Mexico’s Holy Warrior Against the Cartels

Padre Goyo, with his clerical collar and his bulletproof vest, is an icon for those fighting drugs and corruption. But some in the church think he goes too far.

11.18.14 10:55 AM ET

MORELIA, Mexico—If you want to know about the Mexican priest Padre Gregorio López, first of all you need to know that his parish is located in the small city of Apatzingán, at the heart of a region in southern Mexico known as a fiefdom of the Knights Templar drug cartel. Then you need to know that he considers it his religious obligation to drive the cartel out of the city and out of the state of Michoacán.

The lengths to which the padre is willing to go to achieve that end have carried his reputation far beyond the rough-and-tumble region known as Tierra Caliente, so named for an average annual temperature that rounds down to 95 degrees.

Land theft, the extortion of farmers, and the rise in kidnappings and murders were grievances left to simmer for years in the countryside. A year ago, in the fall of 2013, the frustration boiled over. Farming communities across the region rose up in arms, in some cases with guns and four-wheel-drive vehicles more in keeping with the army or a drug cartel than poor farmers.

In January, the president of Mexico put the law enforcement of Michoacán in trusteeship and a federal commission, once in place, began exerting pressure on the leaders of the self-defense movement to disarm and incorporate their ranks into a new rural police force. Most of the groups obliged. But the most authoritative spokesman for the movement, a surgeon named José Manuel Mireles, refused and continued to rally forces to combat the cartel until the commission had him and 80 of his followers arrested in June for carrying unlicensed firearms.

Padre Goyo, as he is known to parishioners (Goyo is short for Gregorio), soon grew famous in the midst of this turmoil because of his straight talk and the occasional disclosures he made about public officials and the criminal underworld.

At a moment when Mexico is pretty desperate for heroes, when the disappearance of more than 40 students, allegedly at the hands of corrupt politicians, cops, and the cartels has inflamed the country, Goyo is just the kind of figure to capture the public imagination.

He is an animated, energetic man in his late forties, of average height and sturdy build with a high forehead, tan face, and dark hair winged with gray at the temples. He speaks in emphatic bursts, with the parish priest’s fondness for parables and jokes that bring a quick smile and a twinkle to his dark eyes when he sees he is understood. He was born to a humble family of farmers in a village of 500 not far from Apatzingán, majored in philosophy in Morelia and studied theology for four years at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. He speaks with the authority of a native of this land as well as the authority of priest.

On same the day that Mexican security forces arrived in full force in Tierra Caliente earlier this year, Padre Goyo disclosed to the media that the two biggest narcos associated with the Knights Templar, Nazario Moreno and Servando Gómez, had had a meal together that day at a ranch a couple of miles outside of Apatzingán, and that the government knew about it.

Goyo’s claim attracted a lot of attention, not least because Nazario Moreno was supposed to have died in a firefight with the Mexican army three years prior. None other than the Mexican president at the time, Felipe Calderón, had announced Moreno’s death. Two months after Goyo’s revelation, the Mexican government announced that Moreno had been killed for a second time.

Such was the modus operandi of Padre Goyo, to reveal sensitive information that, however sensational it appeared at first glance, was later confirmed. He publicly condemned the mayor of Apatzingán as a criminal associate of the cartel and three months later the mayor was in custody for extorting money from his own city council on behalf of the criminals. He fulminated against the cartel and its associates from the pulpit and began feeding intelligence to the federal security forces about who the criminals were and where they lived.

Padre Goyo survived two assassination attempts (he says there is a bullet hole in the wall of his office from one would-be assassin), numerous death threats, and incurred the wrath of the archbishop of Morelia, who at the height of the violence publicly reprimanded Padre Goyo, telling reporters at a press conference, “We must help him to become more serene.” Padre Goyo fired back at a rally in downtown Apatzingán, declaring that, “I myself cannot continue speaking of God when here it reeks of death.”

On Jan. 23, a photograph of Padre Goyo graced the front pages of the daily newspapers in Mexico City: He was wearing a bulletproof vest over his black shirt and white clerical collar. The news reports quoted him as saying he wore the vest to celebrate Sunday Mass in Apatzingán. (He says he later saw a print of the photo blown up and hung on the wall of a cardinal’s office in the Vatican.) The photograph remains an emblem of the turbulence in Tierra Caliente among armed citizen militias, Mexican security forces, and the Knights Templar.

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In February, at around the time the Vatican was sending queries about the situation in Apatzingán, Padre Goyo enlisted local business owners to form a brigade he called the CCRISTOS, a Spanish acronym for a citizens’ council responsible for promoting a healthy social fabric. The Mexican journalist Alejandro Sánchez accompanied Padre Goyo at the head of a joint operation of CCRISTOS and federal security forces and chronicled the dramatic expulsion of the Knights Templar from their lairs in downtown Apatzingán:

“It was eight in the morning when the priest Gregorio López in a beret from the Vatican, a white guayabera, and a bulletproof vest, gave instructions to more than 100 men with pistols in their belts put under his charge to enter Apatzingán to raid the homes and hunt down members of the Knights Templar. ‘Don’t shoot unless you’re attacked,’ he ordered with the attitude of an army major.”

