A Test of Faith in Mexico's Drug War

Tepalcatepec, Mexico - Father Miguel López drives the parish pickup truck across the muddy river that separates two warring drug cartels. He follows the winding road through the dark green foothills of the Sierra Madre until he comes to a rusting archway where traffickers hung the severed head of his friend.

The Roman Catholic priest spends his days navigating this dangerous terrain, a world he describes as "fallen." He prays with widows whose husbands disappeared in broad daylight, and gives Communion to the men who may have killed them. In the village where he grew up, at the end of this lonely road, his lifelong neighbors were too afraid to unbolt their doors when they heard screams for help in the middle of the night -- when an entire family, including four children, was kidnapped in June amid a clash between rival gangsters.

"The fear is one that we all share," López said, steering his gray truck through hills that conceal a vast network of marijuana farms and methamphetamine labs. "Sometimes I can't sleep at night. But these are the times when you have to define who you are. To do anything less is to be an accomplice."

Beyond the reach of the U.S. and Mexican governments in their fight against drug traffickers is an intimate, complex world of communal violence and crippled institutions. At the center of the drug war is Michoacan, a rugged, rural state in the southwest where all forms of traditional authority -- city hall, the military, police and even the Catholic Church -- have been unable to protect the people against the assassinations, kidnappings and extortions associated with the narcotics trade.

It is a world in which individuals like López struggle on their own.

President Felipe Calderón deployed 5,500 additional soldiers and federal police officers to Michoacan last month after an ascendant cartel called La Familia, which cloaks itself in religious extremism as it dismembers enemies, killed a dozen federal police officers and stacked their tortured bodies next to a highway. Soldiers and federal police retaliated by arresting two top lieutenants last week, as La Familia leaders attended church services in nearby Apatzingan. On Friday, La Familia hit men mounted an ambush against a convoy of federal police as they traveled down the main highway, wounding two officers.

How to confront this kind of violence against the state was a central topic in talks between President Obama and Calderón during their talks in Guadalajara this week.

"Every single town is now under the protection of one of the cartels," López said.

The Hot Land

Last week, as he drove two reporters through "tierra caliente," the heavily conflicted region dubbed the hot land, the introspective 42-year-old priest said the chaos is testing his faith. Most difficult for him to reconcile, he said, is the realization that the people responsible for creating "this reality of death and hopelessness in which we live are the same people we once baptized."

López said his own fear of dying was outweighed by the fear that he will not be brave enough to save his people. His struggle reflects those of other Catholic priests in Latin America who use their moral authority to defend the disenfranchised, sometimes at great personal risk.

"You know, they're going to [expletive] you one way, or they're going to [expletive] you another," the priest said of the traffickers. "And what can you do? Or, to be more exact, what are you most afraid of? To me, the worst thing would be that out of naivete, or out of stupidity, or out of fear, you didn't know when to speak or you didn't know what to say. What I ask from God is that He illuminate me so that I can do what I need to do."

The armed presence in Michoacan has been grafted atop an intricate network of social, political and economic relationships from which the cartels draw support. Julio César Godoy, the half brother of Michoacan's governor and a recently elected federal legislator, is currently on the run from authorities, accused of ordering the massacre of the federal police. Authorities say that Godoy is a leader of La Familia and that he is called "comandante" within the group. López's own uncle, Genaro Guizar Valencia, a U.S. citizen who was elected mayor of the tierra caliente town of Apatzingan, was recently arrested on charges of aiding La Familia.

"I think President Calderón has good intentions, but he doesn't have the support of the people," the priest said. "To put a soldier on every street corner, that is never going to bring us peace."

Man of the Cloth

López has thick black hair that sweeps back from his deeply creased forehead. At 6-foot-2, with a powerful build, he towers over most of his parishioners and the two younger priests who live with him in the church compound at Tepalcatepec, a farm town of about 10,000 where the mayor -- the brother of an alleged drug lord -- was also arrested in May by federal authorities, accused of assisting the traffickers. When not performing services, López wears polo shirts and jeans.

The priest speaks in a rich baritone, his florid words spilling out in a mix of barroom profanity and the poetry he once wrote in the seminary. A Bible sits next to the bed in his studio apartment, beside volumes of Balzac, Kafka and Dickens, and copies of Proceso, a weekly newsmagazine that covers the drug war extensively. On his wall is a photo of Archbishop Óscar Romero, the activist religious leader who was assassinated in 1980 during the civil war in El Salvador.

