she said, adding the roadblocks made her realize how dangerous the situation could become, but she trusted her youth pastor, Phil Johnson, to take care of them. “It really helped me to trust in God more, not relying on what plans were or anything like that.” 

Jennie agrees, saying the experience stretched her faith but also gave her daughter an opportunity to see fellow Christians in another country serve God amid challenging circumstances. 

“It’s just a challenge to remember that God had her safe in Kansas City, and God had her safe in Mexico,” she said. “And whatever happened to her and to the team, we could just trust God with that.”