The arrival of Pope Benedict XVI in Mexico is an opportunity to examine the troubled relationship the Church has had with drug cartels, playing both victim and appeaser.
According to the Catholic Multimedia Center (CCM), the official news agency for Mexico’s Catholic community, 13 priests have been killed by criminal gangs since President Felipe Calderon took office in 2006. Only four were killed in the period between 2000 and 2006.
The CCM stated that Mexico is the most dangerous country in Latin America for priests, calculating that it is 160 percent more dangerous for priests to work in today’s Mexico compared with 2007.
Last year saw six serious crimes committed against leaders in the Catholic Church, not counting acts of vandalism or robbery in churches, the CCM report says. This includes two kidnappings, three homicides, and an attack which took place inside a parish church.
The homicides include the beheading of a woman who worked for a Catholic newspaper in Tamaulipas, and the May 2011 kidnap and murder of a priest based in Tijuana, whose body was found bearing signs of torture.
Two clergymen have been killed so far in 2012.
The circumstances under which members of the clergy are killed can range from a robbery gone wrong·to getting caught in the crossfire between criminal groups and the security forces. The majority of their assassinations have taken place in Mexico City, followed by the state of Chihuahua.
Criminal groups often target the Catholic clergy for extortion payments. By the CCM’s count, some 1,100 priests reported receiving extortion threats in 2011, while another 255 reported receiving death threats.
For criminal groups seeking a reliable source of funding, the Church is a dependable victim. Even the poorest parish churches can attract extortion attempts, because the weekly collection baskets at Sunday mass bring in a constant trickle of cash.
After an evangelical pastor was killed in Mexico State in early February, allegedly after refusing extortion demands, priests from 19 parishes in the state formally requested protection from the government, stating that they were also being threatened by armed extortionists.
But while criminal groups may increasingly see Church coffers as a low-risk source of funds, the Church also has an uncomfortable history of taking money from drug traffickers. In 1997, a priest who served in one of Mexico’s most important Catholic churches, the Basilica of Guadalupe, said that churchgoers should imitate Juarez Cartel leader Amado Carillo Fuentes and Guadalajara Cartel co-founder Rafael Caro Quintero. “How good it would be if we gave so generously,” the priest remarked.
After some Mexican politicians criticized his words, the Church replied that it was the state’s responsibility to investigate the origin of religious donations.
In another notorious case of Church-narco ties, one priest courted the Arellano Felix brothers, founders of the Tijuana Cartel, and used their donations to build a luxurious seminary in the city.
Juarez Cartel leader Carillo Fuentes was also known for building orphanages and churches in his area of influence.
Despite the fact that some parishes have had few qualms about accepting narco-donations, the Mexican Church plays a key role in voicing discontent over the current drug violence. Priests can speak on behalf of communities that otherwise would receive little attention. Some of the more progressive clergymen are strong critics of the military strategy favored by President Felipe Calderon, including high-ranking church leaders like the bishop of Saltillo, a city in Coahuila, one of Mexico’s most violent states.
The Catholic Church also provides services for the widows and orphans of the “drug war.” In southern states like Oaxaca, the Church is often the only organization willing to help Central American migrants, who are in serious danger of being robbed, kidnapped or killed by criminal groups like the Zetas.
The Church has aided victims of the drug violence, and has itself suffered at the hands of organized crime. The question is whether this is enough to absolve Mexico’s clergy of the ambivalence they have sometimes displayed towards the cartels.