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Mexico's drug war: priests speak out

In Mexico, traffickers have targeted the Catholic church with extortion and deadly threats.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / October 7, 2009

Pendants: Jewelry for sale in the border town of Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, include an M16A2 assault rifle and the Virgin of Guadeloupe. Drug violence has been especially severe along the Mexican border, as cartels vie for drug-shipment routes into the US.

Alejandro Bringas/Reuters

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The Rev. Habacuc Hernandez Beni­tez, a Roman Catholic priest in Guerrero, Mexico, knew the mountain towns of the southwestern state like the back of his hand. He made it his mission to seek young men for the priesthood, driving far and wide to find them.

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That intimate knowledge may have cost him his life: On June 13 he was gunned down, along with two prospective seminary students, as they drove to a pastoral meeting in the town of Arcelia. It is the first murder of a priest that the Roman Catholic Church links directly to drug traffickers since Mexican President Felipe Calderón first dispatched the military to root out organized crime in 2006.

In many ways, priests are brought into drug violence the same way the rest of the country is: Their neighbors are traffickers, and they face the consequences of speaking out or knowing too much. But priests' leadership in the country's small communities means they see and hear more than average citizens – things that could make them targets in Mexico's increasingly brutal drug violence. Now they are forming a more unified voice: at a semiannual bishops' meeting in November, insecurity and violence – for the first time – are slated to be the main topics of discussion.

"The church's voice, with respect to organized crime, has been very timid," says Victor Ramos Cortes, a religion expert at the University of Guadalajara. "They have spent most of their time on moral issues such as abortion, euthanasia, or homosexuality, and much less on narco-violence. Hopefully this [meeting] can open up the dialogue."

It is not that priests are routinely victims of organized crime. Many believe tragic cases like the one in Guerrero will remain isolated. In the past 16 years, only 15 priests have been killed suspiciously – in highway accidents or beatings – though most such deaths are unsolved. In 1993, Guadalajara's Cardinal Juan Jesus Posadas Ocampo was gunned down by criminals linked to drug traffickers, but officials say it was a case of mistaken identity. According to an August report by Mexico's Council of Bishops, Mexico is the most dangerous place to be a priest in Latin America, after Colombia.

Authorities have not made any arrests so far in the case of Father Hernandez Benitez, and no motive has been officially ascribed to the deaths. It could have been revenge: One of the young men in the car had family ties to drug traffickers. But because he traveled widely, the priest knew who was who, says Fr. Manuel Corral, press secretary for Mexico's Council of Bishops. "Priests are vulnerable because they have a lot of information," adds Father Corral.

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