The Catholic Church and the irresistible power of Mexico’s narco culture

The Cathedral of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Zamora, Mexico. (Enrique López-Tamayo Biosca / Flickr)
The Cathedral of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Zamora, Mexico. (Enrique López-Tamayo Biosca / Flickr)

By Richard Marosi and Marisa Gerber / Los Angeles Times

Growing up Catholic in Michoacan state, Alberto Cornejo always marveled at the beauty of the Gothic cathedral in his hometown of Zamora. He watched as workers installed spires, repaired the aging pillars and kept the floors polished.

The constant care and remodeling cost a lot of money and not all of it, he’s convinced, came from legitimate sources. “Narcos have looked out for our pueblos and our churches,” said Cornejo, a 48-year-old cellphone salesman. “It shouldn’t be, but it’s the reality.”

That belief, true or not, is widespread in parishes large and small across the country. Confronted with the expansion of organized crime groups, Catholic Church leaders have faced tough choices and more than a few have given in to traffickers, either cowed or complicit in taking tainted money.

Pope Francis, who travels today (Tuesday) to the violent state of Michoacan, has during his Mexican trip made his feelings clear, most specifically on Saturday during a speech in front of top church bishops, in which he called on clergy to act courageously against an “insidious threat.”

“I urge you not to underestimate the moral and antisocial challenge which the drug trade represents for Mexican society as a whole, as well as for the church,” he said.

The pope’s challenge – an upbraiding of an institution rarely criticized – was hailed for recognizing the widespread perception in Mexico that the church has often failed to protect society and its own priests from drug violence.

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