September 17, 2009 // Uncategorized

Mexican bishops look to Colombians for help fighting drug violence

By David Agren 

MEXICO CITY (CNS) — At a press conference earlier this year, Archbishop Hector Gonzalez Martinez of Durango had planned to denounce extortion attempts against priests in his archdiocese. He instead stunned reporters — and the whole country — by announcing that cartel kingpin Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, Mexico’s most-wanted man, was residing in a remote corner of Durango state. Even more stunning, he insisted, “Everyone knows it, except the authorities.”

His candor generated nationwide headlines and a warning from presumed associates of Guzman, who dumped two bodies along with a note that advised, “No government, no priest can stand against El Chapo.”

Archbishop Gonzalez, the subject of intense media scrutiny, would later respond to reporters’ questions with the words, “I’m deaf and dumb.”

The archbishop’s latter words describe the posture of many Mexicans and church leaders when it comes to denouncing organized crime and addressing a wave of violence that has claimed more than 13,500 lives since President Felipe Calderon took office in December 2006 and sent the army to suppress Mexico’s drug cartels.

But that posture may be changing for Mexican Catholics. The social ministry secretariat of the Mexican bishops’ conference is preparing a comprehensive report on violence in Mexico that is expected to provide both a diagnosis and an action plan for addressing the problem.

None of the report’s authors wished to comment on their findings before its November publication, but the issue of organized crime has been a delicate one for the church. Equally delicate is the peril of wading into the public policy arena in a country with a history of contentious church-state relations and the risks of denouncing powerful drug cartels that act as benefactors and de facto authorities in many isolated parts of Mexico.

“They (church officials) would like to avoid confrontations with the government — and also avoid confrontations with the narcotic traffickers,” said Victor Ramos Cortes, religious studies professor at the University of Guadalajara.

Church officials and observers say that that violence — long a troublesome local matter in the dioceses serving narcotics-trafficking hotbeds — has now become a top concern for the bishops’ conference as a whole. Staying silent on the matter is no longer an option.

“They’re very concerned about the issue in Mexico,” said Rick Jones, deputy regional director for global solidarity and justice at Catholic Relief Services, the U.S. bishops’ international relief and development agency.

“Up until this point (in) the areas where the violence has been concentrated, the local parish and the local bishop have been involved. Now it’s going up to the level of the entire conference,” he said.

The report is expected to consult “experts, analysts and advisers,” said Bishop Gustavo Rodriguez Vega of Nuevo Laredo, president of the social ministry secretariat.

It is also expected to draw on the experiences of Catholics in other countries plagued by violence and organized crime, including Italy and especially Colombia, a nation rife with armed conflicts and a history of powerful cartels.

Father Luigi Ciotti, who took on Italy’s Mafia, addressed the Mexican bishops’ planning session in April. Msgr. Hector Fabio Henao, director of the social ministry secretariat for the Colombian bishops’ conference, also gave presentations earlier this year in several Mexican dioceses with high rates of cartel violence, such as Tijuana and Morelia.

Msgr. Henao told Catholic News Service that an expanded dialogue on the subject of violence has been established between the Mexican and Colombian churches.

“There have been many meetings and a lot of (joint) participation,” he said. A team from the Mexican social secretariat is expected to visit Colombia this fall to gather more information for the report.

Observers and church officials say the increasing closeness between the churches is natural, considering challenges with drug-fueled violence that Mexico and Colombia have faced. Further comparisons have been made between the U.S. government providing military and drug-eradication support for Colombia through its Plan Colombia and the more recent unveiling of a program of military and intelligence support for Mexico and Central America known as the Merida Initiative.

Observers caution, however, that the current situations and the origins of the violence in the two countries are vastly different. Colombia has had problems with armed insurgencies and paramilitaries that have controlled portions of the country, carried out high-profile kidnappings and used drug money to fund their operations. Mexico, meanwhile, has been plagued by a half-dozen cartels fighting turf wars over lucrative smuggling routes and the inability of the government — which has been hampered by corrupt public officials and police departments, poor intelligence and a weak justice system — to fully crack down on criminal activities.

Unlike Colombia, in Mexico there have been no insurgencies that have seriously challenged state authority.

“You can’t simply extrapolate from Colombia to Mexico,” Jones, who is based in El Salvador, told CNS. “But there are lessons that can be learned.”

He said the Colombian church “has done a great deal of work in everything from accompanying the people affected by the armed conflicts and trafficking, creating peace zones, strengthening human rights and creating a broad dialogue within the society.”

Other accomplishments include bringing world attention to the negative impact that coca eradication with pesticides has had on local populations and championing the cause of people displaced by conflict.

Msgr. Henao said the church has promoted a nationwide dialogue, reconciliation, community development, measures such as a law that would recognize the victims of government agents’ actions and, most importantly, reaching out to civil society.

“If civil society isn’t involved, long term, there won’t be much success in things such as democracy, citizenship, development and the problems confronted by the poor,” Msgr. Henao said.

Others were less effusive about the role of the church in improving the security situation in Colombia.

Ramos, the religious studies professor, said priests, religious and laypeople have done exemplary work on the local level, but that the national leadership has been reticent to criticize the government.

“They denounced the violence, but not the state,” he said.

He also cautioned against drawing too heavily from the Colombian church’s experience, although it remains to be seen how much it influences the Mexican secretariat’s final report. Ramos said he expects the report to be timid, not unlike previous reports.

“There have been pronouncements, but they have been very mild pronouncements,” he said. “I don’t foresee the bishops taking a critical attitude.”

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