Roman Catholic prelates in Michoacan state at last have drawn a line against local gangsters, and the officials nurturing them, further entangling what already was one of Mexico's more intractable knots of violence. But most of the Church hierarchy still seems reluctant to take a strong stand.
The bishops have jumped in as the homegrown Knights Templar gang squares off against civilian militias, rival gangsters and thousands of federal troops across the Pacific Coast state. In the latest sign of the worsening conflict, so-called "self-defense" organizations moved 400 militias to at least two more municipalities over the weekend, which they said were overrun with the Templars.
Frustrated with the Templars' seemingly unrelenting hold on Michoacan, the bishops are naming names while security officials and the militiamen promise offensives against the Templars.
“Michoacan has all the characteristics of a failed state,” Miguel Angel Patiño, 74, who retires at month's end as the longtime bishop of the Templar stronghold of Apatzingan, wrote in an October missive to parishioners.
The Knights Templar and other gangs battle for Michoacan “as if it were a pirate’s bounty,” while “municipal officials and police are either subjugated by or in collusion with the criminals,” Patiño accused. “The rumor spreads that the state government is also at the service of organized crime, which provokes society’s desperation and disillusion.”
SEE ALSO: Knights Templar Profile
Patiño and Michoacan's other bishops have complained about crime, corruption and carnage previously. They signed a public declaration expressing those concerns in May after well-armed anti-Templar militias formed in a half dozen towns belonging to Apatzingan's far-flung diocese.
But, like those of the Mexican Church's most senior leaders, the Michoacan clerics' past complaints were careful not to lay specific blame that could bring retribution. Now, led by Patiño, the bishops are squaring off directly against the gangsters and corrupt officials.
“Our families are filling with hate, with rancor, because of what they are experiencing,” Javier Cortes, second in command of Apatzingan’s diocese, told InSight Crime in explaining Patiño's decision to take a bolder stand. “The bishop doesn’t want children to see death as normal.”
The Apatzingan diocese, which Patiño has led for 32 years, encompasses much of the fertile Tierra Caliente, or “Hot Land,” that stretches from the sierra foothills to the sea. Violent crime long has been as oppressive as the heat here.
Gangs produce marijuana, heroin and methamphetamine in the area. They smuggle cocaine and meth ingredients through the nearby port of Lazaro Cardenas. And they round out their income through kidnappings and widespread extortion.
But in the past decade Patiño and his diocese' 67 priests also have contended with the mystical, quasi-Christian cult promoted by leaders of the Knights Templar gang and its processor, the Familia Michoacana. The struggle now is for Michoacan's bodies and souls alike.
Created by Nazario Moreno, a Familia founder who may or may not have been killed by federal police near Apatzingan three years ago, the Templars' creed demands that its gunmen defend Michoacan against all threats, treat its people with respect and adhere to strict loyalty to the gang. Whether dead or alive, Moreno has become something of a folk saint to his followers, who build shrines to him in Apatzingan and elsewhere.
“They were all born in the Catholic Church, but they aren’t practicing,” Cortes said of the Templar gunmen. “They’ve created an ideology that they put in people’s heads. It’s like the Holy War of the Muslims. You are going to die for Michoacan. You are going to live for Michoacan. Michoacan is everything.”
InSight Crime Analysis
The dilemma facing the Catholic Church in Mexico is part of the institution's historic struggle: how to maintain a safe, moral center in the face of public corruption, organized crime, violence and state repression.
In Latin America, Church hierarchy and laymen have often differed on the best strategy, with local priests and nuns frequently taking the first public stand and often suffering the worst consequences, the famous case of El Salvador's Archbishop Oscar Romero notwithstanding.
In Mexico, opinion polls consistently rank the Catholic Church as one of the most trusted institutions. Should the Church hierarchy follow Patiño's lead in standing up to both the gangsters and the government it might positively impact the violence that continues racking the country.
“There is a complete weariness with all of this,” a government security analyst in Morelia, Michoacan's capital said of the violence, speaking on condition his name or position not be used. “The church is the only voice left with any credibility.”
But it's not at all clear the hierarchy will take this stand. They appear to be too afraid, co-opted or do not see it as their primary role. The Vatican has reprimanded the Mexican Church in recent years for the willingness of some clerics to take donations from the gangsters and the too casual reaction of priests toward quasi-Catholic cults -- like Santa Muerte, or Holy Death – or widespread devotion of St. Jude, patron of lost causes, enjoys from criminals and street gangs.
Through the past seven years of gangland hyper-violence, the Mexican Church's senior leaders largely have limited their input to condemnations of the bloodletting that they blame on a prevailing “culture of death” in the country. Those comments have had little, if any impact.
The opaque nature of this relationship dates back at least 20 years. In 1993, gunmen pumped 14 rounds into Cardinal Jesus Posadas of Guadalajara as he arrived for a flight at the city's international airport. Officials said the killers had mistaken Posadas for Sinaloa Cartel boss Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, who bore no resemblance to him. Many, including Posadas' replacement as cardinal, say he was the target of a plot by criminals, officials or both.
These days, speaking out is becoming more dangerous for everyone, especially in places like Michoacan. Assailants recently abducted and murdered Ygnacio Lopez, mayor of the town of Santa Ana Maya near Morelia, shortly after he finished a three week hunger strike outside Mexico's senate in which he denounced Templar extortion of city halls.
Though they don't normally target clerics, organized criminal groups throughout Mexico never have shown much hesitancy about punishing priests, nuns and religious lay people who cross them.
A parish priest from Patiño's diocese was murdered last year by a local gang boss. Another from the Michoacan city of Zamora has been missing since abducted earlier this year in an area where the Templars have been fighting a rival band from neighboring Jalisco state.
Yet another priest was abducted by armed men in northeastern Tamaulipas state – the disputed territory of the Zetas and the Gulf Cartel – two weeks ago after saying mass in a battle-scarred town.
Mexico's Episcopal Conference, representing the country's more than 130 bishops, has backed up the Michoacan clerics, albeit cautiously. Planners scheduled just an hour out of a weeklong gathering near Mexico City to discuss the gangland threat and what the Church should do about it.
Senior church leaders “decided to learn the experiences of the bishops of Michoacan and Guerrero because they are the states where the violence has gotten worse,” Javier Navarro, the bishop of Zamora, said at a news conference last week.
Navarro has also complained publicly of government inaction against the Templars.
However, as has been common throughout this region's bloody history, most of the action and public outcry is coming from the lower echelons of the Church. Activist priests like Alejandro Solalinde have spoken out against the extortion and robbery of migrants by the Zetas and other gangs. Raul Vera, bishop of Saltillo, capital of the Zetas-dominated border state of Coahuila, has done the same. Consuelo Morales, a nun, leads a human rights group in neighboring Nuevo Leon state investigating disappearances at the hands of gangsters and security forces.
Now, Patiño, Navarro and a handful of other bishops might be joining them. But the extent of the prelate's activism, and the impact it might have, remains far from certain.
“The Colombian bishops organized very well in the days that the violence was very bad," Vera last week told the newspaper Reforma of the Church's role in trying to lessen that country's violence in past decades. "We haven't done so.
“Where are we as a church that we have so much corruption?” Vera asked. “What have we done?"