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.
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"There has been a coming together of the church hierarchy and government in recent years on the issue of violence," says Victor Ramos Cortes, a religion expert at the University of Guadalajara, in Mexico. He says the government has lobbied the church for support in its efforts, especially as Mexico has wearied under surging violence.Skip to next paragraph
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Culture wars, particularly over abortion and gay marriage in Mexico's liberal capital, have also brought the church and Calderón's conservative administration closer together.
But that closeness is causing rifts within the church, says Mr. Ramos. While the hierarchy underlines its support for Calderón, activists are demanding a change in the strategy of the drug war.
Ties between churches, traffickers?
Some churches have benefited from the criminal underworld, receiving hefty donations from members who sit in their pews on Sundays but work as traffickers during the week. Mr. Palacios says the church needs to address the local financial relationships between clergy and drug traffickers. He says priests should discourage donations from drug traffickers, not allowing them to pay for church festivals or repairs to buildings, for example.
But priests and their congregations have also been the target of violence. Masses have been interrupted by gunfire, and some priests have been shot. Many priests have reported being victims of extortion.
Despite such challenges, though, Vera has forged ahead as a priest and human rights activist. Among those he helps are the hundreds of disappeared victims of the state.
"Vera's leadership has been exceptional in helping the families of the disappeared in [the Mexican state of] Coahuila fight back fear, get organized, and find a voice," says Nik Steinberg of Human Rights Watch. "These families are demanding justice from government officials, who often find it easier to pass off victims as criminals than to conduct real investigations into their cases."
In 2010 Vera's work was recognized internationally: He was awarded the prestigious Rafto Prize in Norway, given for human rights work.
Pushback from church superiors
But outspokenness can carry a cost; Vera has faced opposition from within the church since transforming from a theological conservative to an advocate for gays and other marginalized minorities.
This summer, an anonymous group hung banners on the Saltillo cathedral criticizing Vera's theology. "We want a Catholic bishop," read one. The Vatican then summoned him to explain his support of gay rights advocates.
His words rile the government, too, but he has forged ahead nevertheless.
"There are very few men of the cloth in Mexico who speak out on any issue, left or right," says Palacios. "But Vera is also a public intellectual who has the capacity to engage non-Catholic influentials in Mexico – academics, [nongovernment organization] staff, human rights advocates, the press."
Asked about risks to his safety, Vera waves his hand: "I am inspired by the sufferings of the people," he says.
• Staff writer Sara Miller Llana contributed to this report from Mexico City.
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