It was around midday when the armed gunmen entered the chapel. Father Rafael Bonilla López** was administering mass.
In his small, rural town in western Mexico’s Tierra Caliente, or "Hot Land" region, it wasn’t uncommon to see men with high-powered weapons walking the streets or riding around in convoys of pickup trucks. Members of the Jalisco Cartel New Generation (Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación - CJNG), one of the country’s foremost criminal organizations, had come roaring past the church before.
But this was the first time they’d entered the building. López told InSight Crime later there were nine of them in total, and they came in through the front door.
All “jóvenes,” he said -- no more than 30 years old.
This area between the states of Jalisco and Michoacán has long been a key battleground for a smattering of criminal groups, due in large part to its strategic location for synthetic drug production and its role as a national agricultural hub.
SEE ALSO: Can Mexico’s Jalisco Cartel Win the Turf War for Michoacán?
From its home base in Jalisco, the CJNG has carried out a years-long campaign to expand into Michoacán and across Tierra Caliente to exert control over certain criminal economies. It’s competing against local groups like the New Familia Michoacana, the Viagras, and remnants of the Knights Templar, which have at times operated together alongside other independent groups under the banner of the so-called Cárteles Unidos.
López later told state officials in an official complaint that he “should have expelled these people for bringing weapons into the house of God.” But, he added, he “didn’t want to interrupt mass.”
The service that day was special. Earlier that month, armed gunmen, presumably linked to the Sinaloa Cartel, had murdered two Jesuit priests inside a church in broad daylight in the northern state of Chihuahua. López had consecrated that day’s worship to the memory of his fellow priests that had been victims of the extreme violence plaguing Mexico.
After he finished mass, the armed group waited for López and his colleague outside. As he left the chapel, one of the older men in the group threatened the priest repeatedly.
“I want to talk to you,” López remembered the man demanding. “I want you to know that I and my group are the ones that control this area.”
In the days that followed, concerned community members offered to help López leave the state. He declined.
“[If I left], I would undermine the spiritual strength of the Catholic Church and would not fulfill the religious vocation to which I have consecrated my present life and my eternal life,” he wrote in his complaint.
A Land of Riches
Having served as the local priest for more than three decades in this region, López has seen several organizations come and go. They are not all the same.
At first, there was the Milenio Cartel. The group relied on alliances with the Sinaloa Cartel to become major methamphetamine traffickers. Then came the Familia Michoacana, which started at the behest of another group, the Zetas, before going on to expel the Zetas from Michoacán. A series of deaths, arrests, and internal fractures lead to the demise of both groups and gave way to several other groups.
Among them was the CJNG. Prior to their arrival, things were not perfect. But López said the traffickers were more tolerant of civilians. The Jaliscos, as they are popularly known, brought with them a more aggressive style.
“The change was that the other drug traffickers got along with the local population, and the new drug traffickers attacked them,” he explained.
SEE ALSO: Funeral Massacre Latest Example of Extreme Violence Causing Michoacán Exodus
Specifically, López said the CJNG has murdered, disappeared, and expelled more people than the previous organizations. Their fighting with other groups has also led to displacement and flight from the village.
López says the town is down to about 100 people and populated almost entirely by people aged 60 and up. The absence of young people has slashed available services and hobbled the local economy. On the afternoon we visited, just one small convenience store opened its doors. And the school nearby was nearly empty.
“People want to live in peace, but they no longer want to live here because of the insecurity.”
López’s problems continued after the men entered his church, and he went to the authorities. Shortly after he filed the complaint, López heard the echo of three gunshots fired just outside town.
He felt a sinking feeling in his stomach. Probably an automatic weapon, he thought; they were sending him a message.
Few people here have stood up to the CJNG -- or to other criminal groups for that matter. Residents have learned it’s better to keep quiet, avert their eyes, and pretend they do not hear anything.
But the priest hasn’t. The death threats and demands for him to flee the municipality altogether -- or face the consequences -- have since become constant.
“They wanted to kick me out, but I didn't want to leave,” López told InSight Crime. “I held on, and here I am.”
*Victoria Dittmar and Carlos Arrieta contributed reporting to this article.
**For security reasons, InSight Crime changed the names of those interviewed.