A true son of Michoacan, López drinks beer and knows the going price farmers receive for a kilo of marijuana out in the countryside.

Raised in tierra caliente, López said he always drives the same vehicle so traffickers do not mistake him for an outsider as he moves from one disputed territory to another for ministering.

On a Sunday evening, after an afternoon performing baptisms, López traveled to a nearby village to say Mass. At the end of a bumpy dirt road atop a hill, a congregation of farmers and fishermen celebrated the feast day for Saint Anne, the patron protector of housewives and women in labor. In the sweltering night air, as dogs wandered among the wooden pews, López delivered his sermon in the small concrete church.

"In most ways, we are richer than we were years ago," he said. "We harvest more crops. We have more to eat. But what are we missing? What we lack is peace in our communities."

It is a dilemma that runs through the Catholic Church, one of the strongest institutions in Mexico. Three priests have been killed in drug-related violence in tierra caliente during recent years.

Church Proclamation

In some ways, with its religious doctrine, La Familia has positioned itself as a rival of the church. "We think La Familia is a new kind of cartel that takes advantage of the religious nature of the Mexican people," said Ramón Pequeño García, chief of anti-drug operations at Mexico's Public Security Ministry. He said the cartel was attempting to become "a kind of parallel institution to satisfy the social demands of the people."

Because authorities cannot or will not solve murders and kidnappings, victims sometimes appeal directly to La Familia for help.

"This is not a form of religion, it's a perversion," López said of the cartel. "It's just something they have applied to themselves, like varnish."

In June, the Michoacan state bishops issued a joint proclamation calling for an end to the violence without specifically mentioning the traffickers.

López said he found the proclamation a good beginning, though "timid."

"We need to say clearly, 'Drug trafficking is a sin,' and that there is nothing more to say," he said. "And the truth is the church has not done that."

In López's home town, El Limon, he said the violence began a few years ago with the return of a man who had migrated to the United States but came back as a member of Los Zetas, another drug cartel vying for territory in Michoacan.

The man was wealthy, and he threw parties for the entire town. But he quickly ran afoul of another cartel. The man fled last year, but the violence that came with him stayed in El Limon.

Over the past two months, two families were kidnapped. One 17-year-old came back with a scar on his chest in the shape of the letter Z, apparently to mark his affiliation with the Zetas.

Dozens of people have since fled El Limon; in the middle of the afternoon, just a few people wander the dusty streets. There are no police.

"What has happened to my town is the story of just about every town in the tierra caliente," López said.

He steered his truck back onto the road. Each town had its own story of violence. In Aguililla, three bodies were recently discovered in plastic bags. In El Aguaje, traffickers hung the head of López's friend, Héctor Espinoza, from a green arch that welcomes people to town in Spanish and English and bids them farewell with the message, "Your family awaits your return."

"Now you are going to hear another story," said López, continuing to drive north.

He pulled up at a small corner house in Apatzingan, a town reportedly controlled by La Familia. Black curtains were drawn over the windows. Adelida Valencia, a woman with dark brown hair wearing a black dress, answered the door.

She said that one morning in 2004, her husband, Daniel, walked her to work at the stand where she sold yogurt. He was never seen again. Valencia was three months pregnant with her third child. Six months ago, her eldest son was walking down the street with a friend in the state of Guanajuato, where he had gone to study computer science. A gunman drove up on a motorcycle and sprayed automatic-weapons fire at them, killing her son and wounding his friend.

Valencia said authorities grilled her about whether her son was connected to the cartels. She was unaware of any connection, she said. Authorities later arrested a man they identified as a member of La Familia in the killing.

"How far can this go?" Valencia asked, quietly crying in her living room.

She then made dinner: quesadillas and rice and beans. López drank wine and recited poetry at the table.

The priest said he took hope from a recent meeting with an older priest, who was nearly 90. López asked him: How will we survive this crisis?

"This won't last. This can't last. Don't forget that the beast has been defeated. Satan has been defeated," the older man told him.

"Those words, so optimistic, from someone so wise, I have to believe them," López said. "It left me convinced that this can't go on forever."