Fr Gregorio López Gorostieta thought he had done enough to stay safe on the night of December 21, 2014. He had spent a long day celebrating Masses and overseeing a religious festival at the cathedral of Ciudad Altamirano, in south-western Mexico’s troubled Guerrero state. The end-of-year collection – to fund Asunción seminary, where he taught – had been substantial, so it was late when he finished counting the donations. At 11.30pm, he locked the money in the cathedral and drove back to the seminary. But the priest who locals nicknamed Goyito (“Little Greg”) never arrived.
Fr Fidencio Avellaneda, his colleague at the seminary, describes what happened next: “The seminarians say a group of armed men were waiting for him, because they wanted to rob him, thinking he had the money. When he refused [to give them money], they took him away.” The disappearance of the well-liked priest – known for his voracious reading habits and crunching tackle on the football pitch – marked a turning point for locals. Another priest of the diocese, Fr Ascensión Acuña Osorio, had been found dead in a river in suspicious circumstances the previous September. November had brought news that the body of a third cleric, Fr John Ssenyondo, had been discovered in a mass grave in nearby Ocotitlán.
After Fr López Gorostieta disappeared, Ciudad Altamirano’s bishop, Maximino Martínez, led 30 priests and hundreds of protesters through the streets, demanding the priest’s return. But the protests were in vain: Padre Goyito’s body was found on Christmas Day, strangled and dumped at the edge of the Acapulco-Iguala highway. “It hit us hard,” says Fr Avellaneda. “Gregorio was very dedicated, and he went about his ministry with real affection for the people. “The real challenge is the same as ever: to stay safe. I no longer travel after dark, except when a parishioner is very sick. When I do, I always travel accompanied.”
Precautions like these – and tragic stories such as Fr López Gorostieta’s – are becoming the norm for Mexican priests. Mexico is the second-largest Catholic country in the world, with almost 87 per cent of its 123 million citizens identifying with the faith. But Mexico is also the world’s most dangerous nation in which to be a Catholic priest. According to a recent report by the country’s Catholic Multimedia Centre, 38 priests have either died or vanished without trace in the past 25 years.
There has been a steady increase in attacks on clergy since 2006, when the then president Felipe Calderón launched a military offensive against the country’s organised crime cartels. Twelve priests died in the spiralling violence of his presidential term, which left 77,000 dead and a further 25,000 missing.
The situation is no better under the administration of Calderón’s successor, Enrique Peña Nieto. When the body of Fr Erasto Pliego de Jesús was found – bullet-ridden and partially burned – in the eastern Mexican parish of Cuyoaco, Puebla, last November, the number of priests killed or “disappeared” during the first three years of Peña Nieto’s term rose to 12. After Calderón’s first three years in charge, that number stood at five.
The violence racking Mexico has coincided with the unravelling of constitutional reforms that undid much of the anti-clericalism that had taken hold after the country’s independence from Spain. The mid-19th century Reform Laws of president Benito Juárez were secular in character, partially in an attempt to dispossess the Church of its wealth and lands. The post-revolutionary constitution of 1917 formalised the process, with president Plutarco Elias Callés leading mass expropriations of Church property. These were so severe that Catholics in the central Bajío region – as well as in the northern states of Jalisco, Zacatecas and Durango – formed armed factions against federal forces in a three-year war that claimed the lives of some 90,000 people.
Although the 1930s saw something of a thaw in Church-state relations, a crackdown led by governor Tomás Garrido in the south-eastern state of Tabasco was aggressively anti-clerical. The activities of the state’s “Red Shirt” paramilitary groups later inspired Graham Greene’s novel, The Power and
the Glory. But Andrew Chesnut, professor of religious studies at Virginia Commonwealth University, says the dangers facing priests today can only be understood in the light of contemporary Mexican politics.
“The constitutional reform of 1992 spearheaded by president Carlos Salinas de Gortari was a watershed moment in Church-state relations since the Mexican Revolution,” he says. “With a stroke of the presidential pen, much of the anti-clericalism of the previous 75 years was reversed. The successive National Action Party (Pan) administrations of 2000-12 were most beneficial to the Church. As a right-of-centre party, Pan has enjoyed close relations with the Mexican episcopacy since its inception.”
