A report has condemned Mexico for being one of the most dangerous countries in the world for Catholic priests, just as the country readies for a much-anticipated visit by Pope Francis.
Today, Pope Francis embarks on his six-day tour throughout Mexico, where, since 1990, 52 priests have been killed, according to a recent report from Mexico's Catholic Multimedia Center (Centro Católico Multimedial - CCM). Of these murders, 40 occurred in the last ten years alone. The other 12 priests were murdered between 1990 and 2006.
Crimes against priests soared during the administration of former President Felipe Calderón (2006 - 2012), with 25 priests killed during his time in office. (See CCM table below) Through the first half of current President Enrique Peña Nieto's six-year term, the murder rate against priests rose further, with 15 murdered and at least two currently missing.
The percentage of priests being victims of kidnapping or torture has increased as well, jumping 100 percent during the first three years of Peña Nieto's term when compared with same time period under Calderón. Recently, in November 2015, Father Erasto Pliego de Jesús was kidnapped in Nopalucan, Puebla. His body was found days later on the side of the road and showed evidence of torture.
In addition to Mexico City, the states with the most cases of priest being murdered are Guerrero, Chihuahua, and Michoacán.
InSight Crime Analysis
While an exact cause explaining the increased targeting of priests in Mexico is difficult to pinpoint, the spike in priest murders during the Calderón-era correlates with the massive increase in Mexico's death toll during the height of the country's drug violence, when tens of thousands lost their lives.
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However, priests who preach messages of social justice and peace likely become direct targets in communities where criminal organizations hold sway. Omar Sotelo, a priest at CCM who tracks violence, told PRI that the activist role some priests play puts them on the frontline. "They're defending migrants, they're against drug trafficking," he says. "And the priests often know who the criminals are, having seen them grow up in the towns. Eventually, some criminals can see that as a threat." (Listen to the PRI story below)
Additionally, Sotelo said that, while older cartel bosses identify as Catholic, a new generation of crime syndicates and splinter cells have become "so dehumanized they target just about anything," according to Fusion. For instance, in 2014, priest Gregorio Lopez spoke out against the Guerreros Unidos, and was subsequently assassinated. Indeed, the states where priest murders are most frequent, such as Guerrero and Michoacan, are areas that have seen a surge of new, upstart criminal groups in recent years, including the Guerreros Unidos and Knights Templar.
During his visit, Pope Francis is anticipated to speak on the criminal issues plaguing Mexico. In a series of interviews with Notimex, the Pope said that he wants to be "an instrument of peace in Mexico" and urged citizens to "fight every day against corruption, against trafficking, against war, against division, against organized crime, against human smuggling."