'Narcos alone rule': Mexico shaken after three priests killed within a week

The Catholic priest José Alfredo López Guillén was seized from his parish residence in rural Michoacán, where he served a congregation of corn farmers and ranchers. The next day, the wreckage of his Volkswagen Jetta was discovered on the outskirts of the town of Quiroga, 71 miles (115km) from where it had been stolen.

The priest’s body was discovered on Sunday on a lonely stretch of road, nearly a week after his abduction. He had been shot five times in the stomach.

López was the third priest to have been kidnapped and killed in Mexico in less than a week. His body was found days after Alejo Jiménez and José Juárez were abducted from their church in the city of Poza Rica and found dead in the Gulf state of Veracruz.

The crimes offered yet another reminder of the lawlessness afflicting Mexico – and proof that in the deeply pious country, not even the clergy are safe from violence.

Over the past four years, 15 priests have been killed in Mexico; most of the cases go unsolved – not unlike most crimes in the country. A survey released this week by the state statistics agency showed that 93.7% of crimes went unreported or uninvestigated in 2015 – an increase of 0.9% from the previous year.

The motives for attacks on Mexico clergy also remain unclear. In the late 1920s, hundreds of priests were killed during a period of anti-clerical turmoil described by Graham Greene in his novel The Power and the Glory.

But analysts say more recent attacks are not motivated by any anti-clerical sentiment, and are instead simply a reflection of the bloodletting unleashed by power struggles between organised crime groups and the government. Although many drug traffickers consider themselves devout Catholics, priests have reportedly been killed for denouncing criminality, or even for refusing to baptize the children of narcos.

“By killing the parish priest in a small village, the narcos assert their authority in a brutal way. Not even the traditional, spiritual authority of the priest is respected: narcos alone rule,” said Pablo Mijangos y González, a historian at the Centre for Research and Teaching of Economics.

Churchmen are not targeted “because they believe in Christ”, Mijangos y González said. “It’s because priests are an obstacle in the way of conquering local power.”

Before last week’s murders, Mexico’s Catholic Media Centre had tallied the killings of 28 priests since 2006, most of them in states where criminal groups are powerful, such Michoacán, Guerrero and Veracruz.

“This is not a persecution of the church due to hatred of the faith. This is the destruction of the Mexican community,” the centre wrote in an editorial.

“We’re upset and we’re worried,” Father Alejandro Solalinde, an activist priest working with Central American migrants in Oaxaca, told the online news outlet Sin Embargo.

Solalinde, who has reported receiving threats from politicians and organised crime, has been an outspoken critic of the Catholic hierarchy, which he says ignores Mexico’s rampant criminality to avoid displeasing powerful politicians.

But López’s murder – and the state authorities’ response – has caused outrage in the Catholic church. Clergymen were incensed when the Michoacán state governor initially claimed that the priest had been spotted on surveillance video at a local hotel with a teenage boy – a report which was swiftly shown to be untrue.

Catholic officials were similarly infuriated when investigators told the press that the two priests in Veracruz had been drinking with their attackers before they were killed.

Catholic officials said such comments followed a pattern, in which victims of violent crimes were depicted as somehow complicit in the crimes committed against them.

“It’s not possible that in Veracruz, in less than 24 hours, they come to hasty conclusion that [the priests] were killed for having some drinks and carousing with shadowy characters … There are local accounts of five people entering the church and violently taking them away,” said the Father Hugo Valdemar Romero, spokesman for the archdiocese of Mexico City. “The Michoacán case is even worse. A video is released in which it malevolently and insidiously tries to show that this priest was a paedophile. The governor should publicly apologize.”

“What’s happening now is another manifestation of this insecurity that the government hasn’t been able to control and is getting worse by the day,” he says.