Mexico. Bishop in the narco-traffickers’ Sierra

Drug traffickers have taken over and keep capillary control of Sierra Tarahumara. People live in fear. Young people are in the hands of the cartels. Every day somebody disappears. We talked with Monsignor Rafael Sandoval, Bishop of the Tarahumara Diocese, in the southeast of the Chihuahua State in Mexico.

“Bands of drug traffickers keep capillary control of our Sierra. The inhabitants of the area live in fear. Our young people are easily manipulated, big drug cartels offer them easy money, firearms and power and many are ready to join criminal gangs. Armed clashes occur every day in my diocese. I can confirm that 80% of the population has experienced the murder of a loved one: a son, a husband or a brother “, said Msgr. Sandoval.

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“Because of the violence, Sierra Tarahumara is wounded and bleeding. The State is absent and drug gangs have taken over. The Sinaloa and Cuidad de Juarez drug cartels fight for the control of the area”. Since becoming Bishop of Tarahumara in 2005, Msgr. Sandoval has never given up denouncing the injustices that are perpetrated in his diocese. “We cannot remain silent in the face of many abuses,” urges the Bishop. “The Church must make its voice heard. Last May, on the occasion of our visit to Rome, Pope Francis reminded us that we must not be intimidated by the forces of evil, but we must be brave”.

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Msgr. Sandoval stressed the importance of offering pastoral care which, in his opinion, should be based on the following four priorities: “unity: people must see that bishops and priests are with them, on their side; identity: keeping on walking with God, despite spreading violence, is essential to preserve Christian identity; land protection: deforestation is one of the main causes that force people to abandon their land; the fourth priority is freedom. All four priorities are deeply interconnected: land, in fact, expresses unity and identity, and there is no freedom without land”.
Sierra Tarahumara is a very rich region. Huge areas of the Sierra were deforested to extract precious minerals from underground. Since ancient times, quantities of gold, copper, silver, have been extracted in order to be exported. Gold and silver mining along with the logging of forests, for the exportation of the precious wood, have increased soil erosion and have adversely affected the Tarahumara fields. The rivers of the region supply water to the Sinaloa and Sonora crops, as well as to those of Chihuahua, Texas and New Mexico in the United States. “Private companies and governments – underlines the Bishop – make money, thanks to the precious natural resources of this region, at the expenses of the indigenous people, the traditional owners of this land, who are exploited and oppressed. Just few poorly-paid jobs were created, while mega-projects are severely affecting the environment”.

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There is a strong presence of indigenous people in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Tarahumara: the Raramuri are the largest group. The name Raramuri means “foot-runner”. In the past, the Raramuri were known to hunt deer on foot, chasing them until the deer tired and could be felled. The Raramuri still live up to their name, expertly maneuvering the twisted terrain of the Sierra; even children sometimes have to travel for hours to reach the local school. Tarahumara is their language. In the region there are also other indigenous groups such as the Pimas, the Telehuanes, the Guarojilos and Mestizos.
“All these groups”, says Msgr. Sandoval ”have been, and still are oppressed and abused. The Church must be strongly committed to protecting human rights. We must stand on the side of these people, supporting them in their struggle for safeguarding their dignity and their land”.

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Twenty-five years ago the Commission of solidarity and human rights was established in order to create a culture of respect for human rights. “Our Commission – says Bishop Sandoval – assists people who have suffered injustices, related to the sectors of labour and criminal matters, perpetrated by authorities. We mainly focus our attention on the penitentiary system where major human rights abuses are committed. In recent years, the Commission has been present in the most decisive moments of struggle: on the occasion of the food emergency following the 2011 drought, or by carrying on fights against drug trafficking, or supporting the cause of the victims of disappearances”.
The Roman Catholic Diocese of Tarahumana covers an area of 31,353 sq. kms. and is home to 308 thousand inhabitants, 298 thousand of them are Catholics. Forty priests, twelve brothers and eighty-five nuns serve the 16 parishes of the diocese. “Unfortunately the number of priests is not enough to create more communities, which would be needed, since the diocese covers a rather vast area and it may take even twenty hours, sometimes, to go from one place to another. Serving here as a religious is not easy, because of distances and the level of danger”, says the Tarahumara Bishop.

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Msgr. Sandoval underlines the factors that, in his opinion, are essential to serve as missionaries in these regions. “Being prepared to see much pain. Standing on the side of people. Listening to them, instead of teaching, and resisting the temptation of acting as social operators. Announcing Jesus, without proselytism, with an open and sincere heart”.


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