Catholic Church alleges smear campaign in priest killings

Church in Veracruz, México. (Credit: Catedrales e Iglesias/Flickr)

The Roman Catholic Church in Mexico has criticized state governments, accusing them of trying to smear the reputations of three priests who were killed last week. They were the latest victims in a series of killings believed to be carried out by organized crime groups in Mexico.

The body of one of the priests, Jose Alfredo Lopez Guillen, was found late last Saturday near the town of Puruandiro, Michoacan, according to prosecutors. That same day, the bodies of two other priests were found by a roadside in the state of Veracruz. All three had been shot dead.

Some media reports said Lopez Guillen had last been seen with a young boy, and state prosecutors alleged that the other two clerics had been drinking with their killers beforehand. A church official responded to these allegations on Monday with a harsh critique on what he called a campaign to smear the reputations of the priests by blaming the victims.

Hugo Valdemar Romero, a spokesman for the Catholic Archdiocese of Mexico City, said:

“In these cases it has become clear that state governments that cannot handle the drug cartels are criminalizing the victims, depicting some as drunks and another as a pedophile, making it look like the crimes were not related to drug cartels but because of some immoral conduct.

To physical death they are adding moral assassination, slandering the priests and holding them up to ridicule, and that has caused deep indignation in the Church.”

Although the motivations behind last week’s killings have yet to be determined, Cardinal Francisco Robles Ortega of the western state of Jalisco said priests there have been subjected to extortion demands, likely by drug cartels, according to the Associated Press. In recent years, most attacks on Mexican priests have occurred in areas plagued by drug cartel violence.

The rise in violence and homicides against priests has risen dramatically since Mexico’s President Enrique Peña Nieto took office in 2012. In the first three years of his term, the percentage of priests who became victims of kidnapping or torture jumped 100 percent compared with same time period under Nieto’s predecessor, Felipe Calderón, according to a report released by Mexico’s Catholic Multimedia Center (CCM) earlier this year. The exact cause of the spike in killings is difficult to determine, but Insight Crime and others have pointed out that the rise coincided with the height of the country’s drug violence, when tens of thousands lost their lives.

What is perhaps equally disturbing is that other clerics in the church have not denounced these acts of violence, torture and murder.

“In the wave of violence that has swept over Mexico over the last decade, the clergy has been remarkably absent and silent, in contrast to other conflict zones in Latin America and elsewhere,” David Shirk, director of the Justice in Mexico Project at the University of San Diego, said in an email to Humanosphere.

It is widely believed that clerics keep their silence because, as the U.S. State Department wrote in its 2015 International Religious Freedom report, priests in Mexico are “victims of extortion attempts, death threats and intimidation by organized criminal groups.”

For its part, the Church has responded with a vigorous public defense of the recently killed priests and has called for proper and unbiased criminal investigations of the killings. According to Shirk, however, there’s little reason to believe such investigations will be carried out.

“Given past experience and the geographic locations in question I would say that, at a minimum, we should expect that the prospects for an effective and professional criminal investigation are low,” said Shirk.

Fifty-two priests have been killed since 1990, according to CCM’s report; of those killings, 40 occurred in the last 10 years alone. The report condemned Mexico, a devoutly Catholic country, for being one of the most dangerous countries in the world for priests.

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Lisa Nikolau

Lisa Nikolau is a Madrid-based reporter for Humanosphere, covering gender equality, indigenous rights and poverty in Latin America and worldwide. Find her on Twitter at @lisanikolau, email lisa.nikolau@humanosphere.org or see her latest work at www.lisanikolau.com