Violence in parts of Mexico's western state of Michoacán has reached such a level that Catholic priests there have shifted from trying to negotiate peace to helping residents flee.
From May 18, local priests seem to have helped families abandon their homes and seek refuge from Aguililla, a small town in Michoacán that has taken center stage in a territorial dispute between a number of drug trafficking groups. Reports of roadblocks by criminal groups on highways out of the town led to an increase in people fleeing, Milenio reported.
“To get out, we have to go through checkpoints, different people, different armed groups,” Gilberto Vergara, a town priest, told Televisa. “It puts us in the eye of the hurricane.”
Previously, in late April, the Vatican's ambassador to Mexico, Franco Coppola, visited Aguililla and was reportedly able to negotiate a ceasefire, only for it to be broken within 24 hours.
As of late May, the church is now overseeing 39 shelters holding more than 1,500 former residents of Aguililla in the nearby town of Apatzingán. And for those that have chosen to migrate to the United States, the Catholic Church has set up a shelter on the border town of Tijuana specifically for Aguililla residents.
Dioceses are also writing a growing number of letters for those hoping to cross with an asylum claim.
Aguililla is located in Tierra Caliente, a region in western Mexico that has become one of the country’s most violent areas due to fighting between the Jalisco Cartel New Generation (Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación – CJNG), the Carteles Unidos and various local factions.
The violence has escalated in Aguililla since the leader of the CJNG, Nemesio Oseguera Cervantes, alias “El Mencho,” decided to retake control of the town where he was born.
This has led to food, gasoline and medicine shortages, increasing pressure on people to leave.
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Religious leaders in Mexico have often played the role of peacemaker, negotiating with criminal gangs to broker even temporary ceasefires. But the fact that even local priests in Aguililla are shifting their priorities to helping people flee reaffirms that the situation has become too dangerous to salvage.
This shift has come after the disheartening attempt by Coppola to bring calm. Coppola told local media outlets that he didn’t expect to solve the fighting but rather to highlight the suffering of locals caught in the middle, as well as to allow them to breathe and “retake possession of their streets."
Many criminal group members reportedly attended Coppola’s “Mass for Peace,” according to Milenio. But this did not stop the CJNG from reinstating a roadblock only a few hours after his departure. In the following weeks, the violence returned at full force.
Senior officials in the Church, including Coppola, have also been pressured to stay quiet about the growing violence.
"When I arrived (in 2018), they said to me in the foreign ministry: 'Monsignor, please don't talk so much about the violence in Mexico, which is harmful to tourism, then people don't come out of fear,'" he told reporters in April.
Recently, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has preached peaceful solutions at the same time that state government and other law enforcement agencies were militarizing parts of Aguililla, leading to confusion, casualties and an eventual withdraw of some government forces.