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What It’s Like to Be a Priest in the Trouble Spots the Pope is Visiting in Mexico

The Pope is heading for Chiapas, Michoacán, and Ciudad Juárez. Local priests talk about working in places where indigenous traditions mean chickens are sacrificed in church, poor farmers ask if it's ok to grow drugs, and where cartels rule.
Photo by Gustavo Camacho /EPA

Pope Francis spent the weekend in and around Mexico's capital highlighting issues such as corruption, and the failure of the Mexican Church hierarchy to do enough about the suffering caused by the country's drug wars. Now he is going further afield in an effort to show he is serious about putting poor and peripheral places at the center of his papacy.

The Pope is spending Monday in Chiapas, scene of the 1994 Zapatista uprising in defense of indigenous rights. On Tuesday he goes to to Michoacán, where Mexico's war on drugs started in 2006, and armed vigilantes rose up against organized crime in 2013. The last stop is Ciudad Juárez, which was once the murder capital of the world and, located just across the tightly-controlled border with Texas, also serves as a symbol of truncated migrant dreams.


VICE News spoke with three priests from the three states about their work and their lives in places where chickens are sacrificed in church, farmers seek blessing for growing drugs, church bells get stolen, and extreme violence and poverty are everywhere.

Related: Pope Francis Touches Down in Mexico Today, But John Paul II Still Gets All the Love

Father Pedro Arriaga in San Juan Chamula, Chiapas

 Pedro Arriaga. Photo by David Agren.

Father Pedro Arriaga tells a story about how he once inadvertently snapped a photo of a local indigenous leader while fiddling with a new iPhone. He had to delete the photograph and plead forgiveness.

Arriaga presides over a parish in Chamula, one of Mexico's toughest towns for Catholic priests because of the strength of indigenous traditions, and the power of the local authorities who enforce rules such as a ban on photographing leaders, or statues of saints.

Practices inside the whitewashed St. John the Baptist church include the familiar veneration of those saints with votive candles, but also the cleansing of bad vibes by moving eggs over people's bodies, and ceremonies in which the necks of live chickens are snapped. And there is lots of alcohol.

"For some priests this provokes a reaction as if it were some sort of witchcraft", says Arriaga. The 69-year-old says that for him the syncretism shows "what's beautiful in indigenous traditional beliefs," that help people "find God" in their own way.


Arriaga also stresses that trying to evangelize in Chiapas without being sensitive to indigenous traditions is one of the main reasons why the state has the highest level of dissersion to evangelical congregations in Mexico.

Chamulas is a short 15-minute drive from San Cristobal de las Casas where the Pope is due to celebrate mass on Monday. It has been announced that the service will include indigenous languages, and that the pontiff wants to draw attention to a population often living in extreme poverty and facing daily racism.

Priests in the Diocese of San Cristobal de las Casas say the Mexican government did not want the Pope to visit Chiapas. Government sources say he was simply warned of logistical concerns, but was always free to go where he wanted.

Arriaga suspects the government sought to keep Chiapas off the Pope's agenda in order not to stir up latent indigenous issues or highlight the extreme poverty that still pervades the state where Zapatista rebels still control pockets of territory, 22 years after their uprising that drew attention to centuries of discrimination and exploitation suffered by the indigenous population there.

Chiapas governor Manuel Velasco is young, publicity-focused, and relentlessly positive in a way reminiscent of President Enrique Peña Nieto. Federal statistics, however, show poverty at the same high level over the last two decades, in spite of a glut of social programs and infrastructure spending.


"This [government] charm offensive comes undone when you hear the Pope speak," Father Arriaga said. "His homilies have a more radical tone and denounce corruption."

Related: 'Subcomandante Marcos No Longer Exists:' Zapatista Leader Retires His Nom de Guerre

The Pope's visit also vindicates the radical work of Bishop Samuel Ruiz, the state's most prominent churchman.

Between 1960 and his retirement in 2000, Ruiz sought to put indigenous communities at the center of his pastoral work. This brought accusations from the local elites - who often employed the indigenous in exploitative conditions on coffee farms – that he was a "communist."

The Vatican also took issue with Ruiz ordaining married indigenous men as deacons, in an effort to make the church more inclusive for the state's Mayan peoples, who often don't speak Spanish.

