Deadly Vocation: Priesthood in Mexico
by Chari de Dennis
Rev. Benjamin Flores (a pseudonym for his protection) is one more Catholic for whom priesthood in Mexico has become a most dangerous vocation. In the summer of 2016 the Zetas cartel threatened this 35-year-old priest. Christian Today and the Catholic Multimedia Center (CCM) report over 50 assassinations of priests across Mexico since 1990. Mexican priests are caught in the general crossfire of drug trafficking violence, but are also targeted because of alms money in their care and because they preach against injustice and violence. The attacks can also be to obstruct their humanitarian work for Central American migrants who pass through Mexico and are used as drug mules. Priests’ activities run against drug money interests and the message to them is clear: keep quiet or die.
Rev. Flores has cause for worry. In his home state of Veracruz alone, 722 people have disappeared since January 2014. Five priests have been killed since 2010. On April 27, 2010, Rev. Florentino Carmona Méndez was robbed in the Espíritu Santo Parish and died of multiple contusions. The execution of Rev. Hipólito Villalobos Lima and Rev. Nicolás de la Cruz Martínez of the San Cristóbal Parish took place on November 29, 2013. A sharp object and asphyxiation were used. An armed commando abducted Rev. José Suaréz de la Cruz and Rev. Alejo Nabor Jiménez on September 21, 2016 from Our Lady of Fátima. After being kidnapped and tortured, their bullet-riddled bodies were found the next day. CCM reports that of the attacks against priests and other church figures in the country, 44% involve kidnapping and torture, 35% involve a robbery at a parish, 15% come from aggression on the street, and only 6% are due to unknown causes. Priests face extortion and daily threats by phone and written messages. Yet, they are not the only social justice defenders who are being targeted by organized crime.
The NY Times reports that in Mexico, “at least 104 journalists have been murdered since 2000.” The Committee to Protect Journalists has documented that in the past decade 21 Mexican journalists have been killed with complete impunity. Meanwhile government corruption and a lack of transparency at the city, state, and federal levels by investigators leave cases largely unresolved.
In theory, individuals or groups fighting for social justice and human rights such as journalists and priests can avail themselves of several resources. The United Nations General Assembly’s 1998 Declaration on Human Rights Defenders seeks to protect and support them. Mexico’s 2012 Law for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders and Journalists aims to provide protection measures. The UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders can request the national government to take all appropriate action on behalf of a defender. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights can request Mexico to adopt precautionary measures. The National Human Rights Commission (CNDH) in Mexico investigates events and makes suggestions to the government. But ask Rev. Flores how confident he is in any of these measures after a mass grave with 250 human skulls was found in Veracruz in March 2017.
To let his family know he is still alive, every morning he texts them cheerful memes with short prayers and inspirational quotations accompanied by vibrant celebratory graphics. He prefers not to talk about the psychological trauma he feels. But deep inside he dreams of migrating to the U.S. or Canada. Since his mother has a bad heart, his father downplays the ordeal with the view that, “there have always been things going on; it’s just that now you hear of it more with social media.” He adds nervous laughter.
Perhaps a “Committee to Protect Priests” ought to be convened by the Vatican and Archdioceses of Los Angeles and Veracruz to hold press conferences, alert the world to the atrocities, and hold the Mexican government accountable for actually prosecuting the perpetrators. The Vatican has policy on gluten in communion bread. Maybe it can draft a policy on saving the lives of its priests. If it were not corrupt itself, the Mexican federal government could rid city halls and police departments of cartel influence. Real power may lie among U.S. consumers, as they are world’s predominant purchasers of Colombian cocaine and heroin trans-shipped through Mexico. They could stop driving the market for the bloody billion-dollar industry. At the bare minimum, Trump might become more compassionate to Mexican immigrants, who face a daunting geopolitical situation that leaves little room for even peaceful pastoral work.