Meet the Battlefield Bishop Taking on Mexico’s Most Bloodthirsty Cartels
The province of Guerrero, in southwestern Mexico, is a troubled land where almost two dozen cartels, gangs, and vigilante groups battle for supremacy over drug production and shipping routes. The state has largely given up trying to maintain order here, ceding large swaths of the countryside to criminal bands.
Many rural communities have become ghost towns, their residents often fleeing north to the U.S. border to escape the armed groups that prey on them. A recent video that went viral on social media shows a squad of Mexican soldiers at a remote highway checkpoint watching helplessly as a massive convoy of sicarios bearing assault rifles rolls through their outpost.
“It is in the rural areas where criminal groups take advantage of the local populations and force them to cultivate drug crops. If they refuse they will be summarily executed,” said a federal police officer, who agreed to speak only under the condition of anonymity.
“The security situation in Guerrero and many other areas in Mexico has fallen prey to the hyper-violent cartels,” said Mike Vigil, the DEA’s former chief of International Operations, in an interview with The Daily Beast. “Guerrero currently has more criminal groups than any other region in Mexico, slightly over 20, fighting each other for control of drug production and distribution, especially heroin.”
In the absence of state power, it has fallen to the church to keep the peace. Enter Bishop José de Jesús González, the newly appointed pontiff based in the provincial capital of Chilpancingo, who has vowed to travel out into rugged deserts and mountains of Guerrero to meet with the various warring factions of narcos and auto-defensas [self-defense forces] in an attempt to bring peace to his diocese.
González told The Daily Beast that because he’d only been bishop for just over two months, he was still “getting to know” the various armed groups in the area.
He also said his goal in speaking to such groups was to “mend the social fabric that we have allowed to fray—for one way or another we have all participated in damaging that social fabric.” The bishop also said he hoped to foster “a culture of reconciliation and peace-building through dialogue.”
“Since there is little to no government presence in these areas like Guerrero, the priests are literally forced to engage in security issues to try to preserve the peace,” the federal officer said.
But such attempts at ecclesiastical intervention can come at a steep price. About 50 priests have been murdered in Mexico in the last 15 years, including two who were gunned down in their own church last month after trying to grant sanctuary to another cartel victim. In a separate incident in June, a third priest was attacked and savagely beaten by sicarios in the state of Michoacán, which borders Guerrero to the north.
For his part, González said he is willing to sacrifice himself for others as a martyr in the name of peace. “As a shepherd, one must stand ready to give one’s own life for the flock,” he said. “It would set a very bad example for other priests if the bishop was afraid to do this.”
Part of the reason authorities have lost control in places like Guerrero is due to tactical imbalances. In many instances—as was the case in the checkpoint video—soldiers and law enforcement are outmanned and outgunned by the criminals. But critics say that Mexico’s national strategy for combating organized crime has also failed, thus putting the onus on mediators like Bishop González.
These are men of peace caught in a horrible vortex of violence.
Ever since he came to power in late 2018, President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador [AMLO] has broken with the Drug War hawks of previous administrations, and instead mandated a course of appeasement toward the cartels and gangs.
AMLO’s catch phrase for this policy is “Abrazos No Balazos” or “Hugs Not Bullets.” And while there is no question that the old-school, militaristic approach to the Drug War was marked by rampant corruption and human rights abuses, it seems the “Abrazos” plan may have caused the pendulum to swing too far in the other direction.
“[AMLO] promised during his campaign that he would reduce the spiraling cartel violence in the country,” said the DEA’s Vigil. “Shockingly, he chose a policy of not confronting organized crime. It was a huge mistake as the cartels are now stronger, meaner, and operate with almost total impunity.”
Vigil also called the policy “the worst decision in the history of Mexico” which has resulted in a failed state where criminals blatantly kill priests, journalists and other innocent people.
For a man of the cloth and a proponent of peace, Bishop González was also surprisingly critical of AMLO’s approach.
“[T]oday we sadly know that our enemies are doing to Mexico what they want. Where are the defenders of Mexico? Where are the soldiers to protect [us]?” González said.
“Neither with hugs nor with bullets will he be able to lift the country, [for] Mexico is sinking further.”
Another danger facing Bishop González as he seeks to mediate among outlaw bands is the risk of being perceived as favoring one side over another.
That was what happened to González’s predecessor, Salvador Rangel, who had also made a name for himself by brokering truces amongst bellicose drug lords and anti-cartel guerrillas before stepping down last April.
Rightly or wrongly, Rangel came to be seen as serving the interests of a locally powerful crime group called Los Ardillos, to the point where he was accused of defamation—which is considered a crime under Mexican law—and had a group of auto-defensas issue an order for his arrest.
Anthropologist Dr. Chris Kyle, an expert on Guerrero at the University of Birmingham, called Rangel “an Ardillos spokesperson.”
Kyle said that “on several occasions [Rangel] parroted in media interviews accusations and story-lines that were straight-up Ardillos propaganda. Things I would see first in Ardillos social media would get refined and amplified by Rangel in his [media] interviews. He didn’t do this with other DTOs [Drug Trafficking Organizations], only Ardillos.”
Vigil said he was not surprised to hear that Rangel might have fallen from the straight and narrow—and that the new Bishop might also be so tempted.
“Many priests in Mexico work in cartel strongholds and are not provided protection by the government,” Vigil said. “As a result, they are forced to do and say things against their will by the drug traffickers who threaten their lives. These are men of peace caught in a horrible vortex of violence.”
When asked how he travels in cartel country González said: “With fear and trembling” through the narcos’ checkpoints.
“They pat you down and they ask ‘Who are you?’ and ‘What will you pay to pass?’ [I]f I want to work I have to ‘cooperate’ and get along with them, because if I don’t do it they won’t give me entry.”
Despite the hazards, González remains undaunted, though he does bemoan the lack of official support when traveling in territory dominated by organized crime groups.
“The presence of the government, the Human Rights Commission, the State prosecutor’s office, they are null. They are not seen in those places,” González said.