The new year finds Mexico still seeking a new reality, writes Paul Keenan
The most dangerous nation in which to be a priest – that is the dubious honour achieved by Mexico in 2014 with the annual compiling by Rome of pastoral workers killed that year.
Mexico’s tally of four priests and one seminarian murdered in 12 months served to displace Colombia from the top slot it held for the past number of years, while cementing Latin America’s dangerous credentials for clerics.
The final murder of the year, that of Fr Gregorio Lopez Gorostieta, took place over the Christmas period. The cleric’s strangled body was discovered on Christmas Day, three days after he was snatched by unknown assailants in the city of Ciudad Altamirano.
In the days of Fr Lopez’s absence, fellow priests and parishioners in the city had marched to demand his safe return, marching, no doubt, more in hope than expectation that their words and actions would be heeded by the criminal fraternity.
An explanation for such guarded desire comes from the locality in which Fr Lopez met his untimely end.
Ciudad Altamirano lies in the southern state of Guerrero which single-handedly last year upset political claims and fervent hopes of progress against the notorious drugs cartels of Mexico.
Of the Mexican Church’s total of five dead for 2014, three were in Guerrero. In April, Ugandan Fr John Ssenyondo was intercepted by armed men as he drove from Mass in Santa Cruz. His body was one of a number found in a mass grave in November.
In September, the body of Fr Ascension Acuna Osorio washed up on the banks of the Balsas river near Ciudad Altamirano.
In each of the cases of the Guerrero dead, no reasonable explanation for the murders has thus far been furnished by investigating police and no suspects detained, leaving parishioners and Church authorities to pick from a number of probable causes in the harsh milieu that is Guerrero. Media reports variously quote locals citing violent robbery as a motive, others identifying protection rackets from which churches are not immune. Still others insist drugs cartel anger at critical sermons is the solution.
In a perverse twist, Bishop Maximino Martinez of Ciudad Altamirano explained that another likely motive for Fr Lopez’s murder lay in the willingness of gang members to threaten priests to have their deeply held ‘Catholic devotion’ responded to quickly through ‘quickie’ blessings, marriages and baptisms. Any sloth on the part of a cleric, such as through administrative paperwork, could be met with a violent response, the bishop explained.
There is one other explanation in the case of Fr Lopez, however, and while it is dismissed by Bishop Martinez as mere speculation at this point, it ties in neatly with Mexico’s highest profile crime of 2014 and the country’s uphill struggle from the wanton slaughter that has marked the nation for years now.
In addition to being the most dangerous state in the most dangerous nation for priests last year, Guerrero is also the site of the September 26 abduction of 43 student teachers. Their highly publicised disappearance from the city of Iguala during their journey to a demonstration, has served to mobilise the Mexican populace which has till now seemed so beaten down by corruption and violence.
The police investigation denounced by many as, at best, incompetent. There were claims that the student victims were handed over – at the behest of Mayor Jose Abarca Velazquez – by police officers to members of drugs cartel Guerreros Unidos to be disposed of. Families of the 43 have led an awareness-raising campaign which has in turn sparked furious protests and to the arrests of officers, cartel members and even Mayor Abarca, rumoured to have links to the Guerreros Unidos. (Many believe such arrests would not have happened without the 43 families unwavering determination to get to the truth.)
Angry protests which flared in Guerrero have now spread, even to Mexico City itself. Online networkers in the country have rallied to the hashtag #Yamecanse (from ‘Ya me canse’, ‘I am tired’) to view messages from the families of the 43 and to keep abreast of the latest demonstrations as the momentum for justice and concrete reform grows.
Such has been the popular outpouring for the students of Iguala that President Enrique Peña Nieto himself felt compelled to host a public broadcast on the matter in November to denounce the abductions and echo the calls for national change – after protestors chanted for his resignation.
There is little doubt that the Guerrero incident will intrude as a topic of discussion during this week’s Washington DC meeting between President Peña and US President Barack Obama (taking place as The Irish Catholic went to press).
This intrusion will certainly be a source of frustration to Mr Peña, who, just three days before the Iguala abductions, was named World Statesman 2014 by the Appeal of Conscience Foundation for leading major human rights improvements in Mexico, an accolade building on his success against numerous drugs cartels.
In 2014, a number of gangs were sundered by military action and their ‘celebrity status’ leaders arrested.
(In something of a double bind for the president, at least one commentator keeping tabs on Mexico’s drugs gangs has suggested that the April 2014 arrest of Guerreros Unidos leader, Mario Salgado, caused a rupture in that cartel. This led to some to branch out from narcotics trafficking and into kidnapping and assassination as a means of income, leading subsequently to the Iguala incident.)
Mexicans themselves appear not to be lulled by these highly publicised victories, seeking through their protests to make the international community understand that the cartels are but one element of a larger culture of corruption – and through their vigilante groups that the police and military cannot be trusted either.
Responding to the growing protests in late December, Mexico’s Cardinal Noberta Rivera called on President Peña’s administration to develop strategies to counter Mexico’s unchecked violence. He added pointedly that the culture of “impunity” for those behind the violence, those apparently in league with the cartels, must also be dealt with once and for all.
Such a message is now rumoured to have been uttered at least once before, by Fr Gregorio Lopez Gorostieta in the days before his murder and, for some at least, is the key to his fate at the hands of his kidnappers.
Bishop Martinez has taken issue with this speculation, pointing out that all the priests in Ciudad Altamirano have vocally condemned the student abductions and criticised corruption and violence.
Such a truth offers the potential for more clerical bodies in Guerrero in 2015, though the bishop is not daunted by this.
“This is one more challenge to prove that we have to be where God wants,” he said. “We have to carry out this mission in the best possible way. That is why God put us here.”