One of the world's most Catholic countries is also one of the most dangerous for priests.
Mexico, the land where the Virgin of Guadalupe appeared to campesino Juan Diego in 1531 and forever made the country a bastion of Catholic faith, now has the dubious distinction of being among the most dangerous places on earth for those in the priesthood, according to the news agency of the Vatican and Mexican clergy statistics.
A new report by Mexico's Catholic Multimedia Center (CCM) shows last year registered a 100 percent spike in violence against priests compared to the second year of former President Felipe Calderon's administration. Last year alone three priests were assassinated, while a fourth barely escaped a shootout, the report notes.
The most recent attack came in December, when a priest named as Gregorio Lopez was kidnapped and found dead in the southern state of Guerrero, where authorities also identified the corpse of an Ugandan priest in a mass grave.
Lopez was allegedly targeted for denouncing the activities of the infamous criminal gang Guerreros Unidos.
“We have nine deaths so far during this presidential term, and the persecution of the clergy continues,” CCM director and priest Omar Sotelo told Fusion. Sotelo said his colleagues are being attacked because they often find themselves at odds with drug cartels when protecting women, children, migrants and impoverished farmworkers from abuse and extortion.
He said his organization has been assembling the report, aptly called "The risk of being a priest in Mexico," for 8 years in the hopes it will cause an impact. Sotelo said he doesn't expect the The Vatican to take specific action, but hopes the Mexican government “starts working and exercises some authority.”
Though most old-school cartel bosses identify as Catholic, Sotelo said the new generation of crime syndicates and splinter cells have become “so dehumanized they target just about anything.” He said priests in the states of Chiapas and Guerrero who are actively protecting and sheltering Central American migrants have become a prime target for these groups.
“As a priest, I learned years ago that death walks among us and a threat from organized crime just gives death a face,” Florenzo Rigoni, an Italian missionary who manages a migrant shelter in Chiapas told Fusion. “I’ve been in Africa, in war zones, and I could say Chiapas is similar."
"Today poverty has lost its dignity and the fight for survival has turned some into animals, sparking gang wars, abuse, prostitution,” Rigoni said.
He added, "But there are also good journalists, politicians, humans that are deep in the trenches in the fight against organized crime. Priests are not the only martyrs in Mexico."