On April 19, 2018, a 50-year-old priest walking into church to celebrate a 6:30pm Mass was stabbed to death.
On April 20, 2018, a 33-year-old priest hearing confessions was attacked and killed by gunmen.
On April 25, 2018, an 83-year-old priest was found dead some three weeks after he had been kidnapped and a ransom had been paid. Ill and elderly, he couldn’t survive captivity and died of a heart attack.
Does this rapid-fire sequence of tragedies come to us from Iraq or Syria, where the likes of ISIS run wild, filled with hate for Christianity? No, in fact, these are news stories from the globe’s second-most Catholic nation, from the United States’ own southern neighbor: Mexico.
It is shocking, but Mexico is actually the most dangerous place to be a priest in the whole world.
According to Fides news agency in 2017, eight priests were killed across the globe; four of those murders happened in Mexico. Since the current president took office in 2012, Mexico has been the site of the murder of some two dozen priests.
Trying to make sense of it is Gerardo Cruz Gonzalez.
“In Mexico, violence is out of control, leading to the disappearance of thousands of people and the assassination of thousands more. Young people and adolescents are the most common victims,” explained Cruz, an investigator from the Mexican Institute of the Church’s Social Doctrine. “Priests, like other social groups, have been affected.”
According to Cruz, the deaths of these men of the cloth are best understood in light of a “war” afflicting the nation — not only a war against drug trafficking, but a war in general, “and the guilt falls often on organized crime, but just as often on the government itself.”
“The assassination of priests is not an assassination of the faith, but rather an aspect of this war that takes as its victims all of the poor,” he said.
Cruz went on to note how priests can even be intentionally criminalized by authorities, as a way to cover the crimes of their killers. “Other groups have also been criminalized — such as journalists — who, more clearly in their case, have been killed precisely for doing their work. That is not so with the priests, except in a few exceptions.”
But Father Omar Sotelo Aguilar, the general director of the Catholic Multimedia Center (CCM), an organization dedicated to investigating these crimes, offers a different perspective. He considers that the priests who have been killed are more than incidental victims of violence run amok.
While acknowledging that the issue is very complex, he posits: “What we can say with certainty is that, in the majority of the cases we’ve analyzed, there is a clear indication that they were assassinated because they were priests.”
And the list of victims is hardly short. Father Sotelo rattled off the lineup: “In the last five years, 24 priests killed, two ‘disappeared,’ violent attacks against the metropolitan cathedral of Mexico City (in which a priest died some days later from his wounds), an explosion at the offices of the Mexican bishops’ conference, burglary of sacred art, increase in vandalism of churches, more than 800 reports of extortion or threats against priests from around the nation.”
“This is a sign that something is happening in our country,” he maintained.
The confirmation of what actually is happening and why seems to elude explanation.
Father Sotelo offered some analysis of what he believes are key elements of the crisis, although he is quick to say that the complexity of the situation makes generalizations nearly impossible.
One factor, he said, is the symbolic significance of claiming a priest as a victim.
“To ‘desacralize’ the priestly figure gives a clear message: ‘If I can kill a priest, I can kill whoever I want.’” Thus, organized crime imposes itself as a power over and against the service of the Church, “with the motive of sowing terror and a culture of silence.”
“The attack against priests is not a persecution,” Father Sotelo said. “It is something more dangerous.”
“Organized crime is not just drug trafficking,” he clarified.
“There are many aspects: human trafficking and trafficking in migrants, weapons and organs … ultimately, the trafficking of power. The assassination of priests is linked to this organized crime, which aims to stifle the pastoral work of the priesthood in the communities where it is carried out.”
Both the perspectives of Cruz and Father Sotelo, while contrasting, are hardly contradictory.
Especially as the country is embroiled in a nasty election season, there is no doubt that reining in organized crime is a challenge.
Putting a stop to the “unleashed violence” means fighting battles well beyond its own borders.
And yet the battle is more than geographical and political.
“We should not discount what Pope Francis says about the devil and Mexico — that the devil has a personal vendetta with Mexico,” recalled Jaime Septién, founder of one of the country’s most prominent Catholic newspapers, El Observador.
“Why? Well, because this is where the Virgin of Guadalupe chose to live.”
Septién recalled that many of those involved with drug trafficking and criminal gangs are “guided by Satanic practices, under the power of the devil.”
“To kill a priest,” he said, “gives them status among their partners in crime and, at the same time, plants terror among the people: ‘If I can kill someone the people respect, then I can do anything.’”
Register correspondent Kathleen Naab writes from Texas.