Catholic leaders skeptical about Mexican president's security remarks
Members of the Fuerza Civil are silhouetted as they keep watch over the Independencia neighborhood June 6 in Monterrey, Mexico. Independencia became one of Monterrey's most crime-ridden neighborhoods after drug gangs tried to control the turf in 2010. Me mbers of Fuerza Civil, a tactical team of the police unit trained by the army, patrol the area to curb gang violence and drug trafficking. (CNS photo/Daniel Becerril, Reuters)
Catholic News Service
MEXICO CITY (CNS) -- Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto went the Vatican in early June, where he spoke with Pope Francis about "very encouraging information in the reduction of violence." The Mexican leader later said that homicide had dropped 24 percent over the first three months of 2014, when compared to the same period two years ago.
The claims come as Pena Nieto and his administration talk up the economic potential of Mexico and promote an agenda of structural reforms in areas such as energy, education and the economy -- all while downplaying insecurity.
But Catholic leaders attending a mid-June forum on violence and the church response at the Jesuit-run Iberoamerican University in Mexico City expressed equal skepticism over the president's statements that insecurity improved over the first 18 months of his administration.
"The only thing he did was stop talking about it," Jesuit Father Alfredo Zepeda, director of an indigenous radio station in Veracruz state, said of Pena Nieto's initial response to insecurity.
Homicides may be dropping, but anti-crime groups report increases in kidnap and extortion, while offenses committed against migrants -- including sexual assaults -- remain rampant. Church officials and human rights groups say the issue stirs as much debate now as during depths of the drug war, which began with then-President Felipe Calderon in December 2006, while little has changed under Pena Nieto -- who has had to confront crises such as a surge in self-defense groups in states like Michoacan and Guerrero.
"I have dead young people who aren't appearing in the official crime statistics," said Father Raul Diaz Quiroz, pastor of the Our Lady of Perpetual Help parish in Chilpancingo, capital of Guerrero, south of Mexico City.
"There's an undercounting of the crime numbers," said Abel Barrera, director of the Tlachinollan Mountain Human Rights Center, which serves the marginalized La Montana region of Guerrero -- an area, he said, where "people now prefer to keep a low profile after acts of violence for the difficulty of demanding justice."
The judicial system, which is undergoing reforms to introduce transparency and oral trials, operates "at the service of one of the parties involved" in each case, said Jesuit Father Jose Rosario Marroquin, director of the Miguel Agustin Pro Juarez Human Rights Center.
"The poorer of the parties won't see justice," he said.
Over the past seven years, as the crackdown on drug cartels and organized crime claimed more than 70,000 lives and left estimated 25,000 missing, victims of violence have often turned to the Catholic Church. But the church has often been timid or deferential to authority, while few dared to demand justice for victims or condemned the cartels.
Violence has been a vexing issue for the church, which has been "victim, victimizer and accomplice," said Bernardo Barranco, an analyst on Mexican church matters
"The church has suffered violence firsthand," Barranco said.
The Centro Catolico Multimedial said about 15 priests were killed between 2006 and 2012 in Mexico, and that was more than any other country in Latin America. Another 1,465 extortion attempts were made against priests in 2013, the magazine Emeequis reported.
"At the same time, the hierarchy has sent contradictory signals," Barranco said.
Mexican priests have committed crimes against children, most notoriously Father Marcial Maciel Degollado, the disgraced founder of the Legionaries of Christ. The Archdiocese of Tijuana confirmed June 20 that it suspended seven priests for allegations of sexual abuse.
Cartel Kingpins, who consider themselves Catholic, have sponsored patron saint parties, constructed and fixed chapels and parishes and laundered money through the collection plate. Some leaders have seemed more animated by social issues such as abortion and same-sex marriages than violence.
Pope Benedict XVI visited Mexico in March 2012, but said nothing on violence. The Mexican bishops' conference issued a 2010 pastoral letter on violence, which candidly criticized its own ministries for failing to foment Catholic values in its congregations.
"We've been guilty of omission," said Archbishop Alberto Suarez Inda of Morelia in Michoacan state, where ongoing violence led to the formation of armed self-defense groups.
He pointed to the large number of baptized Catholics committing crimes as proof the church need to put more of an emphasis on training its lay members.
"We need to ask forgiveness than we haven't instilled this (training and values) in the faithful," the archbishop said.
Analysts say the church is in a position to have an impact.
"The church has to denounce crimes, because people will listen to them," said Agustin, director of graduate studies at the Iberoamerican.
"In areas of Mexico, there is no law, (but) the church is an authority," said Helena Varela, professor in the political and social sciences department at Iberoamerican University.
More priests and religious are raising their voices against violence. The Archdiocese of Acapulco started a ministry for victims of violence, and it is being replicated by five more dioceses in area hit hard by crime. Bishop Miguel Patino Velazquez of Apatzingan issued a pair of pastoral letters on the violence in Michoacan, calling out public officials for complicity with criminals carrying crimes like kidnap and extortion. The bishops' latest letter also raised the issue of violence.