Mexico’s Mystery: Why Were Five Clergy Murdered Last Year?

NEWS ANALYSIS: The world's second-largest Catholic country is plagued by drug-related violence but also a strong current of anticlericalism.

Families of 43 missing students from Guerrero state in Mexico protest the government and demand answers of the missing students on Nov. 5, 2014.
Families of 43 missing students from Guerrero state in Mexico protest the government and demand answers of the missing students on Nov. 5, 2014. (photo: Photo by Brett Gundlock/Getty Images)

MEXICO CITY — The degree to which Mexican society has become plagued by drug-related violence was highlighted late last month by Pope Francis’ warning about the potential “Mexicanization” of his native Argentina.

In the wake of resulting protests in Mexico, the Vatican quickly clarified that the Pope’s comment — which expressed concern in an email about drug-trafficking gangs making inroads into Argentina — was not intended as a slur against Mexican society.

But there is no disputing the fact that violence badly afflicts the lives of Mexicans, including Catholic clergy: While 2014 was a violent year overall for Catholic clergy, with 26 reported deaths worldwide, according to a report published by Fides news agency, no fewer than five of these deaths occurred in Mexico alone — almost 20% of the global total.

With nearly 100 million baptized Catholics, the United States’ southern neighbor is the world’s second-largest Catholic country by population (Brazil is No. 1 — with 127 million Catholics), with more than 80% of its citizens identifying as Catholic. But the combination of Mexico’s historically anticlerical federal government, the growing presence of drug cartels and widespread worship of false “patron saints” has left some sections of the country in a mess of violence and anarchism.

Specialists and Mexican clergy consulted by the Register say a large portion of the blame can be attributed to the violence associated with the country’s immensely powerful and murderous drug cartels.

But they stress that other factors are also in play, most notably the Latin-American nation’s recent history of anticlericalism and the impunity from prosecution that many lawbreakers enjoy, due to Mexico’s endemic government corruption and its deficiencies in law-enforcement capabilities.


Cartel Catholicism

Mexican smugglers have trafficked marijuana and heroin into the United States since the early to mid-1900s, when the drugs became criminalized in the U.S.

But by the 1980s, Mexico had also become a primary route for ground transportation of Colombian cocaine to its northern neighbor. As U.S. law enforcement shut down Colombian shipments via boats and planes, Mexican cartels quickly established their own cocaine networks in Sinaloa, Juarez and Tijuana.

Now a hub for cocaine, marijuana, methamphetamine and heroin production, Mexico has become the home of some of the world’s most sophisticated drug networks during the last 25 years. Some reports estimate that nearly half of the $65 billion of illegal drugs purchased in the United States each year enter the country through Mexico. More than 60,000 people were killed from 2006 to 2012 in an ongoing series of turf wars between cartels, the Mexican military and Mexican citizens, according to The Washington Post.

As one Mexican drug cartel based in the state of Sinaloa brings in estimated annual revenues of nearly $3 billion, according to The New York Times, other powerful cartels have become established in the nearby states of Michoacán and Guerrero.

And though it’s hard to determine which of the 31 Mexican states is the most dangerous — due to limited information available from the Mexican government — the violence in Sinaloa, Michoacán and Guerrero is perhaps the most publicized by the international media.

In September, Guerrero received worldwide attention when 43 university students went missing while traveling through the city of Iguala. The students were reportedly turned over to drug cartels and burned alive.

Less than 120 miles away, in the Diocese of Altamirano, a small diocese of 37 parishes, three of last year’s five reported clergy killings took place.

Msgr. Francisco Javier Reyes, 64, one of Ciudad Altamirano’s roughly 30,000 residents, has been a priest in the diocese for nearly 22 years.

Since arriving in 1993 from La Huacana, a city in Michoacán, Msgr. Reyes has watched Altamirano turn from a relatively peaceful municipality to one of the most violent small cities in the country.

“I never would have expected this even 10 years ago,” Msgr. Reyes said in an interview with the Register. “The way the violence has escalated here is troubling.”

Located in the heart of Guerrero’s Tierra Caliente (Spanish for “Hot Land”), a nickname earned for the area’s civil unrest as much as its blistering climate, the Diocese of Altamirano believes Father Gregorio Lopez Gorostieta, Father John Ssenyondo and Father José Acuña Asención Osorio were all killed by drug cartels last year.

“It was obviously a difficult year for us,” Msgr. Reyes said in his native Spanish, “but it’s the reality of where we live now.”

The cartels haven’t publicly taken responsibility for the killings, and many of the groups’ members consider themselves to be practicing Catholics.

But the “folk Catholicism” practiced by most cartel members, featuring “patron saints” like fictional drug lord Jesús Malverde and Santa Muerte (St. Death), is condemned by both Mexican churches and the Vatican.

“These figures are in contrast of God’s teachings,” Father Luis Muñoz, pastor of Catedral San Juan Bautista (St. John the Baptist Cathedral) in Ciudad Altamirano, told the Register. “We support assisting the poor, but we would never condone stealing from anyone.”

Besides the obvious contrast in beliefs, Father Muñoz said tension between drug dealers and Catholic clergy often escalates when cartel members and priests can’t see eye-to-eye on church services and participation in the sacraments.