Ruiz also came up against obstacles from the indigenous elites in Chamula who saw the formation of socially aware residents as a threat to their leadership, and their religious use of liquor.

His former No. 2, Father Gonzalo Ituarte, recalls being instructed by one church leader, "Don't speak in Tzotzil" – the local language – "the women will understand."

Arriaga arrived in Chamula in 2007 and sought a middle path.

"There was a lot of resistance in the beginning," he recalled. "I proposed a ministry that included the use of Tzotzil, and little by little and we started to make some progress."


Locals say Sunday mass was attended by a handful of people upon his arrival, but has swelled to more than 100 in recent years. He still presides at patron saint feasts – times when a local liquor Pox flows and forms part of a ceremonial toast.

Arriaga sits with the indigenous authorities at those festivities. His advanced age helps win acceptance and prevents attempts at manipulation, he said, as the elderly are afforded respect in Mayan societies. But he added that his heart is elsewhere working with the families closer to their homes.

"That's something the [religious indigenous] authorities don't really know about," he said.

Related: The Zapatista Uprising (20 Years Later)

Father Andrés Larios, Coalcomán, Michoacán

Andrés Larios. Photo by David Agren

Father Andrés Larios and his colleagues in the Tierra Caliente, or Hot Land, region of the western state of Michoacán are peppered with questions only priests in corners of the country consumed by the country's drug wars would have to answer.

Impoverished corn farmers ask about the propriety of planting marijuana – just enough to pay medical bills or school supplies, they say. Young people, seeing few economic opportunities, have asked about careers in organized crime – or sought blessings for their illegal activities such killing rivals in other parts of Mexico. Desperate business owners and lime farmers once came to confession saying they were at their wits end with extortion payments and were planning to rise up in armed vigilante organizations.


Meanwhile, priests themselves have also been attacked for motives as frivolous as not allowing an accused narco to become a baptized child's godparent.

"I always say, the problem of violence and insecurity here is related to money," Larios said from the town of Coalcomán in the heart of the Tierra Caliente. "People here worry about having something to eat…If you don't have money, you can't send your child to study."

Related: Michoacan, the Birthplace of Mexico's Drug War, Is Still a Violent Quagmire

The Pope is expected to focus on the violence when he visits Morelia, the capital of the state, on Tuesday, making this perhaps the most potentially sensitive part of his visit for the government.

Mexico's crackdown on drug cartels started in Michoacán nearly 10 years ago when then president Felipe Calderón sent soldiers and federal police to the Tierra Caliente to battle the quasi-religious crime organization, La Familia Michoacana. One faction of this group later relaunched itself as the Caballeros Templarios, or Knights Templar, cartel. The already extreme violence, that included rampant kidnapping and extortion rackets, reached new heights.

The dynamic changed when vigilante groups in the Tierra Caliente grabbed guns three years ago. The government began working with some of the vigilantes and the cartel was dismantled, but the vigilante movement was soon sullied by the inclusion of many ex-cartel members and weakened by the imprisonment of some of its main original leaders.


In the last few months there have been signs that the violence is intensifying again.

"If there was peace in a town, it was because of the self-defense groups, not the government," Larios said. "They're removing the main leaders…that has more to do with politics than justice."

When the conflict was at its height, some priests went beyond saying funeral mass for victims and also lent moral and material support to the vigilantes.

Larios knew the risks. A Tierra Caliente native he first got into trouble in 2004, after he went to the prosecutor's office to denounce the rape of a parishioner, allegedly by a member of a drug cartel. The cartel found out and Lario's bishop ordered him to seek safety out of the diocese.

"I learned not to go to the authorities," he said.

When the vigilante movement started he was working in a town of lime groves and ranches known as La Ruana. Extortion was so serious at the time that Caballeros operatives imposed "taxes" on each box of limes at the local packing plant. The cartel even took a cut of the fees paid to use the public toilets.

Larios would let the vigilantes ring the church bells to warn of possible reprisals. One day, he was lured to a Caballeros safe house under the guise of praying for a sick patient. Gunmen forced him to leave town at gunpoint.

