Mexico’s Michoacan: Where priests acknowledge that people need to defend themselves

By David Agren
Catholic News Service

COALCOMAN, Mexico (CNS) — Father Emiliano Mendoza Magana, pastor of the St. James the Apostle Parish in this town of timber cutters, recalls parishioners coming to confessions in past years with questions about grabbing guns and fighting back against a marauding drug cartel.

In early 2013 he recognized an uprising was in the offing state against the Knights Templar drug cartel, which carried out crimes such kidnappings, extortion of local lumber mills and cooking up methamphetamines in clandestine kitchens — even as it preached its own homespun religion. Father Mendoza’s counsel and refusal to condemn vigilante actions in Mexico’s western Michoacan could be construed as controversial for a churchman committed to promoting a culture of peace in a rugged region called Tierra Caliente (Hot Earth,) but understandable for a person increasingly attending to victims of violence.

"People were getting ready to rise up … but they weren’t quiet in their conscience," Father Mendoza said after attending a parish Christmas concert in Coalcoman, 400 miles west of Mexico City. "I would say, ‘Act according to your conscience. If your conscience says it’s OK, trust it.’"

Priests like Father Mendoza confront such conundrums constantly in this oft-forgotten corner of the country, where poor parishioners pepper them with questions on the propriety of planting marijuana to pay medical bills, families face the horrors of kidnapping for ransom and young people sometimes see illegal activities as their only alternatives. They deal with dangers, too, as their ministries take them into hamlets where illegal activities underpin the economy and making public pronouncements in favor of acting properly can come at a cost.

Pope Francis will visit Mexico Feb. 12-17, a trip that should provide attention to peripheral places often at the heart of the country’s challenges with inequality, impoverishment and drug cartels — all issues an image-conscious federal government has preferred to avoid in favor promoting an economic agenda.

The trip will take him to Michoacan, where he will provide pastoral attention to priests, who in turn express expectations he will offer messages of hope and reconciliation for a state with an unhappy recent history of violence, victimization and emigration.

"We hope that with our population, especially with those that have fallen into criminal activities — who are often people that at one time believed — that the pope can touch their hearts," said Father Javier Cortes, parish priest in the municipality of Buenavista. "It’s a high expectation: that he can bring about a change in this climate of violence that we’re experiencing."

"These people, without weapons or much know-how, were able to pacify their towns and get rid of the narcos," said Father Andres Larios, also a priest in Coalcoman and a party to the formation of the first self-defense force.

"Why couldn’t the government do this?" questioned Father Larios, who has proposed that the pope meet with victims of violence while in Morelia. "The only answer is corruption and collusion."

Pope Francis may bring an equally critical message to Michoacan, but politicians are expected to embrace the visit enthusiastically. Some, like Father Larios, fear the trip will turn into photo-op for opportunistic politicians, who will ignore the main messages and trumpet the pope’s presence as proof their policies have provided sufficient security for an important international visitor.

"(They) will want to appear in pictures with the pope and use it for the next political campaign," he said.

"We hope he his voice has resonance," he added.

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