“A lot of times, you’re dealing with people who commit heinous crimes, and they have no remorse — they don’t seek confession.” Father Muñoz said. “But then they come here, to the Church, wanting us to perform baptisms and marriages.”


History of Anticlericalism

Adding to the violence directly attributable to the drug cartels, Mexican priests and scholars say the country’s recent history of anticlericalism, combined with the rise of folk Catholicism, has resulted in a nearly century-long power struggle between the state and the Church that continues to find new and sometimes violent expressions.

Mexico’s modern relationship with the Catholic Church dates back to the 1910s, when a nationwide revolution tested the state’s strong partnership with a religion present since the 1500s.

“When the Spanish empire was there, the Church was incredibly powerful,” explained Timothy Matovina, executive director of the Institute for Latino Studies at the University of Notre Dame, in an interview with the Register. “You couldn’t think of the Church and politics as separate.”

But in the Mexican Constitution of 1917, written during the revolution, a series of anticlerical laws stripped the Catholic Church of nearly all of its secular influence. Among other provisions, Mexican churches were forced to cede vast amounts of land, priests were banned from speaking on political matters, and the use of cassocks was outlawed.

“It was an ideological way for the government to retain power over the Church,” Matovina said. “It was a huge power struggle.”

Nearly a decade of increasing tensions ensued between Catholics and the anticlerical government of then-President Plutarco Elías Calles, sparking the greatest religious war in Mexican history. From 1926 to 1929, the Cristero War — a Catholic uprising against Calles’ government — claimed an estimated 90,000 to 150,000 lives.

According to Matovina, bitterness surrounding the eventual Cristero War truce, which resulted in an additional 5,000 Catholics being slaughtered after a cease-fire agreement, is still present in Mexico today.

“For several hundred years [before the 20th century], the Church enjoyed a place of privilege in Mexican society,” he said, “and part of what Mexico got out of that is a strong, persisting anticlerical movement.”

Matovina even thinks the trio of priestly murders in the Diocese of Altamirano might be attributed to this lasting animus, as well as the region’s drug trade.

“To have three in one diocese is unusual,” said Matovina, “but it very well could be an extension of Mexico’s anticlericalism or a power struggle with the cartels there.”

Father Muñoz agrees, adding that cartel gangs in Ciudad Altamirano fight for control of smaller-town and rural neighborhoods, where government law enforcement is lacking.

“The [cartels] want to be the authority here,” he said. “They say they’re looking out for the people and think they can take better care of them than the government or the Church.”

To earn the support of residents, who often live in poverty, cartel leaders hand out food from a central location, like a gang member’s home, and also give money to neighborhood schools, Muñoz says. He said though many local businesses also accept money from cartels, churches are told by the diocese not to.

“If someone gives an offering anonymously during Mass, that’s a donation we wouldn’t know about,” he explained. “But if we knowingly accept a donation from them, they see that as a favor owed to them in the future, and it affiliates the Church with people who aren’t living in the word [of God].”


Mexico’s Future

Professor Benjamin Smith, a scholar of Mexican history at England’s University of Warwick and author of three books on Mexican culture, estimates that while 20% of violent crimes are reported nationwide in Mexico, only 2% are actually prosecuted.

“The cartels commit these crimes because they can,” Smith said in an interview with the Register. “There’s such impunity; it’s totally off the grid.”

The 1993 murder of Cardinal Juan Posadas Ocampo, who was shot 14 times with automatic weapons in the parking lot of Guadalajara International Airport, is a prime example of a still-unsolved clerical murder.

Though an investigation by Mexican police concluded Cardinal Ocampo was mistaken for a Mexican drug lord and killed by rival drug gangs, some believe his death was an inside job from the then-Mexican government. 22 years later, no charges have been filed, and no suspects have been identified.

In addition to the five priests killed on record last year, it’s very possible that several more in Mexico could be dead, or at least missing, according to Smith.

“Quite honestly, I’m astonished that there haven’t been more,” he said.

Just this month, a new case, making international headlines for the first time, estimates that between 300 and more than 2,000 Mexican citizens were kidnapped and killed in a government law-enforcement conspiracy in the northern Mexican state of Coahuila. In what would be one of the largest abduction cases to date in Mexico, the killings went unreported by local media for more than two years, likely due to fear of the region’s powerful cartel and corrupt government forces.

“It’s very difficult to figure out why anyone gets killed in Mexico,” Smith said. “The average person is usually terrified to speak out.”

But unlike most acts of violence over the past several years in Mexico, Smith says recent protests, especially for the 43 killed students, could represent a new sign of life for a previously socially dormant population. In a rare move of government accountability, former Iguala Mayor Jose Luis Abarca was charged for the students’ kidnapping and for ordering police to hand them over to drug lords.

“There was an awakening where people were starting to call out the government,” he said. “It’s not like these massacres haven’t happened before. What’s changing is that people seem less afraid to say, ‘This has got to stop.’” Plus, Pope Francis has been vocal about what has been going on, praying for the murdered students.

In Ciudad Altamirano, the diocese isn’t staying silent either. In the midst of all of the violence, 30 priests led by Bishop Maximino Martinez took to the streets in December to protest the kidnapping of Father Gorostieta.

“We need to start making our voices heard by our government and people around the world,” Msgr. Reyes said. “This can’t keep going on. Something has to be done.”


Register correspondent Chris Kudialis writes from Las Vegas.