Related: Fighting Mexico's Knights Templar Cartel

Nowadays, Larios works in Coalcomán, a town of timber cutters and sawmills. It appears calm today, though there are signs of trouble returning, particularly kidnappings, which he attributes to smaller cartels squabbling over areas once controlled by the Caballeros. The priest also suspects it is fallout from army action dismantling meth labs in the area.


"They have to pay their people," he said of the criminal groups. "They're not cooking up as much drugs, they're not making money so they're looking for a way to keep their people paid."

As the Pope heads to the state capital Morelia, Governor Silvano Aureoles has insisted Michoacan's security problems are almost resolved, though banners announcing a revival of La Familia were recently seen in the state.

Larios, who has petitioned for the Pope to meet with victims of violence while in the state, fears opportunistic politicians will jump at the photo opportunity, but ignore the bigger message.

"The politicians are going to try to say 'We're starting over. The Holy Father is in Michaocán. We're doing fine,'" Larios said. "I worry about that."

Father Roberto Luna, Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua

Roberto Luna. Photo by David Agren.

Two years ago Father Roberto Luna tore down the chain-link fence topped with razor wire that had surrounded his church in a working class neighborhood of Ciudad Juárez inspired, he said, by Pope Francis' call for an "open church."

"People said, 'Padre! They're going to rob you,'" said Luna. "Nowadays everyone enters as they wish, even cats and dogs. And nothing bad has ever happened."

Father Luna — better known as "Padre Beto" —  says this is because he created a "sense of belonging" among parishioners that has protected the parish.

It was also helped by a dramatic drop in crime. Juárez was once the murder capital of the world with more than 10,000 homicides committed between 2008 and 2010 as rival drug cartels clashed over a coveted corridor for smuggling cocaine into the United States. At the height of the violence thieves even stole Padre Beto's church bell, forcing staff to announce services by beating an empty propane tank with an axe handle.


Pope Francis plans to cap his six-day visit to Mexico in Ciudad Juárez, where he is due to celebrate mass near the US border. He is expected to call for more humane treatment of migrants — both Mexicans living without the proper papers in the United States, and the steady stream of Central Americans escaping violence at home, but encountering increased immigration enforcement as they transit Mexico.

Related: If Ciudad Juarez Is 'Back,' Why Haven't the Killings Stopped?

The Pope also plans to meet with workers and employers in a city with a surplus of low-wage jobs in more than 300 assembly-for-export factories, known as maquiladoras.

The visit comes as civic and business leaders are so anxious to shed old stereotypes of guts, gore, and gangland slayings that the mayor threatened to sue the producers of the drug war-inspired thriller Sicario. Now corporate-sponsored billboards blanket the landscape with pictures of the Pope and slogans like, "Juárez Is Love."

Some in the Catholic Church — Padre Beto included — say that despite a 92 percent drop in homicides since 2010, all is not well in the city.

The priest suggests the drop in crime has as much to do with one cartel beating the other as it has with civil society and government springing into action. But he buys into the redemption narrative, which he expects the Pope's visit to confirm.

"I think he chose Juárez because it is a place that can be redeemed," Luna said. "He chose Juárez because he saw of the problems here and he's come to illuminate it with his words, his life, his testimony."


Burly, but high-energy, the 44-year-old Luna arrived at the Corpus Christi parish on the sprawling southeastern outskirts of Ciudad Juárez in 2006, and immediately faced a world economic crisis that saw many of the factories close. Then the inferno of drug war violence began.

The situation became so grave that Luna wrote to his bishop telling him not to pay a ransom if he were kidnapped.

He said three funeral masses a week during the worst of the violence, mostly for young people. "It was scandalous," he recalled. Luna also worked as a pastor in a juvenile prison where he heard terrible stories, but also saw signs of hope.

"It was to the point that they saw each other in the street and shot at each other, and ended up being friends" in prison, he recalled.

Pope Francis will visit the main prison in Ciudad Juárez. The authorities say the situation there has been cleaned up since the days when riots regularly claimed lives, and the cartels operated behind bars.

Luna has his doubts that the businesses inside, such as selling protection for inmates and overcharging for food and basics, have disappeared.

"It's been prettied up," he said.

Related: The Rise and Fall of Cartel Leader Vicente Carrillo Fuentes

Follow David Agren on Twitter: @el_reportero