The power of criminals continues to grow in the country. Priests are not spared threats and intimidation, but they continue to denounce crime and injustice.
The photo has been seen all around the world: Father Goyo celebrating mass, in a bullet-proof vest. “I’m not afraid, however the bullet-proof vest protects me,” said the priest, pointing out the bullet holes, silent witnesses of the last of two ambushes he suffered at home.
Father Goyo, diminutive of Gregorio López Gerόnimo, is the parish priest of St. Joseph the Workman in Apatzingan, one of the most violent cities in the State of Michoacán, in the eastern part of the country. This area, called Tierra Caliente, or ‘Hot Land’, because of the scorching weather but whose name has also come to signify criminal activity, is controlled by the Knights Templar Cartel, who kidnap, intimidate, extort money and kill the locals. Many would like to see Father Goyo dead. This grouchy-faced priest, in fact, continues to denounce collusions between local power, businessmen and drug traffickers, giving first and last names. His accusations are precise and cannot be wrong, ‘his people’ are in fact his source.
“I know very well how things work in this area and in many other parts of the country where school children’s only one desire is to become members of crime organizations, in order to make good money. If we don’t take measures against crime now, fifty percent of the next generation will be made up of killers, while the other half will have left the country”.
At least a dozen of priests along with Father Goyo are in the sights of criminal organizations In the State of Michoacan. The Archbishop of Morelia, Cardinal Alberto Suárez Inda, urged his priests to be extremely cautious and to wear the bullet-proof vest. The Federal Police have delivered about thirty bullet-proof vests to the Archdiocese of Morelia and to several priests of the Diocese of Apatzingan, Tacámbaro and Zamora. “We have been intimidated and threatened by organized crime since we have started to denounce violence and above all since we have started to give the names of criminals to the authorities”, says Father Goyo. The parish priest of St. Joseph was among those who openly accused Servando GomezMartinez, head of the Knights Templar, of being the main person responsible for the murders and disappearances of some people in the Tierra Caliente.
The Bishop of Apatzingan, monsignor Miguel Patiño Velázquez was the first to denounce narco-traffickers. Since then, priests have been in the sights of the local criminal organizations.
Last October, Bishop Arturo Lona Reyes, Archbishop Emeritus of Tehuantepec, in the southeastern part of the State of Oaxaca, received a telephone call threatening him with murder. Monsignor Lona Reyes is very well-known in Mexico for his ten-year defense of the rights of indigenous peoples. The Bishop has already suffered eleven attacks. Local authorities have taken measures to protect the brave bishop, who following the Iguala’ s events, condemned the disappearance of 43 students. Drug dealers probably hesitate to take a definitive step toward him, killing the beloved bishop, in fact, would turn out to be an unpopular decision. The Archbishop is not scared and continues his fight against violence and crime, “I belong to the indigenous. It takes more than a threat to make me change my mind”.
According to the Mexican Episcopal Conference, thirty-nine religious have been killed over the past 24 years. Thirty-six were openly murdered, the remaining three have disappeared. Besides them, four lay people, including a journalist working for a Catholic newspaper, have also been killed.
The last priest to be killed was Father Ascensiόn Acuna Osorio, who was murdered in September 2014. His body was found floating on the river Balsas and showed signs of torture. He was just 37 and he served in the Diocese of Ciudad Altamirano, one of Mexico’s most violent areas. The lifeless body of don Gregorio Lopez Grosotieta, 39 years old, who had disappeared on the evening of December 21, 2013, was found on Christmas day in the town of Colonia Juárez, municipality of Tlapehuala, in the Diocese of Ciudad Altamirano (Mexico) to which the religious belonged. The priest, who was a professor at the Major Seminary ‘Anunciacion’, died of asphyxiation, a few hours after the kidnapping. According to some witnesses, he was allegedly kidnapped from the Seminary and forced into a car.
In November 2013, two priests were murdered in the State of Veracruz: Father Hipolito Villalobos, 45, and Father Nicolas de la Cruz Martinez. The local church accuses the Jalisco New Generation and the Los Zetas cartels of being responsible for the two murders. In February 2013, Father José Flores, belonging to the Cristo Rey parish in the State of Colima, was beaten to death.
The remains of a Ugandan Comboni, Father John Seenyondo, 62, were found in a mass grave, on 29 October 2014, while the police were searching for the bodies of 43 missing students in Iguala. Father Seenyondo had arrived six years earlier in Guerrero, after serving in Tlacotepec. Afterwards he was assigned to serve in the Church of Nejapa, in the municipality of Chilapa. He had received permission to join the local clergy in the Diocese of Chilpancingo-Chilapa a few weeks before his death.