Priests Killed in Mexico as Drug Violence Spirals

By Woodman, Stephen | The Christian Century, November 9, 2016 | Go to article overview

Priests Killed in Mexico as Drug Violence Spirals


Woodman, Stephen, The Christian Century


Even in a community that has grown accustomed to the news of brutal killings, the abduction and murder of a popular Catholic priest in rural Mexico created shock and outrage.

The bullet-ridden body of Jose Lopez Guillen was found earlier this fall on the highway outside Puruandiro in the western state of Michoacan, a region plagued by violent conflict. The 43-year-old cleric had been abducted from his home in nearby Janamuato five days earlier.

"He was an engaging personality," said Maria Solorio, a regular at Lopez's church. "He was an excellent priest and very devoted to the community.... What happened to him was a great injustice."

Such injustices have been piling up and have prompted questions about whether the church is under attack or whether the clergy are just collateral damage in a wider wave of violence.

The same day Lopez was kidnapped, authorities discovered the bodies of two slain priests in the eastern state of Veracruz. In total, at least 15 priests have been slain over the past four years.

In the wake of the killings the church has also abandoned its normal reluctance to criticize the government and has publicly accused state officials in Michoacan and Veracruz of directing a defamation campaign against the priests.

Mexico has the second-largest Catholic population in the world, with nearly 100 million people, or more than 80 percent of the population, identifying as Catholic. But the country has a long history of anticlericalism, and in the past century the government officially and often violently suppressed the church.

That dynamic changed dramatically after constitutional reforms in 1992, and the government and the Catholic hierarchy enjoyed good relations for the most part.

Motives have not been established for the latest killings, but the Centro Catolico Multimedial (Catholic Multimedia Center) notes that violence against clergy occurs disproportionately in states with high levels of organized crime, such as Veracruz and Michoacan.

The organization records 31 killings of priests in Mexico since 2006, the year then president Felipe Calderon deployed troops to Michoacan in an effort to stamp out the drug cartels.

A decade later, the war across Mexico has claimed more than 150,000 lives and thousands more are missing, while Michoacan remains a hotbed of crime and civil unrest.

Pope Francis visited the state capital, Morelia, during his trip to Mexico in February, in a show of solidarity with those most affected by organized crime.

The intensity of the violence in Michoacan has compelled some priests to engage in social activism, although the moves are rarely welcomed by the Catholic hierarchy.

One such priest is Jose Luis Segura Barragan, who is among the most high-profile opponents of drug cartels in the state.

After he was appointed parish priest in the town of La Ruana in 2013, Segura voiced support for the armed self-defense groups that had sprung up in response to rampant insecurity in the region. Other groups of locals soon tried to drive him out of town.

"Because I didn't leave, people fired bullets and threw rocks and fireworks at the church," he said. …

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