Mexico's drug war: priests speak out
In Mexico, traffickers have targeted the Catholic church with extortion and deadly threats.
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Priests also have increasingly been victims of extortion, which, according to the nonprofit Citizens' Institute for Crime Studies (ICESI), was up nationwide by 10 percent from 2007 to 2008. Handwritten notes or anonymous phone calls demanding that priests "buy" their security are most prevalent in states such as Michoacán or Chihuahua. But even in areas where drug trafficking is not ramp-ant, priests are vulnerable.Skip to next paragraph
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In the central Mexican town of Texcoco, Fr. Jorge Cuapio says three priests in the past year, out of some 110 in the diocese, have received threats demanding money. The diocese is moving to make priests' phone numbers and addresses private. "[In general,] they think the church has money," Father Cuapio says. But "we decided here we will not negotiate with the bad guys."
Bishops pray for traffickers to drop arms
Mexico's council of bishops has called for an end to violence. After a mass in Michoacán was interrupted this summer by authorities arresting a suspect, the council said it was praying for traffickers to drop their arms. "We continue to implore the Holy Spirit to move our hearts in these times in which doubt and uncertainty are devastating our country. Sustained by our faith, we have the firm hope of building a Mexico of peace, justice, and harmony," the bishops' conference said in a statement. They have also criticized inefficiency and corruption in authorities.
But they have backed down from taking a lead voice, in part for their own and their parishioners' safety. That was clear this spring when the Archbishop of Durango said that he knew where one of Mexico's most wanted fugitives (the reputed head of the Sinaloa Cartel, Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman) lives, "and everyone knows it except the authorities." He quickly apologized for a statement that could have incited violence.
But in many cases, says Mr. Cortes, priests turn a blind eye, particularly in rural areas where everyone knows who the traffickers are. Priests have also benefited from drug traffickers' deep pockets, which might pay for improvements to churches or sponsor religious festivals.
"A priest won't give communion to someone who is divorced," says Cortes, "but will give it to a drug trafficker that everyone knows." It sends a mixed message, he says.
Close ties: Calderón and church
The bishops' conference could be used as an opportunity to address the socioeconomic and cultural issues that draw so many in Mexico into the hands of organized crime networks, says Cortes. But because of a close relationship between the conservative administration of President Calderón and the church, he doubts that any stance will stray too far from the national message: an iron fist when it comes to organized crime.
Still, the church recognizes that society needs its leadership at such a complicated time – the reason they are dedicating the bishops' conference to Mexico's violence.
"The church has to be courageous," says Corral. He does not expect priests to take a central role in the government's battle, but be a model for society, whether in their promise to not be blackmailed or simply their faith in redemption. "We have to see how we can give to society at a moment that is so painful." •
The drug war has scarred towns on both sides of the US-Mexico border. Read
about how the border between two towns became more hostile here.