In Mexico's Drug War, Catholicism Endures a Test of Faith

Since Mexican President Felipe Calderon sent troops into his home state of Michoacan in 2006 to fight drug traffickers, U.S. and Mexican officials have described a growing free-for-all between warring cartels in the state where 10 mayors were recently detained and are being investigated for alleged ties to drug traffickers.
By Steve Fainaru and William Booth
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, August 11, 2009

TEPALCATEPEC, Mexico -- Father Miguel López drives the parish pickup truck across the muddy river that separates two warring drug cartels. He follows the winding road through the dark green foothills of the Sierra Madre until he comes to a rusting archway where traffickers hung the severed head of his friend.

The Roman Catholic priest spends his days navigating this dangerous terrain, a world he describes as "fallen." He prays with widows whose husbands disappeared in broad daylight, and gives Communion to the men who may have killed them. In the village where he grew up, at the end of this lonely road, his lifelong neighbors were too afraid to unbolt their doors when they heard screams for help in the middle of the night -- when an entire family, including four children, was kidnapped in June amid a clash between rival gangsters.

"The fear is one that we all share," López said, steering his gray truck through hills that conceal a vast network of marijuana farms and methamphetamine labs. "Sometimes I can't sleep at night. But these are the times when you have to define who you are. To do anything less is to be an accomplice."

Beyond the reach of the U.S. and Mexican governments in their fight against drug traffickers is an intimate, complex world of communal violence and crippled institutions. At the center of the drug war is Michoacan, a rugged, rural state in the southwest where all forms of traditional authority -- city hall, the military, police and even the Catholic Church -- have been unable to protect the people against the assassinations, kidnappings and extortions associated with the narcotics trade.

It is a world in which individuals like López struggle on their own.

President Felipe Calderón deployed 5,500 additional soldiers and federal police officers to Michoacan last month after an ascendant cartel called La Familia, which cloaks itself in religious extremism as it dismembers enemies, killed a dozen federal police officers and stacked their tortured bodies next to a highway. Soldiers and federal police retaliated by arresting two top lieutenants last week, as La Familia leaders attended church services in nearby Apatzingan. On Friday, La Familia hit men mounted an ambush against a convoy of federal police as they traveled down the main highway, wounding two officers.

How to confront this kind of violence against the state was a central topic in talks between President Obama and Calderón during their talks in Guadalajara this week.

"Every single town is now under the protection of one of the cartels," López said.

The Hot Land

Last week, as he drove two reporters through "tierra caliente," the heavily conflicted region dubbed the hot land, the introspective 42-year-old priest said the chaos is testing his faith. Most difficult for him to reconcile, he said, is the realization that the people responsible for creating "this reality of death and hopelessness in which we live are the same people we once baptized."

López said his own fear of dying was outweighed by the fear that he will not be brave enough to save his people. His struggle reflects those of other Catholic priests in Latin America who use their moral authority to defend the disenfranchised, sometimes at great personal risk.

"You know, they're going to [expletive] you one way, or they're going to [expletive] you another," the priest said of the traffickers. "And what can you do? Or, to be more exact, what are you most afraid of? To me, the worst thing would be that out of naivete, or out of stupidity, or out of fear, you didn't know when to speak or you didn't know what to say. What I ask from God is that He illuminate me so that I can do what I need to do."

The armed presence in Michoacan has been grafted atop an intricate network of social, political and economic relationships from which the cartels draw support. Julio César Godoy, the half brother of Michoacan's governor and a recently elected federal legislator, is currently on the run from authorities, accused of ordering the massacre of the federal police. Authorities say that Godoy is a leader of La Familia and that he is called "comandante" within the group. López's own uncle, Genaro Guizar Valencia, a U.S. citizen who was elected mayor of the tierra caliente town of Apatzingan, was recently arrested on charges of aiding La Familia.

CONTINUED     1           >

© 2009 The Washington Post Company