Mexico: Priests give Mass in bulletproof vests as threats increase
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Mexico: Priests give Mass in bulletproof vests as threats increase

Mexico’s priests have come under threat in recent years as a result of aggressive drug cartels operating in areas where their parishes are located.

Father Jesus Mendoza Zaragoza has a privileged view of the bay of Acapulco. However, the location of his parish, St. Nicholas of Bari, is also a problem.

For seven years he has had to get used to the informants of the cartel that controls the area around his church (known as ‘falcones’).

Sometimes they carry weapons, take drugs in classrooms or try to observe the arrival of police or military to the neighbourhood from the top of the church.

And they also pay attention if the priest, 61, speaks out of turn in Mass.

“I’m scared, but sometimes I do not have time to be afraid,” Mendoza tells BBC Mundo.

Mendoza has been with this parish for two decades, which is located in a deprived area of an Acapulco health spa that has seen better times.

He said that he has had to put security measures in place and that he has to take care in what he says to avoid being targeted.

Mass of priest attacks

Considered the most violent city in Mexico, and fourth in the world, Acapulco is located in the troubled state of Guerrero, the largest area of poppy cultivation in the country and one of the main trafficking routes.

Pope Francisco, currently on an official visit to Mexico, will travel to one of the most dangerous places for the priesthood, where there are church members who need bodyguards and others who have officiated Mass wearing bulletproof vests.

In the three years during the office of current President Enrique Peña Nieto, 15 attacks (13 murders and two disappeared) have been recorded, with the most recent cases reported in Guerrero state. During the presidency of Felipe Calderón (2006-2012) there were 25 recorded murders.

Last year, two priests were killed. The body of Jesus Pliego Erasmo was found in November partially burnt in Puebla and with signs of torture, while Francisco Javier Gutierrez was shot in the head in the state of Guanajuato in April.

Michoacán, where the Pope visited on Tuesday, is the third state with the highest number of attacks, with eight recorded.

In total, since 1990, 52 assaults have been reported against priests, seminarians, sacristans, a deacon, a cardinal and a Catholic journalist, and more than 3,000  Catholic churches have been desecrated in the past decade.

However, it is not considered that it is religious persecution, but rather a reflection of insecurity that runs through the country.

“A matter of time”

A decade ago Hugo Valdemar was asked why the drug traffickers didn’t interfere with priests.

His answer was, “it’s a matter of time, there will come a time that they will not respect anyone because that’s the evil mentality of criminals,” says the spokesman for the Archdiocese of Mexico in an interview with BBC Mundo

“It is worrying because we no longer see those limits of not going near priests in which organized crime previously had.”

On Tuesday, Pope Francisco urged religious Mexicans to not resign themselves to violence, drug trafficking and corruption, in a Mass celebrated in Michoacán.

“What temptation can come in environments often dominated by violence, corruption, drug trafficking?”  asked the pope in a festive Mass before thousands of worshipers.

“Faced with this reality we can beat one of the favourite weapons of the devil: resignation,” he said.

See also:

Mexico’s end-of-year crime stats paint a mixed picture

Mexico, Colombia among the best places to get away with crime