Priests and Parishes Threatened by Drug Cartels

The Mexican bishops’ conference acknowledged in a statement on April 14 that Mexican priests have suffered numerous threats of violence, kidnapping and extortion from the nation’s narcotics-trafficking cartels. The conference also confirmed that a growing number of priests—mostly serving in remote and mountainous areas rife with illegal drug trade activities—have been transferred to other parishes, assigned other types of work or even moved to other parts of the country because of threats. Other priests, meanwhile, have been forced to raise up to $800 each week for extortion payments.

“We have personally felt the variety of problems that affect our homeland, such as the overflowing wave of violence and insecurity that has been ongoing for years and have claimed numerous victims—many of them innocent,” the bishops said in their statement. “Many priests live their ministries in a heroic way, amid the fear of threats, poverty, violence, extortion and aggressions,” they said. The statement was read by Auxiliary Bishop José Trinidad González of Guadalajara, Auxiliary Bishop René Rodríguez of Texcoco and Bishop Felipe Arizmendi Esquivel of San Cristóbal de las Casas as the bishops ended their spring planning session in suburban Mexico City.

The violence overflowing parts of Mexico has claimed at least 22,700 lives—a figure recently revised upward by the federal government—since President Felipe Calderón took office in December 2006 and sent the army and federal police to crack down on the cartels. “In spite of the grand efforts of various government agencies, fear exists and the insecurity destroying the life of so many communities isolates them and exposes them to new expressions of violence,” Bishop Rodríguez told reporters.

The statement marked the first time the bishops acknowledged that the violence attributed to the crackdown on the country’s warring cartels has directly affected the church. The bishops released a pastoral letter on violence in February, but the issue has confounded the church as it has attempted to minister in seemingly lawless regions of Mexico without running afoul of either the government or the cartels. Equally challenging has been the question of how the church should respond to threats against priests.

Mexico’s evangelical community went public on April 2, when the Mexico City newspaper Reforma published a report on how cartels and their affiliates have threatened to kidnap evangelical pastors and extorted churches and charity projects through protection rackets. The newspaper sought the opinion of the bishops’ spokesman, the Rev. Manuel Corral, who initially denied similar threats against members of the Catholic clergy, but stories of aggression against priests and the church quickly surfaced.

A parish church in the Chihuahua town of El Porvenir, which neighbors Fort Hancock, Tex., was damaged by an arson fire on Good Friday. The fire was extinguished by parishioners. Hours later, local military personnel, stationed just a few blocks away, finally arrived at the scene. The parish priest, the Rev. Salvador Salgado, denied he had been threatened but reported that other priests in the Diocese of Ciudad Juárez had been. Father Salgado expressed a sense of powerlessness in confronting the violence. In his region near Ciudad Juárez it has turned once-peaceful communities into ghost towns as frightened residents flee to Texas and cartel members burn down buildings thought to be affiliated with rivals. “This is something we can’t meddle in, because there have been threats against us and because there will be reprisals against us priests,” he said.

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