Alfredo Gallegos Lara is 6-foot-4, sings country music and keeps a 9mm pistol tucked into his belt. No ordinary gunslinger, he may be Mexico's most unusual parish priest.
One recent afternoon, Gallegos, 52, pulled off his religious vestments behind the altar of the Catholic church in this sleepy town in central Mexico, revealing jeans, crocodile boots and a shiny black pistol. Mexico has strict laws forbidding private citizens to carry guns, but Gallegos said he has always informed police about them and the police haven't complained. After all, his pistols are why the unorthodox priest, with a growing following in Mexico and the United States, is called "Padre Pistolas."
"Four of my friends have been killed, and three of my trucks have been stolen," he said, explaining that his ministry to drug addicts and the sick takes him through the back roads of central Mexico, where it is wise, he said, to be armed. The youngest of 10 children in a wealthy family with a long history of military service and fine marksmanship, Gallegos boasts that he can pick off a soft-drink can at 80 feet.
Ever since he entered the seminary at age 14, his handling of guns has been drawing popular attention as well as criticism from his church superiors.
"I have been fighting with the bishop. He is so angry with me. He doesn't like my gun," Gallegos said.
He said Archbishop Alberto Suarez Inda is also uncomfortable with his high-profile fundraising and construction projects. Gallegos has built 40 miles of roads, as well as basketball courts, schools, churches and bridges in and around Jaral del Refugio in the neighboring state of Guanajuato, where he was the parish priest for 24 years. He said he raised millions of dollars for the projects. He makes frequent fundraising trips to Illinois, North Carolina and California, and migrants there have encouraged him to create a Padre Pistolas Web site, key chains, CDs and posters.
Gallegos said he has gone hunting with law enforcement officers in the United States and sung to standing-room-only crowds in Chicago's popular Concordia Restaurant. Town President Ramiro Gonzalez of Cicero, Ill., just outside Chicago, has helped him arrange fundraisers and traveled to his parish in Mexico to see his public works projects.
Gonzalez said that migrants return to their Mexican home towns from well-paved American cities and "see that the roads are the same way they were a billion years ago and they say, 'How much can this cost? $10,000? Then let's get together and do it.' '' But they need someone trustworthy to handle the money, he said, someone "with the magnitude of leadership of Padre Pistolas."
Still, Gallegos's guns and his super-sized persona have gotten him into hot water with the local bishop, who wants him to leave building roads and hospitals to the government and televised musical performances to entertainers. "He wants me to stick to baptizing children and saying Mass," Gallegos said.
"Is that possible?" he is asked.
"Oh, no!" he responded with a wink.
Suarez, the bishop, declined to be interviewed. "Oh, God," moaned the person answering the phone in his office in Morelia, when asked for a comment about Padre Pistolas. "Don't pay too much attention to him."
But it is hard not to. He has a powerful singing voice that draws applause wherever he starts singing -- at Mass, in restaurants, on the street corner. He is unabashedly comfortable with his attention-grabbing role as the singing, swaggering Padre Pistolas.
This month, Suarez removed Gallegos from Jaral. Tearful followers sent him off with a parade.
"We miss him a lot," said parishioner Maria de los Angeles Guzman. "His leaving had affected the whole town."
Valentina Guzman, another Jaral resident, started crying when asked about him. "He built our roads and bridges. When I hurt my foot, he took care of me," she said. "And he is such a good singer."
Recently, Gallegos had started raising money for a hospital and museum in Jaral. "The hospital had not been approved by the government," said Jose Angel Parrales Espinoza, an official in that municipality. "We agree that there should be a regional hospital. But things should be done in a correct way." Still, he said, Padre Pistolas is "an original," loved by many people.
Gallegos's towering size adds to his larger-than-life character. So does his manner of dressing; he frequently wears traditional mariachi and Mexican cowboy outfits. He is in constant motion, offering a visitor lunch, tequila, photo albums of his public works and a video of Jaral parishioners protesting his departure. One carried a sign with this message to the bishop: "Change your advisers, not the priest."
Gallegos was reassigned to this town of 3,000 in Michoacan state, 25 miles east of the capital city of Morelia, where men are nearly as hard to find as snow in the scorching summer heat. Most of the men have gone to the United States because there is so little opportunity here, town officials said. One official, Francisco Garibay Arroyo, said his impoverished town wanted somebody who could raise money and make improvements, and didn't mind Gallegos's "custom of collecting guns," even if it was unusual.
But if the priest's removal from Jaral was meant to quiet him, it has only added to his celebrity. To make his point about his growing fame, he tossed two dozen local newspapers on the floor with a loud thud. All of them carried headlines about the ouster of Padre Pistolas. "And this is just in the last 15 days!" he said, adding that journalists from as far away as Japan have sought him out for interviews.
In his new living quarters in a crumbling 500-year-old stone church in the center of town, Gallegos keeps two guitars and has begun arranging music lessons for children. On a recent afternoon, he burst into song, accompanying his own CD playing in the background. He sang with such gusto that people in adjoining rooms popped their heads in, amused that their new priest was belting out famous Mexican songs about love.
"He is modern, not like past priests," said Benita Ruiz Medina, one of his new parishioners, as she applauded his singing.
Gallegos said he loves the Catholic Church but that its leaders need to worry less about his guns and more about the church's more significant problems, such as the recent pedophilia scandals in the United States and the fact that some Mexican priests, including several he knows, have broken their vows of celibacy and fathered children.
Gallegos said he's heard gossip that he's a womanizer, which he denies. "I like women," he said with his mischievous smile. "But I kiss the ladies when I am asleep."
"Having a lot of money and sex is not the way to go. To be a priest is in my heart."
So with a tiny gold pistol on a chain around his neck, one of the many presents he said supporters have given him, Gallegos showed a visitor around his town and excitedly talked of his vision for it. If local hot springs were spruced up, a new connector road to a main national highway built and the facades of 200 downtown homes polished, the town would draw tourists.
"And maybe even filmmakers," he said.