Full of excitement to serve God as a missionary, Diego Galvan woke up on his first morning in Tijuana to a freshly decapitated head of a woman left in the street.
The grisly murder was a foreboding sign of what was to come for the fearless missionary who tried to avoid angering the wrong people but found himself entangled in a nation and city overrun with rampant corruption and cartels.
“If I die, I’d rather die doing the will of God than live as a coward seeking money and pleasure,” determined Diego, who was born in Uruguay but raised in America just across the border in San Diego and had never known the dark and dangerous world of drug cartels.
Diego Galvan’s father got his family out of Uruguay through some first-class shenanigans. Being a bodyguard for U.S. diplomats, he divorced Diego’s mother, married a lady diplomat, moved to the United States, got U.S. citizenship, divorced the diplomat, returned to Uruguay and brought his family to America.
Diego grew up in the world of guns. His father got into gunfights with terrorists of the likes of Che Guevara.
Diego was saved at a young age and stayed faithful in the church. As he grew up, he got married, got a great job at the Acura-Jaguar dealership and bought a house in San Diego. He had pioneered a church and was currently serving as assistant pastor in the border city when God interrupted his fairytale life with a call to leave luxury and throw himself into the godless land of Tijuana. He would do his best to stay out of harm’s way.
“What you do with the cartel is you ignore it,” Diego says on a Virginia Beach Potter’s House podcast. “They were there before you and they’ll be there after you. You don’t be nosy. You’re just there for souls.”
Diego took over a church in Tijuana established by his brother, who moved on to another ministry. In the yard of his first house, a man was killed by revenge-seekers from the cartels. So he decided to move.
At his second house, a man who had been committing adultery with a drug trafficker was killed on Diego’s doorstep. He moved again.
Unwittingly, he fell out of the frying pan and into the fire. His next-door neighbor was a drug lord. What happens when the drug lord faces off with the Lord God?
The drug lord’s henchmen were annoying, parking in front of Diego’s driveway. When he got home from church, he couldn’t park in his driveway. He asked them to move their cars; they ignored him. They were drinking and partying.
Realizing he was never going to get away from the cartel, Diego decided to send his wife with food to evangelize the dealer’s wife. “My wife can cook some good food,” Diego explains.
“You try to avoid the cartel,” he adds. “But the problem is that as you preach, you begin to mingle in their world.”
It wasn’t the first time he directly evangelized them. Out on the streets passing out handbills for the church, he would run up to their SUVs with darkened windows and pass out flyers to occupants of the cars that only the drug traffickers drove. As a general rule, the cartel members received flyers and were respectful.
One even opened his heart: “God could never forgive me.”
“That’s a lie,” Diego countered.
“I’m in so deep,” the man mused.
But it was his interaction with the drug lord next door that pulled him into a full-blown war with the cartel. The wife got saved, and the drug lord didn’t like it. She showed up to church with black eyes and had clearly been beaten.
For some days, Diego remained quiet about the physical abuse he was witnessing. But eventually, his outrage got the better of him, and he went over to talk to the drug lord. He knocked. Mr. trafficker opened the door.
“Hi, I’m your neighbor. I’m the pastor,” he started. “I see what you’re doing to your wife. Men who beat their wives are cowards. One day you’re going to stand before the living God, and you’re going to give an account for all the mess you’re doing.”
The drug lord didn’t respond a word.
This man is dead, he thought (he admitted later).
The drug lord’s four-year-old daughter scampered out. Diego saw her. “This is your daughter, right? Do you want men to treat your daughter the way you are treating your wife?
“Listen, I have the real deal,” he continued. “It’s Christ. If you call upon him, he will save your soul. But you must get right.”
Still the drug lord said nothing. So Diego went home.
A few days later, the drug lord’s wife came over panicked. Diego had been out of town preaching for another church. The wife implored Diego to come over; her husband had been locked up in his room and hadn’t spoken to anyone. He was out of his normal mind.
Diego decided to go and visit. Diego’s wife tried to dissuade him. “It’s a trap,” she cautioned. “He’s going to kill you.”
“You wanted to see me?” he asked. “Here I am.”
The drug lord’s eyes said it all.
“When I saw his eyes, I knew something had happened for the positive,” Diego tells.
“You know what you told me a few days ago?” the drug lord told him. “That’s real, dude.”
He no longer consumed or wanted to consume drugs. He was going through withdrawals. Diego led him in a sinner’s prayer. It was Friday night. On Saturday morning the former drug lord who had met the Earth’s Lord participated in outreach. He was handing out handbills and testifying to people about the wonders of Christ.
He was filled with wonder and joy and thrilled with the reality of Jesus.
On Sunday morning, Pastor Diego preached about repentance. Unbeknownst to Diego, the ex-drug lord just happened to be carrying 2 kilos of pure cocaine left over from his just-ended trafficking career. In a flourish of enthusiasm, the ex-drug lord flushed them down the toilet after the sermon.
Had Diego known, he probably would have counseled his new convert to give the drugs back to the cartel – and to negotiate an exit from the cartel.
You don’t run off with the cartel’s drugs. You either give them the money or the drugs.
Sure enough, the higher ups showed up. Where’s the money?
I don’t have it. I threw it down the toilet.
Curse words. Threats.
The new convert’s days were numbered.
Sure enough, the hitmen showed up.
It was Sunday after church. Pastor Diego was napping and woke up to the blood-curdling screams of the new convert’s wife. From his second story room, he looked over the wall and saw the screaming wife.
“Help us,” she pleaded. “They’re going to kill us all.” They had four kids.
