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As Catholic priests are killed in Mexico, questions and tensions rise

Weapons seized from criminal gangs are displayed before being destroyed by military personnel at a military base in Tijuana, Mexico, on August 12, 2016. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Jorge Duenes
Weapons seized from criminal gangs are displayed before being destroyed by military personnel at a military base in Tijuana, Mexico, on August 12, 2016. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Jorge Duenes

Weapons seized from criminal gangs are displayed before being destroyed by military personnel at a military base in Tijuana, Mexico, on August 12, 2016. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Jorge Duenes

GUADALAJARA, Mexico (RNS) Even in a rural Mexican community that has grown accustomed to the news of brutal killings, the abduction and murder of a popular Catholic priest has triggered profound shock and outrage.

The bullet-ridden body of the Rev. Jose Lopez Guillen was found Sept. 24 on the highway outside Puruandiro in the western state of Michoacan, a region plagued by violent conflict. The 43-year-old cleric had been abducted from his home in nearby Janamuato five days earlier.

“He was an engaging personality,” said Maria Solorio, a regular at Lopez’s church. “He was an excellent priest and very devoted to the community. … What happened to him was a great injustice.”

Such injustices have been piling up and have prompted questions about whether the church is under attack or whether the clergy are just collateral damage in a wider wave of violence.

Lopez was kidnapped on Sept. 19, the same day authorities discovered the bodies of two slain priests in the eastern state of Veracruz; that makes at least 15 priests slain over the past four years.

The murders come at a time of strained relations between church and state in Mexico, in part because Catholic bishops recently supported mass protests against a proposal to legalize same-sex marriage nationwide.

In the wake of the killings the church has also abandoned its normal reluctance to criticize the government and has publicly accused state officials in Michoacan and Veracruz of directing a defamation campaign against the priests.

Mexico is the country with the second-largest Catholic population in the world, with nearly 100 million people, or more than 80 percent of the population, identifying as Catholic. But the country has a long history of anti-clericalism and in the past century the government officially and often violently suppressed the church.

But that dynamic changed dramatically after constitutional reforms in 1992 and the government and hierarchy enjoyed good relations for the most part.

Motives have not been established for the latest killings, but the Catholic Multimedia Center notes that violence against the clergy occurs disproportionately in states with high levels of organized crime, such as Veracruz and Michoacan.

The organization records 31 killings of priests in Mexico since 2006, the year then-President Felipe Calderon deployed troops to Michoacan in an effort to stamp out the drug cartels.

A decade on, the war across Mexico has claimed more than 150,000 lives, while Michoacan remains a hotbed of crime and civil unrest.

Pope Francis visited the state capital, Morelia, during his Mexico trip in February, in a show of solidarity with those most affected by organized crime.

READ: Another priest slain in Mexico as Pope Francis appeals for end to violence

The intensity of the violence in Michoacan has forced some priests into social activism, although the moves are rarely welcomed by the Catholic hierarchy.

One such priest is the Rev. Jose Luis Segura Barragan, who is among the most high-profile opponents of drug cartels in the state.

After he was appointed parish priest in the town of La Ruana in 2013, Segura voiced support for the armed self-defense groups that had sprung up in response to rampant insecurity in the region. Groups of locals soon tried to drive him out of town.

“Because I didn’t leave, people fired bullets and threw rocks and fireworks at the church,” he told RNS.

Segura, who finally left La Ruana four months ago, came under the media spotlight for his views. Yet for the clergy, even keeping a low profile is no guarantee of safety. In the most dangerous states in Mexico, any resistance against cartels, however minor, can become a motive for murder.

“Priests find themselves in problems when they refuse to provide a service to drug traffickers, like a baptism or Mass,” Segura said.

Analysts generally agree, however, that violence against the clergy should be seen within the wider context of the drug war.

“It would be dishonest to say this is a targeted persecution of priests or the church,” said the Rev. Hugo Valdemar Romero, a spokesman for the Archdiocese of Mexico City. “But the fact that you are a priest does not liberate you from the risk of robbery, murder or torture.”

While anti-clericalism is not blamed, the Rev. Omar Sotelo of the Catholic Multimedia Center said the role of the clergy makes them particularly vulnerable to crime. Priests as a matter of course come into contact with a great variety of people, some of whom may be criminals.

“The violence against priests often has to do with their pastoral work,” Sotelo said. “These are not just common crimes.”

Some critics have accused Mexican bishops of concentrating on social matters such as same-sex marriage while turning a blind eye to the politically sensitive topic of violence.

“The church is focused on sexual issues,” said the Rev. Alejandro Solalinde, a priest and famous activist. “They don’t organize many marches to protest injustice, government corruption and impunity.”

But attempts by prosecutors to link recently murdered priests with crime and criminals seem to have convinced church officials to speak out against the government.

Surveillance footage apparently showing Lopez entering a hotel with an underage boy was leaked to a media outlet in Michoacan. It caused an uproar until a woman on social media identified the pair as her ex-husband and son, not the murdered priest.

