Despite Mexico ranking as the second-most devout Catholic country on the planet, clerics have found no salvation from extortion, beatings and even murder by organized crime.
The murder of two Jesuit priests and a tour guide inside a church in Chihuahua on June 20 sparked a national outcry. While up to twelve people have been arrested in connection with the crime, the suspected gunman remains on the loose.
The murder suspect, José Noriel Portillo Gil, alias "El Chueco,” was known as a leading member of the Salazar, a powerful cell of the Sinaloa Cartel in northern Mexico. He allegedly killed the three men after tour guide Pedro Eliodoro Palma ran inside the church of Father Javier Campos and Father Joaquín Cesar Mora to seek protection from the crime boss.
The murders sparked a massive manhunt and prompted authorities to offer a 5 million peso reward ($250,000) for information leading to El Chueco’s capture.
However, what happened in Chihuahua was no isolated incident. Mexico has repeatedly topped the list of the most dangerous countries to be a Catholic priest. Between 2008 and 2016, Mexico placed first every year, according to a report from the Catholic Media Center (Centro Católico Mulitmedial). In 2021, at least four church representatives were killed, Vatican News reported, bringing the total of priest murders to seven since President Andrés Manuel López Obrador took office in December 2018.
After the Chihuahua slayings, the Archbishop of Guadalajara, Cardinal José Francisco Robles Ortega, publicly complained about twice being stopped by criminal groups at informal “checkpoints” set up along freeways in the northern state of Jalisco. Another senior church official concurred. Sigifredo Noriega Barceló, the bishop of Zacatecas, one of the bloodiest states in Mexico, told the press that he had experienced the same.
At the start of July, Mexican newspaper Excelsior reported on the widespread extortion of churches in Mexico by criminal organizations. The report cited data from the Catholic Media Center, which found that 1,400 churches annually — some 12 percent of all churches in the country — had fallen victim to some form of crime, mostly robbery and extortion. Priests who resisted or refused were threatened or beaten.
But not all criminal groups are accepting of this practice. In a bid to stem violence toward religious leaders, a video purportedly issued by the Jalisco Cartel New Generation (Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación - CJNG) called for cartels to stop the harassment of religious groups, their leaders and followers, and to keep the war “between themselves.” The request, published on July 7, is reminiscent of the 2012 truce called by the Knights Templar (Caballeros Templarios) in honor of Pope Benedict XVI's visit to Mexico.
InSight Crime Analysis
Recent events have underscored how respect from certain local criminals towards the church has gradually been erased.
Historically, representatives of the church have played an important role as spokespersons for local communities and as mediators in conflict in Mexico, with varying levels of success.
Last year, the former Vatican Ambassador to Mexico, Franco Coppola, helped negotiate a ceasefire in Aguililla, Michoacán, the scene of intense fighting. However, the ceasefire was broken within 24 hours.
In Chilapa, a rural community in the southern state of Guerrero, two bishops reportedly helped reduce murders from 117 in 2017 to 14 in 2021 by entering into dialogue with the Ardillos, a local criminal group which has repeatedly targeted Indigenous communities.
Yet the continued extortion of churches and priests suggest that, at the local level at least, religious institutions make for tempting targets.
One member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, informally known as the Mormon Church, told Excelsior that criminal “codes” governing interaction with churches, including respecting funerals, have been disregarded.
But according to Guadalupe Correa-Cabrera, a leading expert on organized crime in Mexico, there is little to suggest that the country’s major cartels are orchestrating attacks against churches.
“We cannot allege that major crime groups that operate in organized ways [like the CJNG or Sinaloa Cartel] are those extracting rents from churches or religious groups as a formal strategy,” said Correa-Cabrera. “Cartels have diversified, but it isn’t proven that those groups focused on attacking religious groups are the same that sell drugs."
Instead, local cells that operate on behalf of these large groups — such as El Chueco’s Salazar gang — may find that extorting churches is worth the effort.
To further complicate the picture, Correa-Cabrera pointed out how Mexico is awash with smaller, local groups who falsely claim that they are part of larger criminal organizations.
In the wake of the Chihuahua murders, Bishop Noriega Barceló told newspaper Milenio that a “social pact” including the voices of cartel leaders must be constructed if the country’s plague of violence is to end.
Other church voices took a far more critical position, suggesting that the security strategy pushed by President López Obrador has resolved nothing.
The Mexican Episcopal Conference (CEM), an organization of Catholic Bishops, released a statement in June criticizing the government’s security stance, saying “it is time to review the security strategies that are failing." They also asked for an open dialogue between all members of society, including its criminal elements, to move toward peace.