According to the Catholic news portal CCM, Mexico is the most dangerous country in Latin America for priests. “For the ninth year in a row, and even though no wars are being fought on our soil, our country is the nation with the highest number of murders of priests,” said priest and journalist Sergio Omar Sotelo Aguilar.
Father Sergio Omar is a member of the Missionary Society of St. Paul the Apostle and director of the Catholic Multimedia Centre (CCM). In an interview with the pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), he explained why 2017 was a disastrous year for the clergy and church in Mexico. “Religious freedom has been completely undermined in Mexico and severely threatened by organised crime,” he stated.
He then told ACN that, in many cases, the death of a priest does not happen by coincidence or because of an unlucky encounter with ordinary criminals. “In 80 per cent of the cases, the murderers use a modus operandi that includes everything from defamation to extortion, abduction to torture, kidnapping to murder. Unscrupulous media then ‘explain’ or ‘justify’ the murder of a priest by spreading all sorts of rumours – they sometimes accuse the victims of being alcoholics or even child molesters.”
Denigrated and slandered victims
After the September 2016 murder of Father Alfredo López Guillén, a priest in the town of Janamuato in the archdiocese of Morelia, the governor of the state of Michoacán, Silvano Aureoles, spread the rumour that the priest may have been a paedophile. The Mexican Episcopal Conference (CEM) unequivocally denounced this allegation.
The state of Michoacán, located along the Pacific coast and one of the 32 Mexican states, struggles under the violence of the drug cartels due to its strategically important location on one of the drug routes. The priests, who denounce drug trafficking as well as the corruption of government agencies and the police, have landed in the crosshairs of the so-called sicarios, contract killers who work for drug dealers and their accomplices.
Aggression that follows the same pattern
Four other priests were murdered in 2017. Two of them fell victim to an attempted kidnapping, the other two died during bomb attacks on the Cathedral of Mexico City and the offices of the Mexican Episcopal Conference. These are in addition to the hundreds of threats and cases of blackmail targeted at priests and bishops, Father Sergio Omar said. There were 884 cases in 2017 alone. Torture was involved in 80 per cent of the cases in which priests were murdered. This illustrates the strategy of terror used by the drug cartels. “Killing a priest also sets an example, symbolises a demonstration of power by the criminal organisations.”
A cardinal and 47 priests were murdered
The research department of CCM maintains an exact and up-to-date register of priests, religious and lay persons in the service of the church who lost their lives or received serious threats in 2017. Similar to journalists, they have also become the targets of organised crime because they are considered to be opinion leaders who have joined the fight against the organisations. Organised crime has become even more powerful because it has formed alliances with politicians, judges and certain circles within the police and security forces. “It causes decay in society from top to bottom!”
Father Sergio Omar, who worked as the secretary of the Episcopal Commission for Communication of the CEM, describes the actions of organised crime and the drug cartels as targeted persecution. Entire communities have left their villages and the area after receiving threats from these criminal organisations.
The CCM data on the “veritable religious persecution” has just been released in a book published by Father Sergio Omar Sotelo Aguilar. The book is a record of pastoral workers who were killed between 1990 and 2017: in addition to Cardinal Juan Jesús Posadas Ocampo, the archbishop of Guadalajara who died on 24 May 1993 at Guadalajara Airport, it also includes the names of 47 priests, a deacon, four religious, nine lay persons in the service of the church and a Catholic journalist.
The situation is becoming more and more dire
In this nation of 120 million inhabitants, 80 per cent of which are Catholic, the authorities reacted to most of the murders with complete indifference. In the last five years, 19 priests and two lay persons were murdered. Two priests are still missing. This has to change, Father Sergio Omar said, “We cannot remain silent as the blood of thousands of Mexicans is shed. This is why we are directing an urgent appeal to the federal government of Mexico, to the authorities of the various states and to the city governments: we want them all to guarantee that pastoral care can safely be carried out in regions beset by uncontrolled, growing violence. We cannot remain silent!”