Similarly, State Attorney General Luis Angel Bravo Contreras was criticized for claiming the two priests in Veracruz had been drinking heavily with their killers before the crimes.

Church officials have responded with a vigorous defense of the victims.

“We demand that no priest, or anyone, be slandered, especially before the investigations are concluded,” the Mexican bishops’ conference wrote Sept. 26, a day after Lopez’s body was discovered.

“This is a common strategy,” said Solalinde. “They criminalize victims in an effort to contain the public outcry.”

In this Mexican context of crime, corruption and impunity, Solalinde believes violence against priests suggests they are truly living their vocation.

“This persecution is a sign that priests are defending human rights,” he said.

Solalinde has himself been threatened by criminals on multiple occasions.

“If one day something happens, it happens,” he said. “But I refuse to let that worry me.”

(Stephen Woodman writes for RNS from Mexico)

About the author

David Gibson

David Gibson is a national reporter for RNS and an award-winning religion journalist, author and filmmaker. He has written several books on Catholic topics. His latest book is on biblical artifacts: "Finding Jesus: Faith. Fact. Forgery," which was also the basis of a popular CNN series.


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  • How about a corrupt government making money off the war on drugs? How about drug cartels making millions off the war on drugs? How about a rising fundamentalist Christianity that sees the Catholic Church the way so many fundamentalists do? How about people living in cardboard boxes outside of mexico city?

    but hwat there really is, is THIS: Some critics have accused Mexican bishops of concentrating on social matters such as same-sex marriage while turning a blind eye to the politically sensitive topic of violence.

  • There is a hint at the start of the article that the government might be negligent if not complicit in these killings. I don’t think anyone would question the dysfunction that is the present state of Mexico, nor does there seem to be a swift or complete solution on the horizon. There are other disturbed states and regions of the world, but this resonates no doubt with us so starkly because of its proximity to us. I would encourage those among us who profess Christ to pray for all the people of Mexico, whether Catholic or otherwise, drug lord or government official, each prayer framed as appropriate the meet the spiritual state of the individual prayed for.

  • It’s interesting to compare the situation in Mexico with the situation in the Philippines, which has the world’s 3rd largest Catholic population. I’m moving from Canada to the PI early next year, and some people have expressed concern for me because of the new government there, which is also waging a violent drug war and has expressed criticisms of the church. But I lived there for 2 years during the Marcos dictatorship, and have good Filipino friends there, so I’m not going there ‘blind’. From what I can see, the situation is far worse in Mexico (though undoubtedly will get worse in the PI too), and Canadians are frequently killed there, one just two days ago, yet it remains an extremely popular holiday and retirement destination for Canadians. The US is also a very dangerous place and likely to get much worse, so I now refuse to cross the border there for any reason. I could get a cheaper flight just across the border, but refuse to cross even for that.

  • The US is definitely more dangerous than Canada. Most of the world is, but the level of violent crime in the US has been decreasing for many years. I’ve lived here my entire life, and find that the level of violence is quite low, with the exception of a few specific areas.

    BTW, I’d move to Canada in a second, probably Vancouver, but I would not go to Mexico or the Phillipines. I’ve never been to the latter. Best of luck on your move.

  • As Secretary of State Mrs. Clinton tried to sell arms from the U.S. to the cartels in Mexico and then blame the murder of citizens of Mexico on U.S. arms after the arms are collected. Remember that the U.S. Government was trying to have the sales made by private gun shops, etc. She then could blame the Mexican deaths on U.S. arms. The plan blew up when our agent who was not part of the plan was killed.
    She does not CARE about Mexicans. She does not CARE about you. She needs all arms removed because of her tremendous fear of the only thing that protects HER. NOT THE PRIESTS. NOT YOU.

  • I’ve read many Americans express similar thoughts of moving here, especially with the current insane election campaign. I lived in Vancouver for over 10 years going to university, great city, but I had to leave because its super expensive. I’m now back on my home turf of Vancouver Island. Canada has its drawbacks too and while it may be cheaper if you have US dollars, it’s the cost of living on my meagre pension that is mostly driving me out.

    Regarding the Philippines, it is actually one of the best places for foreigners to live, despite the current political situation, which will not really affect me much. My pension will stretch 4 or 5 times further, so I’ll be able to live a much better life style, and the year-round gardening and ocean swimming I can do there will greatly benefit my chronic pain, which is exacerbated here in Canada by the cold climate and high cost of food, so less variety in my diet. Here’s a very interesting article on that:

    “PH among expats’ top 5 picks”
    “The Philippines is among the top five countries in the world where expatriates feel right at home…”

  • Ah, Vancouver Island. I interned for a year in the mid 90s in northwest Washington state and learned to love BC. In addition, my friend had a sailboat on Puget Sound and I got to visit your current home and Victoria. BTW, I love Vancouver’s Chinatown. What fun!

    I’ll check your link soon.