Mexico’s Priests Are Marked for Murder

Even as Mexico’s president visits the United States, the power of criminals in his country, and in government, continues to grow. The latest victims are priests trying to help the poor.

01.07.15 10:55 AM ET

MEXICO CITY — An hour before midnight on Dec. 21, four armed men barged into a Catholic seminary in the central Mexican city of Altamirano and kidnapped a Catholic priest named Gregorio López Gorostieta.

Father Gregorio, 39, taught a liturgy course at the seminary and volunteered at area parishes on weekends. His peers remember him as a bright man who spoke softly and occasionally came across as a bit shy. He was born and raised in a hardscrabble mountain town 80 miles to the north, and he had been a priest in Altamirano for eight years.

On Christmas Eve, in response to the abduction, dozens of priests marched through the middle of Altamirano in cassocks, which have been banned in the streets of Mexico since the days of the revolution. Hundreds of parishioners trailed behind them. They called for peace, reconciliation, and the safe return of Father Gregorio. And the Diocese of Altamirano made a direct appeal to his captors:

“We fear for his physical safety and we believe there is nobility and kindness in you… If you have conditions for his release, make them known.... Let your hearts be touched and recall the services that we have performed for your families.”

On Christmas Day, Father Gregorio’s body was found on the side of the highway out of town.

What was his offense against his killers? That remains a mystery. But most likely it was linked to the way priests identify with the poor in the face of government and criminal abuses. This is the same part of Mexico where police allegedly arrested 43 student protesters and turned them over to a drug gang that killed them and burned their bodies until they could no longer be identified. But regardless of the risks, Father Gregorio in his quiet way appears to have been following the message that Pope Francis, the first pontiff from Latin America, works tirelessly to encourage among the men and women of the church. They are to face oppression with humble persistence and absolute conviction.

Father Gregorio is at least the third priest in the region known as Tierra Caliente to be murdered in the past five years.

Father Habacuc Hernández Benítez was shot to death in 2009, along with two of his seminary students, while driving on the road to Arcelia. Father Joel Román Salazar died in a car crash in 2013; his death was ruled an accident, but the suspicion of foul play persists. Three months ago, on Sept. 22, the body of Father Ascensión Acuña Osorio was found floating in the shallows of the Rio Balsas, not far from his parish in San Miguel Totolapan. Father Ascensión had earlier been reported kidnapped, and he was murdered even after a ransom was paid to his captors. His body showed signs of torture and one eyewitness recalled seeing knife slashes across the priest's face.

There is a long history of official anti-clericalism in Mexico, but the atmosphere in Tierra Caliente goes far beyond that. This is a part of the country where the laws of God may be regarded with as little respect and as much contempt as the laws of man.

“This is not a particularly religious people. This is not a place of great faith,” says Javier Castrejón Flores, vicar of judicial affairs for the Diocese of Ciudad Altamirano. “Our role is like that of missionaries. We are at an initial phase, and there are people here who have not acquired a proper respect for the faith.”

Along with the murdered priests, there have been other near misses. Father José Julián was shot and wounded driving in a car through the sierra of Ajuchitán. Father Oscar Prudenciano’s car was hijacked on the highway and he was about to be shot when rival bandits opened fire and gave him an opening to run for his life. Another priest, whose identity the diocese did not disclose, was kidnapped by mistake after his captors mistook his sermon on “family values” as an endorsement of La Familia, an enemy drug cartel.

The abduction and murder of Father Gregorio is especially disheartening because it came less than a month after the Mexican federal government declared a Special Security Operation for Tierra Caliente in the wake of the Iguala atrocity. At the inaugural event, the Mexican secretary of the interior and the interim governor of the state of Guerrero pledged that the influx of Mexican soldiers and federal police would put a stop to such egregious acts of violence.

Senior officials in the Diocese of Altamirano acknowledged that there has been an increase in federal checkpoints and street patrols. But they say its effect on the regular daily operation of organized crime has been negligible. “These people have informants that in all likelihood can tell them, ‘Look, the police are coming this way,’ and they go the opposite way,” says Father Fidencio Avellaneda Reinoso, communications director for the diocese. “The people who are involved in the violence, they figure out ways to remain here at all costs and continue causing trouble.”

