Priests 'fed up' with Mexico's drug gangsters
By Tim Johnson
Published: Saturday, Jan. 18, 2014, 8:30 p.m.
APATZINGAN, Mexico — In medieval times, a powerful Christian military order, the Knights Templar, fought during the Crusades. Today meth-peddling gangsters have taken the Templar name and, in an ironic twist, they are finding Catholic clergy among their fiercest enemies.
In the embattled state of Michoacan, priests are openly backing armed vigilantes who are waging war against the Templars.
Some priests allow the vigilantes to ring church bells to summon citizens to meetings. Others use their pulpits to lambaste local and state officials for colluding with the Knights Templar.
The anger of the clergy is aimed with equal vehemence at gangsters and at government officials, who they say have not done enough to rein in crime and extortion.
On Sunday, priests across the Apatzingan diocese will read a scathing pastoral letter from Bishop Miguel Patino Velazquez that will accuse federal police and soldiers of doing little to capture Templar bosses.
“Their leaders are fully identified and yet no authority stops them,” the letter states.
Michoacan, an agricultural region along the Pacific, has been the site of criminal turmoil for a decade, when gangsters turned the area into a hub for production of methamphetamine, adding to their marijuana and cocaine smuggling business.
Since last year, the campaign by armed civilians has spread across nearly a third of Michoacan. The vigilantes call themselves self-defense groups or community police, and they have won broad citizen support — from large farm owners down to tortilla vendors.
In barely 11 months, the vigilantes have occupied at least 15 townships. In each, they have disbanded municipal police and run off politicians believed linked to organized crime.
On Monday, the country's interior secretary, Miguel Angel Osorio Chong, stepped in as the vigilante groups nearly encircled this city of 140,000, the center of the Knights Templar empire, for fear that an attempt to dislodge the gangsters would lead to a bloodbath.
Osorio Chong announced the deployment of more federal police and troops to Michoacan state to quell the violence. He exhorted the vigilante groups to disarm.
Since then, federal police have assumed security duties in 20 townships.
But for many priests, that was not enough. They echo vigilante demands that authorities arrest three top cartel leaders. They reject disarmament of the self-defense groups, saying it would lead gangsters to take vengeance.
“We are fed up,” said the Rev. Andres Larios Chavez, a parish priest in Coalcoman, a town in this region. “St. Thomas Aquinas talked about the just war, and one criteria is self-defense.”
Larios said the self-defense groups, while acting outside the law, are bringing peace to towns.
“I've told the federal police, ‘If you don't act correctly, people will take the stick to you,' ” Larios said.
For Vicar Gregorio Lopez Geronimo of Apatzingan, the sticks are real. Seated in his parish office, a bulletproof vest resting on a nearby chair, the priest orders a nun to bring in several bundles. When opened, they reveal cudgels. He said he has ordered 1,000.
If federal police don't act to arrest top gangsters, he said, he will rouse his parishioners to take to the streets to go after the police with the clubs, prepared to pummel and bind them with rope.
“When a horse doesn't move, you dig in the spurs,” he said.
Tim Johnson is the Mexico City bureau chief for McClatchy Newspapers.
Show commenting policy
TribLive commenting policy
You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.
We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.
While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.
We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers.
We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.
We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.
We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.
We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.
- Statue of Egypt pharoanic princess found in Luxor
- In North Korea, voting’s really a breeze: You must vote and you get 1 candidate
- Oil slicks found in hunt for missing Malaysia jet