Diego sprang into action. Once again, his wife warned him not to get involved. “You’ll die,” she said.
“Then I’ll die,” he responded and went out the door.
When he entered his new convert’s house, he distracted the gang of hitmen, so that the new convert grabbed a kitchen knife and stabbed one through the heart.
It was the capo’s brother. The capo was a woman.
The hitmen didn’t think. They panicked and packed up the brother and rushed him to the hospital.
Pastor Diego called the Mexican police. Eighteen SWAT-like cops showed up with masks and “AK-47s and AR-15s. Diego explained to them the situation.
Sure enough, the cartel showed up in their bulletproof Suburbans with darkened windows. When the cops saw the high-ranking cartel members, they panicked. At the same time, the cartel paused their assault, wary of a full-blown confrontation with the elite cops.
“We’re not messing with those guys,” the cop in charge told Diego.
“If you’re not man enough to fight, I am,” retorted Diego, who grabbed the cops AR-15.
“You’re crazy, preacher,” the cop responded and grabbed his gun back, hurling curse words at him on top.
The cops cleared out. As a standoff mounted, four of Diego’s disciples showed up to see how they could help.
His daughter, Rebekah, then 7, went and got a BB gun and cried to dad: “I don’t want to die.”
Faith was surging in his heart – and maybe a touch of insanity in his mind. Diego began to look for a rock on the ground. “God if you saved David against Goliath with a rock, you can save me,” he prayed.
With the cops cleared out, the cartel’s suburbans pulled in. Men with assault rifles jumped out.
“That’s my pastor!” one of the disciples shouted at them. “If you hurt my pastor, I’ll kill you.” He stuffed his hand in his pocket and pretended he was ready to pull a gun. All he had in his pocket was a cell phone.
“I’m a pastor,” Diego shouted. “We’ve done nothing. I have a wife and kids. Don’t kill us.”
The men with the guns stared blankly. The capo got out. “She was going nuts,” Diego remembers.
“You killed my brother!” she screamed, spiking her rage with epithets.
“This man has done nothing,” Diego referred to the ex-cartel member who was attending his church. “He’s going to my church.”
The woman cabo cursed and, unexpectedly, ordered her men to load up and clear out.
Pastor Diego loaded everybody into his van and drove off, lest they should re-think and return for blood.
They did re-think. Diego, his family and church members got pulled over by cops, in kahoots with the cartel. The cop interrogating him, pointing an AR into his face.
“I’m a preacher of the gospel. Don’t mess with my family because God is going to judge you,” Diego said. “You need to let me go. You need to let these people go.”
As if stupefied, the cop let them go. Diego roared off in his van, having escaped with his life twice in one day. He got a hotel room for church members and told them to lay low. He drove his family across the border, into the safety of the United States.
But first he needed to pick up valuables at his house – a laptop, birth certificates and whatnot – at 2:00 a.m. The cartel had the house under surveillance. The SUVs pulled up outside.
Diego was afraid, but he prayed. He walked out and briskly right past the Suburbans. It was as if he were Peter walking out of prison past the guards unseen.
For a few days, Diego kept preaching in his church, trying to sneak in and out of services. He stayed with friends and changed his whereabouts. Eventually, the cartel caught up with him, when he was at the dentist getting his teeth worked on.
The dentist panicked because she assumed she was the target of a kidnapping, common for high-net-worth professionals at the time. Diego knew better. The Suburbans outside and the men with guns were there for him. It was Dec. 5, 2006
He tried to calm the dentist and asked for a piece of paper and pen to write his wife a last letter.
“If something happens to me, remember I love you,” it read. “Please take care of the kids. Go on with your life. I made some mistakes. I love you.”
He entrusted the letter to the dentist, asking her to track down his church and forward the letter to his wife. Before he stepped out to face the men with assault rifles, he received a text. It was from a disciple, Daniel, who used to be a cop.
“Pastor, are you ok? I was just thinking about you,” it read.
“No,” Diego texted. “They caught me. I’m at such-and-such a place. They’re going to take me.”
“I’m at the same plaza,” Daniel wrote. “They are not going to take you.”
Diego went outside. The man looked at him and pointed the rifle in his face.
Daniel came running up. “This is my pastor!” he shouted. “This is my pastor! Don’t touch the man of God!”
“Are you a real pastor?” the gunman asked, apparently confused and maybe unsure if he had the right hit.
“Yes, I am,” Diego responded. “You don’t want to mess with me. I’m not the guy you want.”
The gunman stepped aside, and Daniel grabbed his pastor. “Let’s go, let’s go,” he urged and hauled him off.
Despite three brushes with death, Diego slipped back into Mexico one more time, a week later to participate in a farewell service at his church. He gave leadership back to the brother who had founded the church. There were 199 people in attendance.
“The souls that were saved during those crazy years are still giving fruit today,” Diego says. One of the guys who came out to help defend his pastor against the cartel outside his house today is a pastor himself.
After that, Diego accepted a position as an assistant pastor in Las Vegas. Sadly, his daughter had breakdowns for two years after the traumatic events.
The ex-drug lord who sparked the whole face-off with guns because he flushed two kilos of pure cocaine down the toilet got killed. He chose not to move out of town and began dabbling with sin.
“I almost paid with my blood to help him,” Diego muses. “He went back to sin. You don’t play with sin.”
Diego is still pastoring today.
“I should’ve died,” he realizes. “By the grace of God I’m alive today. If I had to do it all over again, I would.”
If you want to know more about a personal relationship with God, go here
About the writer of this article: Pastor Michael Ashcraft is also a financial professional in California.