Last week, Padre Gregorio López returned to the public eye with a rather statesmanlike public appearance at a university in the state capital of Morelia. He had set aside the clerical attire (and the bulletproof vest) for a modest black jacket, a striped button-down shirt open at the neck, and navy trousers. “I’ve moved on to the next step, unarmed,” he said. “Peaceful active resistance, unarmed, nonviolent, no more blood, no more deaths, with clear ideas and proposals.”

Padre Goyo got back to Mexico in May from a three-month hiatus that he called a self-imposed exile in Europe. Speculation at the time was that he had been recalled by the Vatican, and he does not deny it now. Of his sojourn in the Rome, Padre Goyo will say only that he was called on to answer for his actions and his motives during the heady days in Apatzingán, and that the Vatican emphasized to him the virtues of prudence. He met twice with Pope Francis and referred to the pontiff as a role model. “He hasn’t made any comments about my work to me directly but his advisers have. One of his closest advisers, every time he calls me he tells me, ‘I admire you, Padre! Keep up the good work!’”

The security situation in the city has cooled off considerably in Michoacán thanks in part to the constant presence of federal troops in the city. The situation in the countryside is less clear, and Padre Goyo says the Knights Templar and another group, Los Viagras, have infiltrated the rural police force.

La Tuta, the leader of the Knights Templar and the highest-profile narco in Mexico, remains at large, and according to Padre Goyo the manhunt for him is “very weak.” He said the authorities are afraid to launch an all-out search because La Tuta has videos of senators, congressmen, mayors, and businessmen doing deals with the drug lord. La Tuta already has released videos of himself with mayors and prominent journalists in Michoacán.

“If you corner a dog he’ll bite you,” Padre Goyo said. “The authorities know this man [La Tuta] has many means of attacking important figures in the government, so it’s better to go about it nice and easy.”

Last month, the ex-wife of La Tuta was arrested. Padre Goyo, claiming knowledge of sensitive details of her interrogation, told the press that the Mexican army provides La Tuta an escort and moves him around the state disguised as a soldier, a service he pays hundreds of thousands of dollars a month in bribes to maintain.

Padre Goyo’s work is ever more overtly political as he tries to win the freedom of Dr. Mireles, the imprisoned leader of the armed self defense movement who, the padre believes, can have an important role to play in Michoacán, perhaps even as an elected official. “Mireles is someone capable of moving the nation, and moving it toward justice,” says the padre. But the federal prosecutor is going ahead with the case against Mireles.

“I’ll never be a friend to the government, but I can be an ally,” Goyo told The Daily Beast. As for the cartels, “They’re still there, but they walk around with their tails between their legs.”

The clergy in Padre Goyo’s diocese is behind him with a few exceptions whom he calls “hidebound” for believing the church has to be a retrograde institution. “No, the church has to be on the side of the most disadvantaged, of the poorest, of the helpless,” the padre tells us. “Pope Francis says that he does not want pastors with the scent of incense, he wants pastors with the scent of sheep, truly committed, elbow to elbow, arm in arm with the people.”

“In the church schools last summer I met with kindergarteners and I like to ask them what they want to be when they grow up. Who wants to be a doctor? Two or three raise their hand. Teacher? Two or three more. Then one boy raises his hand and I ask him what he wants to be and he says he wants to be a sicario, a hired killer. “Then 20 of the 50 kids in the room raise their hands and say they want to be sicarios, too, because that is the model,” says Padre Goyo. “In 10 years we will have a generation of young people who have known only death, kidnappings, disappearances, and they grow up thinking it’s better to be the one committing the crime than the victim.”

Padre Goyo has reorganized his CCRISTOS as more of a community service group, he says. He and the diocese are putting together a youth basketball league, a youth filmmaking workshop, and a symphonic orchestra of a thousand boys and girls who were once lookouts and runners for the cartel. He is also soliciting funds for university fellowships in agronomy and engineering.

Meanwhile, the epicenter of cartel violence and official collusion in Mexico has shifted in recent months from Michoacán to the neighboring state of Guerrero, where police in the city of Iguala as well as the mayor are in custody and charged in the murders of three students and the abductions of an additional 43 from the Ayotzinapa rural teachers college. The whereabouts of the 43 remain unknown.

Padre Goyo criticized Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto’s “ineptitude” in waiting a month before addressing the tragedy. He also ridiculed the Mexican attorney general’s version of events, that the missing students were burned to ash and disposed of in a river. “Children in Mexico may believe in Santa Claus, but they don’t believe in the Mexican Justice Department,” said the padre.

“I believe we are in the hour of the debacle of the institutions, they cannot be any more rotten,” said Padre Goyo. “What is happening in Ayotzinapa is a symbol of the total corruption, of the total ineptitude and worse, because the cartels are inside the government.”