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Growing Catholic divide over Mexico drug war

A bishop is among those alleging human rights abuses by state, but the church stands behind President Calderón's military-led crackdown on the Mexico drug war.

By Josh AllenCorrespondent / January 13, 2012

Bishop Vera of Mexico is seen here in a torchlight procession in Bergen, Norway, after receiving the 2010 Rafto Prize for his human rights work.

Liv-Randi Lind and Oddmund Lunde

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Saltillo, Mexico

Bishop José Raúl Vera López of Mexico has never shied away from controversy, defending unpopular minorities ranging from illegal migrants to prostitutes.

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Now, as violence between Mexican drug traffickers and security forces pushes the drug war's five-year death toll over 45,000, the Roman Catholic bishop is taking on the government. He claims that corrupt officials are allying with criminals to skim drug profits and using the military to murder criminals who might reveal any collusion.

"The use of the army was the worst mistake of [President Felipe Calderón]," Bishop Vera says in a recent interview at his diocese in Saltillo, set in the desert mountains of northern Mexico. "This strategy is covering the corrupt people in government, the people washing the money. Organized crime is growing. The destruction of the criminals is impossible if you don't put the justice of the people first."

It is a stinging rebuke from a cleric in the Catholic church, whose collective stance has been more ambiguous.

The church hierarchy initially remained largely silent on the gore that has thrust Mexico's drug war into the international spotlight.

While it is now increasingly condemning drug-gang violence and more vocally supporting Mr. Calderón's military-led strategy, the church's stance remains less clear when it comes to innocent victims of the drug-war crackdown by the military. The ambiguity is driving a wedge between priests and human rights activists within the church and the Catholic hierarchy – a divide likely to grow leading up to Pope Benedict XVI's planned visit in March.

Tensions over human rights

Roderic Ai Camp, an expert on Mexican institutions, says the church's lack of clarity comes from leaders' desire to shore up government institutions in a young democracy, even when they might be abusing their authority.

"The church is trying to pursue a fine line between condemning violence generally, while not delegitimizing the security institutions by condemning these human rights violations," says Dr. Camp, a professor at Claremont McKenna College in California.

From 2006, when Calderón began his efforts against drug trafficking, through 2010, Mexico's National Human Rights Commission has received more than 5,300 complaints of human rights abuses committed by the army.

According to a Human Rights Watch report from November, Mexican security forces may have participated in more than 170 cases of torture, as well as disappearances and extrajudicial killings.

Not speaking out for these victims could ultimately undermine the church, say some scholars.

"If the church is not providing adequate attention to the violence issues and they haven't demonstrated to people that, 'You matter as a Catholic,' I think that could be a factor [in maintaining influence]," says Joseph Palacios, a sociology professor and Catholic priest at Georgetown University.

Whereas churches elsewhere in the region have long aligned with the government, in Mexico there has been a firmer separation of church and state – though the drug war has changed that somewhat.

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