So with Church and state largely reconciled, why is Mexico still so dangerous for priests? “It’s a combination of factors,” says Chesnut. “On the one hand, we have bolder, more courageous action by priests – especially in two of the epicentres of narco-violence, Michoacán and Guerrero. “On the other, we have more aggressive tactics on the part of narcos. Again, this is particularly the case in these two states. This is the major reason for Pope Francis’s visit there. The clergy have had a heroic role in denouncing and combating narco-violence. That is why the Pope promoted Archbishop Suárez Inda to cardinal last year. He’s the first cardinal to be elected from Michoacán in the history of the Mexican Church.”
Fr Avellaneda, the seminary colleague of Fr López Gorostieta, says this month’s papal visit will be especially important for relatives of the 43 students kidnapped and presumably killed in Guerrero in 2014. “[Francis] has received petitions from lots of people,” he says. “The parents of the 43 Ayotzinapa students need his words. There are so many injustices and opportunities for social reforms. We are only part of the picture.” Fr Avellaneda is impressively sanguine about the perils facing clergy in Ciudad Altamirano, at the heart of a dangerous region known as the Tierra Caliente, which since 2006 has been on the front line of the country’s war on drugs.
“Where we live is strategically important to a number of the country’s biggest cartels, because it is close to a tri-state line separating Michoacán, Guerrero and Mexico state,” he explains. “You have the Guerreros Unidos, the Knights Templar, the Zetas, the Familia Michoacána … They act like they own the place, asking priests to marry them or baptise their children on the spot or face the consequences of refusing. “Sometimes, the intensity of our preaching gets us into trouble. Our values are opposed to theirs. We oppose violence, and we want respect for human values. “Our struggle is for violence not to become rooted in people, and sometimes this means making a specific denunciation against individuals we know to be part of the crime problem.”
Fr Avellaneda believes that organised crime flourishes because of Mexico’s deep-rooted socio-economic weaknesses. “Poverty causes violence,” he says. “And people here are very poor. People no longer see the incentive even in farming. The cost of fertiliser is too high against what can be earned from a harvest.
“A day labourer will earn about 70 pesos [£2.70] for a 12-hour working day. A lookout for the local cartels can earn three times that. There is no positive result visible to young people other than working for organised crime – it’s either that or they migrate to the United States.
“There are cases where not even this option is open. I know of young people who have been kidnapped to fight in these gangs.” Ordained in 1984, Fr Avellaneda finds himself under more and pressure from family members in Texas to retire and join them. “I want to stay though,” he says, with a short laugh that’s at odds with the tiredness audible in his voice. “These are my people. Yes, this place has become more dangerous in the last 10 years, but really I haven’t suffered very much myself. Other people have had it a lot worse – so I feel very tranquil.
“Martyrdom can sow values in people, of course, but really I’m here to serve.” Fr Avellaneda says his faith and convictions help him to remain optimistic, but he is also inspired by a historical hero. “Vasco de Quiroga, the first Bishop of Michoacán [1536-1565], is a huge example to me,” he says. “He was deeply involved with the poor, and his presence and example were enormous for this part of the country.” Pope Francis’s visit to Morelia, Michoacán’s state capital, is likely to highlight the issues facing Fr Avellaneda and other priests in the Tierra Caliente.
But Dr Chesnut believes the trip is an opportunity to launch something even more powerful. “Pope Francis’s visit of course won’t result in the conversion of many narcos,” he says. “But the hope is that he will lead the Mexican bishops’ conference into a more vigorous and prophetic role in taking on narco-violence.
“It’s not enough for a few courageous bishops around the country to take a stand. The bishops’ conference itself must speak out more often and more forcefully on the bloodletting that has now claimed some 100,000 lives since 2006. “I hope the Pope will be able to galvanise the Mexican Church and its parishioners, as well as agents of the state, into actions that lead to resolution of the decade-long drug war.”
Tim MacGabhann is a freelance writer based in Mexico City
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