ACCORDING to the Catholic Multimedia Center (CCM) in Mexico, that nation is the most dangerous in Latin America for priests. “For the ninth year in a row, and even though no wars are being fought on our soil, our country is the nation with the highest number of murders of priests,” said priest and journalist Father Sergio Omar Sotelo Aguilar.
Father Sergio Omar is a member of the Missionary Society of St. Paul the Apostle and director of the CCM. He told us that 2017 was a disastrous year for the clergy and Church in Mexico. “Religious freedom has been completely undermined and severely threatened by organized crime in Mexico,” he charged.
He stressed that, in many cases, the death of a priest does not happen by coincidence or because of an unlucky encounter with ordinary criminals. The priest said: “In 80 percent of the cases, the murderers use a modus operandi that includes everything from defamation to extortion, abduction to torture, kidnapping to murder. Unscrupulous media then ‘explain’ or ‘justify’ the murder of a priest by spreading all sorts of rumors; they sometimes accuse the victims of being alcoholics or even child molesters.”
After the September 2016 murder of Father Alfredo López Guillén, a priest in the town of Janamuato in the Archdiocese of Morelia, the governor of the state of Michoacán, Silvano Aureoles, accused the priest of being a pedophile. The Mexican Episcopal Conference (CEM) unequivocally denounced this allegation.
The state of Michoacán, located along the Pacific coast and one of the 32 Mexican states, is burdened by a significant degree of violence because of its strategic location for drug smuggling. Local priests, who denounce drug trafficking as well as the corruption of government agencies and the police, often end up in the crosshairs of the so-called sicarios, contract killers who work for drug dealers.
Four priests were murdered in 2017. Two of them perished in the course of attempted kidnappings, the other two died during bomb attacks on the cathedral of Mexico City and the offices of the Mexican Episcopal Conference. In addition, there are hundreds of threats and cases of blackmail targeting priests and bishops, Father Sergio Omar reported; there were 884 cases in 2017 alone. Torture was involved in 80 percent of the cases in which priests were murdered. The priest describes this as a particular strategy of terror used by the drug cartels, saying: “Killing a priest also sets an example as a demonstration of power by the criminal organizations.”
Like other journalists who cover attacks on Church personnel, CCM staff have also become targets of organized crime because they are considered to be opinion leaders who have joined the fight against the drug cartels. Organized crime has become even more powerful because it has formed alliances with politicians, judges and certain circles within the police and security forces. “It causes decay in society from top to bottom,” proclaims Father Sergio Omar.
Father Sergio Omar, a former secretary of the Episcopal Commission for Communication at the CEM, describes the tactics of organized crime and the drug cartels as targeted persecution. Entire communities have left their villages and the local area after receiving threats from criminal organizations.
The CCM data on “veritable religious persecution” has just been released in book form. It is a record of the killings of pastoral workers who were murdered between 1990 and 2017: in addition to Cardinal Juan Jesús Posadas Ocampo, the archbishop of Guadalajara, who was assassinated on May 23, 1993 at Guadalajara Airport, it also lists the names of 62 additional murder victims, 47 priests, a deacon, four religious, nine lay persons working for the Church and a Catholic journalist.
In this nation of 120 million, 80 per cent of whom are Catholic, the authorities have responded to most of the murders with complete indifference. In the last five years, 19 priests and two lay persons were murdered. Two priests are still missing.
This has to change, Father Sergio Omar said: “We cannot remain silent as the blood of thousands of Mexicans is shed. This is why we are directing an urgent appeal to the federal government of Mexico, to the authorities of the various states, and to the city governments: we want them all to guarantee that pastoral care can safely be carried out in regions beset by uncontrolled, growing violence. We cannot remain silent!”
—Jacques Berset & Maria Lozano