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Mexican clergy seek global help as violence grows

Gunmen shoot a priest and two seminary students in the back. Federal police storm a Mass to capture a suspected drug kingpin. Priests pray with the families of murdered men, then face killers in the confessional.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Gunmen shoot a priest and two seminary students in the back. Federal police storm a Mass to capture a suspected drug kingpin. Priests pray with the families of murdered men, then face killers in the confessional.

Mexico's Roman Catholic clergy, increasingly caught in the middle of the nation's drug war, are meeting this week to draft a strategy for coping with the violence, aided by advice from colleagues who faced similar threats in Colombia and Italy.

"We have become hostages in these violent confrontations between the drug cartels living among us," said Archbishop Felipe Aguirre, who works in Acapulco, located in Guerrero state where the priest and seminary students were killed in June.

The Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, lauded the Mexican bishops for taking action.

"It's good that the Catholic Church is involved with the major social issues in a country," he said. "That's particularly so when the issue is as critical as drug-related violence."

Mexico trails only Colombia as the most dangerous place for priests in Latin America, with two out of every 10 priests facing serious risks, according to an August study by the Mexican Council of Bishops.

The council, which began its strategy conference Monday outside the capital, plans to release a report Thursday with recommendations for priests and parishioners in drug hotspots.

Church officials say threats received by clergy have included notes and telephone calls following sermons against drug use and trafficking. Others fear for their safety because of information received from parishioners. Many priests have reported extortion attempts by gangs.

"Speaking has consequences. Keeping quiet also has consequences," said the Rev. Manuel Corral, the council's public relations secretary.

Archbishop Hector Gonzalez of drug-plagued Durango state knows that all too well.

Gonzalez told reporters at a news conference in April that Mexico's most wanted drug lord, Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, lived in a small town nearby, and that "everybody knows it except the authorities."

Days later, investigators found the bodies of two slain army lieutenants in Durango's mountains, accompanied by a note: "Neither the government nor priests can handle El Chapo."

After the killings, government officials said they stepped up surveillance of the area. Guzman, the leader of the Sinaloa cartel, remains at large.

Gonzalez — on advice from church leaders — clammed up, telling reporters who asked for comment: "I am deaf and dumb."

Mexico's struggle with drug traffickers has long posed a dilemma, sometimes deadly, for priests whose congregations may include impoverished marijuana farmers or cartel hit men.

In 1993, Cardinal Juan Posadas Ocampo died in a hail of automatic weapons fire in the parking lot of an airport in central Mexico. Authorities said a drug gang killed him by mistake, confusing him with a rival trafficker, but some church leaders say Posadas was targeted for his denunciations of drug trafficking.

Since President Felipe Calderon launched his crackdown on drug gangs after taking office in December 2006, the cartels have responded fiercely: Violence has spread across the country, killing nearly 14,000 people, and priests have not been immune.

In June, the Rev. Habacuc Hernandez, 39, was killed on his way to a spiritual retreat, together with two seminary students, Eduardo Oregon, 19, and Silvestre Gonzalez, 21.

Gunmen forced them out of their car and then shot them in the town of Arcelia in the coastal state of Guerrero — a region known for marijuana and opium production and as a shipment route for cocaine.

The murders remain unsolved, and officials have not provided any possible motives, said the Rev. Juan Carlos Flores, who heads the legal division of the Archdiocese of Acapulco.

Two months later, federal forces in neighboring Michoacan state raided the Temple of Perpetual Help in the middle of a Mass, locking more than 200 parishioners and the priest inside for hours. The raid netted a suspected high-ranking lieutenant of La Familia drug cartel.

Church authorities demanded — and later received — an apology from Mexican officials for disrupting the service.

Mexico's bishops have consulted clergy in other countries that have faced similar problems.

Monsignor Hector Fabio Henao, who was once forced into exile from Colombia by threats from a drug cartel, was unable to attend this week's meeting. But in a February visit to some of Mexico's most violent areas, including Tijuana, Henao urged priests to back victim support groups and to talk to criminals.

The Rev. Luigi Ciotti — a founder of a large anti-mafia organization in Italy — spoke to bishops at a meeting in April. Ciotti's organization coordinates projects across Italy such as using farms and buildings confiscated from criminals as schools and drug rehabilitation centers.

With rising violence and corruption, Mexico is becoming too much like his home, Ciotti said.

"We must state forcefully that the Gospel and organized crime are incompatible. I believe the Mexican church can do a lot," he said.


Associated Press writers Sergio Flores in Acapulco, Carlos A. Gonzalez in Bogota, Colombia, and Marta Falconi and Victor Simpson in Rome contributed to this report.