Three Priests Killed Over Two Days

A missing priest was found shot dead off the side of a highway in western Mexico days after he was kidnapped from his parish residence, state prosecutors said on Sept. 25. He was the third Roman Catholic priest to be slain in Mexico in the last week.

The Michoacan state Attorney General's Office said in a statement that the Rev. José Alfredo López Guillen's body was found Saturday night, Sept. 24, in an area called Las Guayabas on the highway between Puruandiro and Zinaparo. López was kidnapped on Sept. 19, the same day authorities in the Gulf coast state of Veracruz found the bodies of two priests who had been abducted from their parish residence the previous day.

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Mourners packed a church on Sept. 21 for a funeral Mass in memory of one of the murdered priests in the community of Paso Blanco while others outside listened through the windows, huddling under the eaves as a steady rain fell. A large banner on the front of the church bore a photo of the young Rev. José Alfredo Suárez de la Cruz, who was ordained only a few years ago and arrived at his post in the city of Poza Rica just a month before he was murdered.

"You are a priest for always," the banner read.

Suárez and the Rev. Alejo Nabor Jiménez were last seen in Poza Rica on Sept. 18. Their bullet-ridden bodies were discovered the following day on a roadside miles away. One had been shot nine times.

In this eastern Mexican oil town already weary of rising gangland violence and extortion, the abduction and murder of two priests this week sank many residents only deeper into despair. The killings also came at a moment of heightened tension between the Roman Catholic Church and Mexico's government.

Church leaders are increasingly frustrated by authorities' inability to protect their priests under President Enrique Peña Nieto's administration, and the church is openly opposing his proposal to legalize gay marriage by encouraging the faithful to join demonstrations around the country.

“I think we're seeing a new low point in the relationship between the church and the PRI," said Andrew Chesnut, chairman of Catholic studies at Virginia Commonwealth University, referring to Peña Nieto's ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party. "I think the overarching picture is that…the open-season on priests has just proliferated with the intensification of the drug war."

The killing of Fathers Nabor and Suárez brought to 14 the number of priests slain in Mexico since Peña Nieto took office in late 2012. At least 30 have been killed since 2006. What exactly happened to them, and why, remains murky.

Veracruz state prosecutor Luis Ángel Bravo cited robbery as the apparent motive and said the priests had been drinking with their killers before they were abducted. That allegation infuriated the church, which saw it as the latest example of state authorities smearing victims in cursory-at-best investigations. Bravo dismissed suggestions that a drug cartel may have been involved, although the Zetas and the Jalisco New Generation gangs are battling for control in Veracruz, including in Poza Rica.

Locals have gotten accustomed to hearing about grisly murders. The city of 195,000, has recorded 41 killings in the first eight months of this year—more than three times the toll for all 2015. Only this time it wasn't faceless strangers assumed to be cartel operatives, they were priests, respected community leaders.

"In the newspaper there are two or three dead every day," said a man who runs a business with a clear view of Our Lady of Fatima church, where the priests lived. "Usually you say, 'If they killed them, it was for a reason.'"

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