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Alexandria mission group caught in drug cartel shootout

A group of men from Church for the Harvest in Alexandria, above, recently went on a mission trip to Mexico. The group included (back row, left to right) Mark Middendorf, David Larson, Justin Godfrey, Toby Weibye, Tony Luween, (front row, left to right) Pastor Mike Bartolomeo, Brad Beyer, Joel Boutain and Jeb VanEps.1 / 3
The group of men from Church for the Harvest helped to remodel a soup kitchen, above, in Matamoros, Mexico.2 / 3
This is a shell casing, picked up off the ground after a shootout broke out in Nuevo Progreso, Mexico. The mission group was caught in the middle of the shootout, which was reportedly between drug cartels and Mexican military police.3 / 3

ALEXANDRIA -- A group of nine men from Church for the Harvest in Alexandria got more than they bargained for during a recent mission trip to Mexico.

They not only helped remodel a soup kitchen, visited with an orphanage and brought supplies to families living in squalor, but the men were also caught in the crossfire between drug cartels and the Mexican military.

They had to run for cover during a shootout in a border town that left at least two people dead.

Because this was a working mission trip, the men did not want the tragic shooting to define what they had accomplished or the good that came out of the experience, but they also said they couldn't ignore what happened or what they lived through.

The group, including Pastor Mike Bartolomeo, Justin Godfrey, Toby Weibye, Jeb VanEps, Tony Loween, Mark Middendorf, David Larson, Joel Boutain and Brad Beyer, returned back to Minnesota on Sunday -- exactly 24 hours after the shootout.

Their mission

Weibye explained that the group, which also included two other men and one female interpreter, were housed at a mission in San Juan, Texas. Staying there, the group had to cross over the border at least twice a day, sometimes more.

Most of the work they did was in Matamoros, Mexico.

Weibye's uncle, Alan Weibye from Detroit Lakes, works with a Christian service organization, Net Menders, which is where the group learned about this mission trip.

He said his uncle has been doing mission work in that area of Mexico for the past 17 years. Typically, groups go in February, but Weibye said the Church for the Harvest group did the trip Nov. 29-Dec. 6.

They helped remodel a soup kitchen that serves about 2,500 meals per month and helped to remodel another building that will be turned into a soup kitchen.

They also visited with children in an orphanage and brought supplies, such as money, food, clothing, water, toys and other items, to families they met.

The nine men scoped out other projects that they could go back and help with at a later date.

They visited two locations where families were living. One was a settlement in La Colonia along a canal where the families could live for free in shacks that didn't have power, sewer or running water.

The other was a settlement at a landfill or what is commonly known as "the dump," said Weibye. This location housed more than 100,000 people.

"We were really in the slum areas," he said. "There was no sewer and the people lived in shacks with dirt floors."

When asked what the reaction was to the donations that the group distributed during their trip, Weibye said, "Without a doubt, the people were willing to accept and were always thankful and very gracious."

Bartolomeo said, "It was heart-wrenching to see such abject poverty."

Middendorf said, "It was amazing to see how happy those kids were. Our hearts really went out to them. But at the same time, the people were happy. They were normal. And the kids were always amazingly clean despite the conditions. The parents were doing their absolute best."

The shootout

With all their mission work completed for this trip, the men decided to visit Nuevo Progreso, Mexico, on Saturday to buy some souvenirs and have lunch. A winter Texan event was taking place in Nuevo Progreso, which is known as a "safe spot" along the border.

Reports indicate that border violence has long plagued the neighboring cities of Reynosa and Matamoros, but that Nuevo Progreso is more Americanized and safer for tourists and snowbirds.

When the Alexandria group arrived in the town, they parked about five blocks from the border between Mexico and the United States.

They began walking toward the main strip where all the shops and restaurants were. They heard what sounded like gunshots, but some thought it could have been fireworks for the winter Texan celebration. They noticed that as the people around town were walking and milling about, they were all looking in the same direction -- the direction of the gunshots.

About a block and a half down from where they started, they became a little more cautious and started moving a little more slowly.

They could see a white pickup truck moving toward them, driving very slowly. Then they realized that what they were seeing were guns being fired out of the truck. The group agreed that it seemed surreal, like they were watching a movie.

"The reason is because it was business as usual. There were no people running or screaming," said Weibye.

As they watched the truck make its way slowly down the street, they realized that more shots were being fired, but that those shots were coming from the north and that it was the military or border police firing back at the truck.

One of the shots hit the driver of the truck and the truck then veered off the road and into a pole, stopping dead in its tracks.

Weibye said at that point, they all took cover.

"We just dove into wherever we could find that looked safe," he said, adding that seven of them went into one shop, one went into another and the last four went a different direction.

After the truck hit the pole, there was a slight pause or cease in shots being fired, the group explained. But then, after they had all taken cover, within a matter of seconds, there was a barrage of shots fired over and over again.

In the video taken by Godfrey, the sound of the gunshots could be heard loud and clear.

Bartolomeo said he was proud of the men he was with and that they did what they needed to do.

"They prayed, they comforted those around them, they did what they could to protect everyone," he said. "It felt like we did the right thing."

All together, the men guessed they were "pinned down" in the shops for about 45 minutes. Throughout this time, they were in contact with each other via cell phones.

The men have an opportunity to go back on another mission trip to Mexico in February.

When asked if they all would go back, most immediately answered yes.

"We won't let the spirit of fear stop us," Bartolomeo said. "We will go back."