Mexico’s Michoacan: Where priests tell people it’s OK to fight back

Father Andres Larios prepares to celebrate Mass Dec. 17 at a sawmill in Coalcoman, Mexico. Pope Francis plans to visit Father Larios' home state of Michaocan, where problems with drug cartel violence persist and priests are providing attention to victims of violence. (CNS photo/David Agren)
Father Andres Larios prepares to celebrate Mass Dec. 17 at a sawmill in Coalcoman, Mexico. Pope Francis plans to visit Father Larios’ home state of Michaocan, where problems with drug cartel violence persist and priests are providing attention to victims of violence. (CNS photo/David Agren)

by David Agren

COALCOMAN, Mexico (CNS) — Father Emiliano Mendoza Magana, pastor of the St. James the Apostle Parish in this town of timber cutters, recalls parishioners coming to confessions in past years with questions about grabbing guns and fighting back against a marauding drug cartel.

In early 2013 he recognized an uprising was in the offing state against the Knights Templar drug cartel, which carried out crimes such kidnappings, extortion of local lumber mills and cooking up methamphetamines in clandestine kitchens — even as it preached its own homespun religion. Father Mendoza’s counsel and refusal to condemn vigilante actions in Mexico’s western Michoacan could be construed as controversial for a churchman committed to promoting a culture of peace in a rugged region called Tierra Caliente (Hot Earth,) but understandable for a person increasingly attending to victims of violence.

“People were getting ready to rise up. . . but they weren’t quiet in their conscience,” Father Mendoza said after attending a parish Christmas concert in Coalcoman, 400 miles west of Mexico City. “I would say, ‘Act according to your conscience. If your conscience says it’s OK, trust it.'”

Priests like Father Mendoza confront such conundrums constantly in this oft-forgotten corner of the country, where poor parishioners pepper them with questions on the propriety of planting marijuana to pay medical bills, families face the horrors of kidnapping for ransom and young people sometimes see illegal activities as their only alternatives. They deal with dangers, too, as their ministries take them into hamlets where illegal activities underpin the economy and making public pronouncements in favor of acting properly can come at a cost.

Pope Francis will visit Mexico Feb. 12-17, a trip that should provide attention to peripheral places often at the heart of the country’s challenges with inequality, impoverishment and drug cartels — all issues an image-conscious federal government has preferred to avoid in favor promoting an economic agenda.

The trip will take him to Michoacan, where he will provide pastoral attention to priests, who in turn express expectations he will offer messages of hope and reconciliation for a state with an unhappy recent history of violence, victimization and emigration.

“We hope that with our population, especially with those that have fallen into criminal activities — who are often people that at one time believed — that the pope can touch their hearts,” said Father Javier Cortes, parish priest in the municipality of Buenavista. “It’s a high expectation: that he can bring about a change in this climate of violence that we’re experiencing.”

Pope Francis will spend Feb. 16 in the Michoacan capital, Morelia, meeting with clergy and religious in the Cathedral of the Divine Savior and addressing young people at the local soccer stadium.

Father Cortes said the schedule reflects two of the pope’s primary concerns in the state: the plight of priests and young people. Priests in the state often minister in regions rife with illegal activities, while those in Tierra Caliente lend moral and spiritual support to the self-defense forces formed to fight off the Knights Templar and have been killed for motives as frivolous as not allowing drug dealers to serve as godparents in baptisms.

“It’s a message to strengthen those of us working in areas and environments that are violent and conflictive,” said Father Cortes.

Youth issues are also a concern in Michoacan, where economic opportunities are scant, cartel leaders have served as role models and priests say schoolchildren would speak of wanting to become “sicarios” (hit men) when they grew up.

“Young people don’t have hope,” said Father Patricio Madrigal, parish priest in the town of Nueva Italia. “The pope is coming to give a message of encouragement. He’s coming to give it to them specifically.”

Priests in some parts of the state have spoken out against drug cartels — especially in Tierra Caliente, where then-Bishop Miguel Patino Velazquez of Apatzingan penned pastoral letters in 2013, which caught international attention for outlining the hardships inflicted by the Knights Templar and alleging inaction, incompetence and collusion on the part of the government officials.

Cardinal Alberto Suarez Inda of Morelia was elevated to his present position in February, in a move many priests interpreted as the Vatican showing preoccupation with the security situation in Mexico and Michoacan, Father Madrigal said.

“(The pope) will find many anxieties in Michoacan, much like (he will) in all of Mexico,” Cardinal Suarez said. “He’s coming to bring hope, joy and peace. (It’s) important because we’re needing these things.”

Michoacan, which unfolds to the west of Mexico City and is famed for an abundance of avocados and its world-famous monarch butterfly sanctuary, boasts a rich Catholic history, dating back the 1500s and its first bishop, Vasco de Quiroga, who was seen as a defender of indigenous populations.

Yet it’s been marked by emigration for the last half century as an estimated 3 million “Michoacanos” now live abroad, mostly in the United States. The illegal drugs business, meanwhile, developed deep roots in the Tierra Caliente region, and Mexico’s crackdown on narcotics trafficking started there in December 2006.

Vigilantes ran off the incumbent Knights Templar from towns across Tierra Caliente in 2013 and 2014, prompting the federal government to intervene by pinning badges on many in these impromptu police forces, whose ranks were infiltrated by many with allegedly unclean hands.

“These people, without weapons or much know-how, were able to pacify their towns and get rid of the narcos,” said Father Andres Larios, also a priest in Coalcoman and a party to the formation of the first self-defense force.

“Why couldn’t the government do this?” questioned Father Larios, who has proposed that the pope meet with victims of violence while in Morelia. “The only answer is corruption and collusion.”

Pope Francis may bring an equally critical message to Michoacan, but politicians are expected to embrace the visit enthusiastically. Some, like Father Larios, fear the trip will turn into photo-op for opportunistic politicians, who will ignore the main messages and trumpet the pope’s presence as proof their policies have provided sufficient security for an important international visitor.

“(They) will want to appear in pictures with the pope and use it for the next political campaign,” he said.

“We hope he his voice has resonance,” he added.

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