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.
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.
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.
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.