Catholic leaders cautiously address violence in Mexico

By David Agren

Catholic News Service

Authorities say thieves in search of money to fund a drug habit murdered Father Jose Flores Preciado, an octogenarian known for hearing afternoon confessions in the cathedral of the coastal state of Colima.

The Diocese of Colima and its leader, Bishop Jose Amezcua Melgoza, responded with a call for silent marches Feb. 17 and 18 –– heeded by an estimated 10,000 residents in three cities hit hard by Mexico’s crackdown on drug cartels and organized crime.

"We want to be (agents) of peace and, at the same time, we wish that our march is a strong call to the conscience and conversion of everyone," Bishop Amezcua said afterward.

Such marches might appear minor, but they signaled a slight shift in the church’s response to the brazen violence in Mexico, which the Interior Ministry says has claimed nearly 70,000 lives since late 2006 and left more than 27,000 people missing.

Church leaders have mostly stayed on the sidelines as the violence spread, calling for prayer, responding to allegations its parishes laundered drug money through its collection plates and releasing a pastoral letter in 2010 that even they admit had little impact. They seldom challenged government authority –– not entirely unexpected in a country with a history of sour church-state relations.

"We must remember that creating a secure environment is the responsibility of everyone," the Mexican bishops’ conference said in a statement supporting the Colima marches.

The marches and pronouncements in favor of peace fail to go far enough for the few priests who have protested the drug war since the start and called for church condemnations to include corrupt public officials and the police and soldiers accused of committing excesses.

"Many people ... don’t see that the church reacts with bravery, audacity (or) with a prophetic voice," said Father Oscar Enrique, director of the El Paso del Norte Human Rights Center in Ciudad Juarez.

But with the marches in Colima came the revelation that 30 priests in the diocese reported being asked to pay extortion money. In neighboring Jalisco state, Cardinal Francisco Robles Ortega of Guadalajara revealed that at least three priests and many religious had been extorted. He also highlighted the case of a priest in Michoacan state, who went missing in late December.

Priests also have led marches in the state of Zacatecas, where the Los Zetas criminal group extorts people with relatives living in the U.S., and Acapulco, which a Mexican think tank recently ranked the second-most-violent city in the world.

"Many family members of those kidnapped or killed want revenge," Father Marco Antonio Marquez, 31, who organized the Zacatecas march and celebrated Mass for the missing, told the newspaper Reforma. "We tell them that the way to change is with Christ, carrying the message of joy, respect, care and love. These are our weapons, not violence."

Archbishop Carlos Garfias Merlos has made providing attention to the victims of crime the focus of his pastoral work since arriving in Acapulco more than two years ago.

The archdiocese has established victims programs in four parishes, training members to reach out to those who have lost loved ones or experienced extortion and kidnapping.

The Acapulco pilot program, which provides psychological and spiritual assistance, will expand to five more dioceses and plans are under way to add legal services.

Other church efforts have focused on finding forgiveness, as explored in the "Brother Narco" series of short films, which has garnered national attention. It comes as the new presidential administration addresses the economic promise of Mexico instead of the struggles of the drug war.

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