Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

Church and Narcostate

Mexico is at war with violence drug cartels that will stop at nothing to keep their dark trade going. Why is it taking so long for some Catholic clergy to speak out?

Ronaldo Schemidt/AFP/Getty Images
Ronaldo Schemidt/AFP/Getty Images
Ronaldo Schemidt/AFP/Getty Images

On May 24, 1993, 66-year-old Cardinal Juan J. Posadas Ocampo was at the Guadalajara airport with his driver, when he was assassinated by hired guns from a drug cartel. He never left that parking lot, thanks to the 14 bullets that riddled his chest. The killers were members of a Tijuana-San Diego gang that allegedly mistook his car for that of a competing drug trafficker. But most members of the clergy in Mexico think the gun battle was no mistake at all: They are convinced it was intended for him. Posadas Ocampo was known for speaking out against drug trafficking and the violence that it wreaked.

A decade and a half later, drug violence has consumed Mexico, leaving 12,000 dead in the first 2½ years of Mexican President Felipe Calderón's administration alone. And the mid-June murder of a priest and two seminary students in the state of Guerrero -- the scene of some of the most brutal drug-related violence -- has brought back eerie memories of Posadas Ocampo's death. The Mexican media broadcast the incident widely, asking: Were the drug cartels now targeting priests? Was Posadas Ocampo's death just an early precursor of the battle to come?

For now, the answer is likely no. Priests are among the most admired figures in Mexico, and cartels thrive when their respect within and control over communities is complete. But the incident raises questions about where the Catholic Church has come down on the drug issue and how the country and its villains have replied.

On May 24, 1993, 66-year-old Cardinal Juan J. Posadas Ocampo was at the Guadalajara airport with his driver, when he was assassinated by hired guns from a drug cartel. He never left that parking lot, thanks to the 14 bullets that riddled his chest. The killers were members of a Tijuana-San Diego gang that allegedly mistook his car for that of a competing drug trafficker. But most members of the clergy in Mexico think the gun battle was no mistake at all: They are convinced it was intended for him. Posadas Ocampo was known for speaking out against drug trafficking and the violence that it wreaked.

A decade and a half later, drug violence has consumed Mexico, leaving 12,000 dead in the first 2½ years of Mexican President Felipe Calderón’s administration alone. And the mid-June murder of a priest and two seminary students in the state of Guerrero — the scene of some of the most brutal drug-related violence — has brought back eerie memories of Posadas Ocampo’s death. The Mexican media broadcast the incident widely, asking: Were the drug cartels now targeting priests? Was Posadas Ocampo’s death just an early precursor of the battle to come?

For now, the answer is likely no. Priests are among the most admired figures in Mexico, and cartels thrive when their respect within and control over communities is complete. But the incident raises questions about where the Catholic Church has come down on the drug issue and how the country and its villains have replied.

Mexico’s Catholic clergy in the last two decades has played a crucial role in expressing the laity’s views on political and social issues, for example, pushing hard for the democratic change that came in the 1994 and 2000 presidential elections. Public opinion polls since the 1980s reveal that many Mexicans expect church leaders to take positions on important policy issues. So in the battle against drug cartels, clergy are an essential, on-the-ground ally to the state.

Still, the Catholic Church in Mexico does not speak with a single voice. Each diocese is led by a bishop, archbishop, or cardinal, and each of those church leaders functions independently from his colleagues, responsible only to the pope. Not surprisingly, bishops often espouse different positions, both in tone and content. At times, regional groups of bishops will offer joint messages through their homilies, public statements, or pastoral letters. The closest Mexico comes to issuing a central church position — to guide the 88 percent of the country’s 110 million people who call themselves Catholic — comes from an annual meeting of all Mexican bishops, the Conference of the Mexican Episcopate (CEM).

Until 1992, the Mexican Constitution placed heavy restrictions on what the church could say and do. The muzzling was a legacy of direct church involvement in politics; it had supported losing factions throughout the 19th century and again during the Mexican Revolution in 1910. When then-President Carlos Salinas loosened the rules a near century later, members of the church began speaking up, commenting on social, economic and political issues. Powerful critics of drug trafficking have emerged, Posadas Ocampo being among the first of his rank to do so. More recently, Raúl Vera, the bishop of Torreón in the important border state of Coahuila, has argued for a tougher government stance against governors and mayors who collaborate with drug traffickers.

The priest murdered in June might well have been among the cartel critics, though his views are still unclear. The bishop of the Acapulco archdiocese, where he worked, admits that the killings might be a case of reprisal by drug traffickers. Other news sources in Mexico suggest that seven bishops and 200 priests have been threatened with death amid the drug violence. And Fernando Castro Trenti, a senator from Baja California, claims that 300 priests have been forced to abandon their churches due to threats from drug traffickers.

Other chilling examples abound. In April, the archbishop of the state of Durango, Héctor González, publicly announced that Mexico’s most notorious drug trafficker, Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán of the Sinaloa cartel, was living near Guanacevi, Durango, "which everyone knew except the authorities." Drug killings increased after his pronouncement, and the bodies of two soldiers were found with a note warning that with "el Chapo" around, neither the government nor the church would truly be in control of the state.

So far, however, cartel action against the church remains the exception rather than the rule. After speaking publicly about the Sinaloa cartel, González and several priests were stopped at gunpoint and forced out of their vehicle by drug traffickers. But upon learning who they were, the heavily armed men apologized and quickly sent them safely on their way.

Indeed, there is some evidence that, at times, the church-cartel relationship swings to the other extreme. Some critics of the church have accused other priests or dioceses of accepting funds from drug dealers. Archbishop Carlos Aguiar Retes, CEM president, suggested last month that drug traffickers have given monies to churches and public works projects. In some cases, the cartels have constructed churches — often in Mexico’s poorest villages — in an attempt to ingratiate themselves with those communities. The CEM argues that such monies should never be accepted, though the reality is that they sometimes are.

Faced with all this, the usually decentralized church hierarchy has begun to broaden its posture on drug trafficking, urging all Mexicans to vote responsibly in the recent July congressional elections, for example, in which the country’s war on drugs was a top issue. At the CEM’s last general meeting in November 2008, the bishops implored the federal government, state governments, and political parties to form a pact to fight crime and corruption at all levels. CEM also issued a statement last month, "Tied to Our Neighbor …? Together We will Win," urging more U.S.-Mexican cooperation in tackling organized crime.

Polls taken during the recent July congressional elections suggest that most Mexicans remain unconvinced that their government can win the war on drugs. But if the church starts deploying the full weight of its moral and social authority, perhaps it could help inspire a little faith.

Roderic Ai Camp is professor of government at Claremont McKenna College.

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