“There is a heavy security presence but nothing has changed,” agrees Father Javier. “Kidnappings, abductions, charging protection money from the business owners—and all this while there is a lot of security. The people don’t have enough confidence to report a crime to the authorities. The people are afraid to report a crime because they feel if they do the criminals will come after them.”

Since the discovery of Father Gregorio’s body, sources inside and outside the church have put forward versions of why organized crime chose to target him for death. Did he go to the authorities to file a report against the Guerreros Unidos drug cartel? Did he denounce the involvement of organized crime in the abduction and disappearance of 43 students in the nearby city of Iguala? Authorities in the Diocese of Altamirano say they are unable to confirm that their religious peer was killed for any specific principled stand against organized crime. “We didn’t see him involved in anything of that nature,” said Father Fidencio, who taught Father Gregorio when he was a seminary student. “Something like that could have happened at one time or another, but I can’t categorically confirm that that is what happened. I can’t confirm anything; I don’t know.”

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Father Javier was a classmate of Father Gregorio’s and said he does not believe his friend denounced one or another of the mafias active in Tierra Caliente. “I don’t believe that is true because Father was very peaceful in his ways,” he said. “What is true is that we the priests in this region have been calling for peace and justice for the people of this region. Because there is violence, there are kidnappings, there are extortions all the time, there are murders, entire families have disappeared, entire towns in the sierra have disappeared. So we do demand justice and we do speak up and make demands. But what more can we do if the government can’t keep us safe?”

Altamirano is located at the heart of Tierra Caliente in the state of Guerrero (the region includes parts of three neighboring states as well). To its immediate south is a mountain range of limited road access that is known to conceal vast plantations of poppy and marijuana. Altamirano is a small city at the foot of the mountains that connects the harvest to the eager markets for drugs in large cities like Mexico City, Morelia, Acapulco, and Guadalajara, all located within five or six hours’ drive. 

“Altamirano has always been a disputed territory,” said Father Javier. “As we understand it, there are three groups, but we don’t know exactly which is which. First, one fights with another, then they make an alliance, then they go back to fighting each other. That is why we never know what is happening.”

The duties of the parish priest in Altamirano bring him into regular contact with the illegal economy and with the violence endemic to the region: The family in grief over the kidnapping of a loved one goes to the priest to ask for his prayers; a family consults a priest for advice on a matter they are too afraid to bring to the attention of anyone else.

“The people are close to the parish priests; they take a spiritual strength that can mitigate in some way the pain the families are feeling,” says Father Fidencio. “So in that sense, the church is attentive to those moments, like when someone passes, the victims of one situation or another, well, it is necessary to be there for them. So in that sense we have gotten close to the families that have lost loved ones, be it from one side or the other. We have to share those feelings of concern that the people are feeling.

“There are times they come and ask for a baptism and if you don’t do it they start to threaten you; or a marriage, they even ask you to bless a car or a house. They don’t take no for an answer.”

The bishop of Altamirano, Maximino Martínez Miranda, said that criminals come to priests in his diocese demanding the sacraments of marriage or baptism, or even asking for blessings for a car or a house, and they don’t take no for an answer.

In the wake of Father Gregorio’s shocking murder, the diocese is bewildered and without any clear answers. Its members take solace in the message of support from Pope Francis urging them to “continue carrying out your ecclesiastical mission despite the difficulties, following the example of Jesus, the Good Shepherd.” Echoing the pontiff, Father Javier said they must keep the faith, “because in the end Jesus himself teaches us that he who seeks to save his life will lose it, but he who loses it in the service of the word of God will endure.”

As for more practical considerations for their safety, the clergy have resolved to keep one another informed of their whereabouts at all times. They have not asked for any special protection from the city police because, in the words of Father Fidencio, “We would have to pay for it. And what money we have is not for them.”

As for the federal authorities, they have made themselves available but the clergy have not requested special protection. “We haven’t asked them for special protection because we consider it a matter of having to learn to live with what our community lives with: fear for our safety. But we are afraid and we wonder to ourselves who will be next.