Between Cartels and Self-Defense Forces: The Dangerous Life of Priests in Michoacán – by Manu Ureste (Animal Político)

 ~ This article was originally published by Animal Político on February 16, 2016 ~
Self-defense forces patrol in La Ruana. Archival photo from Cuartoscuro.

Self-defense forces patrol in La Ruana. Archival photo from Cuartoscuro.

“Look Father, if you don’t leave town, we’re going to stone you, then we’re going to hang you up.”

Father José Luis Segura, 60, speaks slowly, serenely, and does not alter the tone of his voice even when recounting the most recent death threat he can recall. It was in March, 2014, when the family members of a murdered self-defense force leader—those groups of civilians who took up arms in the state of Michoacán to combat the drug cartels—arrived at his parish to complain about what he had said in an interview.

“These people got very angry with me because I had denounced their family member as a member of the Knights Templar Cartel. And that was why they came to try to run me out of town,” he relates dispassionately, as if it was simply one more chapter in the story of his work in la Ruana, a district of the Buenavista Tomatlán municipality that belongs to the Diocese of Apatzingán, in the Tierra Caliente.

Nevertheless, José Luis Segura did not always have such composure in the face of threats, he told Animal Político in an interview conducted prior to the visit of Pope Francis to Morelia, the capital of the state.

In fact, when the previous bishop of the state, Miguel Patiño Velázquez dispatched him to La Ruana in February, 2014, in the middle of the clash between self-defense forces and gunmen from the Knights Templar, the priest had spent 20 years of his life at desks, offices, and teaching philosophy classes to young seminarians.

He had been very far from the risks that face those priests who are committed to social causes in Mexico. According to a report issued in January by the investigative unit of the Centro Católico Multimedial (Catholic Multimedia Center, CCM), 52 people tied to the church—in their majority parish priests—have been murdered over the past 25 years, of which six priests belonged to the Apatzingán Diocese.

“My life changed radically in La Ruana,” the priest says. “From being a priest whose daily work was a routine of teaching and administering religious liturgies, I went to being a priest in a war zone, surrounded by criminals, where I had to help people look for food and had to console the wounded and visit those who were most traumatized by this war.”

Beyond helping people in the “war,” Segura explains that the most difficult came later, when he was caught in the crossfire between the self-defense forces, when two factions led by Hipólito Mora and Luis Antonio Torres—‘El Americano’—opened fire on each other in December of 2014, leaving Mora’s son dead, along with another 10 people.

“Another radical change in my life was when they took Hipólito Mora from La Ruana (he was detained by the authorities and later released) and El Americano’s faction took over the area,” he affirms. The priest had publicly denounced Luis Antonio Torres as an “infiltrator” in the self-defense forces who brought back former members of the Knights Templar Cartel in order to form a new cartel. That organization, the Third Brotherhood or the H3, currently controls the town.

“With El Americano, the Templars came back, but with another name. And now they want revenge on all the people who had forced them out and mistreated their family members,” he notes, while admitting that the group led by Hipólito Mora also committed excesses such as seizing the properties of the Templars and their families, and “mistreating those who were against them.”

“When they took Hipólito and disbanded his group, the H3 had it in for me because I had to defend everyone in La Ruana, regardless of whether they were partisans of one group or the other,” he adds. Since then, the priest tells how he has endured an ordeal of threats and masses boycotted by criminals who open fire outside the parish or stone his office and threaten to beat parishioners to keep them from attending church.

“The H3 put many pickup trucks with armed men outside the parish. Normally, they are kids who are drinking all night, making noise, and intimidating people,” the priest says, though he acknowledges that over the last few months “things have been calming down” in La Ruana.

“The last annoyance was this past December 24,” he notes, “when they almost did not let us celebrate Christmas Eve mass, there were so many bullets flying outside the church.”

When he is asked about whether he takes special security measures in the face of the insecurity, such as the parishes in Yucatán and Tabasco that have equipped their facilities with surveillance cameras, or if he has sought the protection of Hipólito Mora’s self-defense forces, the pastor sighs.

“Why should I make a scene,” he says, resigned. “It would be useless to take security measures because if they want to kill me, they can do it anywhere. That is why I keep to myself, so that I do not put anybody else’s life at risk.”

“The Catholic Church does not offer any protection?” I insist.

“And what protection could they give me?” He responds. “If people here have guns and come and threaten me, I’m not going to go to the bishop so that he sends me a group of seminarians as if they were an army.” Segura lets out a long laugh on the other end of the phone. “It would be better to demand that the authorities work to ensure that legality dominates and not violence or brutality.”

After reflecting a few seconds, he offers a warning:

“For our part, priests need to always use the correct means of struggling. That is to say, you absolutely cannot accept money from people who are criminals, and you cannot give them special services or preferential treatment. You should not socialize with them, because then you will be taking advantage of what they do and what they are.”

With regards to what he would say to Pope Francis during his visit to Michoacán, José Luis Segura says that, like the rest of the community of La Ruana, he would welcome him, but would ask a favor.

“If the Pope could say a word about the defenselessness, the injustice, the abuse, the criminality, and the complicity with criminals and corruption that exists in the government, it would help us a great deal, it would help all those in Michoacán and the victims in Mexico generally,” he concludes. “Because we know that if the Pope says something about this, it will be heard everywhere. And then the government, in some form, will have to react.”

Miguel López is the parish priest in Tepalcatepec, another municipality of the Apatzingán Diocese that has been battered by violence from the Knights Templar in the last two years.

With a deep, gravelly voice, and a fluid and eloquent speech—he cites with precision both passages from the gospel and texts from German theologians—López explains that the priests in the region of Apatzingán are still in the middle of a crossroads between victims and victimizers.

“The only task that we can do is to be gravediggers because even ones hand becomes a tool for burying,” he says solemnly, as if reciting a tragic poem.

“And although the situation now is relatively calm, you can tell that what is coming is not spring, but winter once again,” he warns enigmatically, with an almost prophetic tone. “And as a priest, the only thing you can do is accompany people. Because one wants to stop the machine that murders. But how can you stop that machine that has become autonomous and works at night, like Judas?” he asks, rhetorically. “How can you stop a machine that gives birth to arms that reap death? You have only what the gospels say, which is to cry with those who are crying and to shout ‘Enough’.”

With regards to the security of priests, Miguel López asserts that he is very conscious of the risks implied in denouncing the criminals in the region of Apatzingán, where since 1985 there have been six priests killed out of the 55 who make up the Diocese. The last was Víctor Manuel Diosdado, “a boy of scarcely 35” who was the parish priest in San José de Chila, who was first reported dead in a traffic accident en route to Caguato, but subsequently Andrés Larios, the vicar in the municipality of Coalcomán said in an interview with the journalist Denise Maerker that it is suspected he was kidnapped by organized crime and later abandoned on the highway.

Despite this, López returns again to prayer to affirm that his only security is his faith in Christ.

“Our personal security is that which we receive from being Christians. That is to say, we are in the hands of God. And we have no weapons other than a heart and the Gospels,” he concludes.

[fruitful_sep]Manu Ureste writes for Animal Político. This article was originally published by Animal Político under the title “Entre sicarios y autodefensas: la peligrosa vida de los sacerdotes en Michoacán,” and is available at:

 Translation by Michael Lettieri, Trans-Border Institute

About Michael Lettieri

Program Officer at the Trans-Border Institute

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