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Taking on powerful, controversial causes, Mexican bishop becomes high-profile social activist

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    FILE - This Dec. 22, 1999 file photo shows Bishop Raul Vera in San Cristobal de las Casas in the Mexican state of Chiapas. Vera arrived in Saltillo as Bishop in 2000, with a reputation as a social crusader. Vera’s realm is a wide swath of Coahuila, a state bordering Texas that’s become a hideout for the brutal Zetas cartel. (AP Photo/Eduardo Verdugo, File) (The Associated Press)

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    FILE - In this March 10, 1998 file photo, Bishop of San Cristobal de las Casas, Samuel Ruiz, right, and auxiliary Bishop Raul Vera give a blessing at the Tzeltal Indian community of Chanal in the Chiapas highlands of Mexico. Vera arrived in Saltillo as Bishop in 2000, with a reputation as a social crusader. Marked by his unvarnished speech, Vera's voice now carries beyond his diocese here, especially when he weighs in on issues such as drug violence, vulnerable immigrants and gay rights. (AP Photo/Pasqual Gorriz, File) (The Associated Press)

The white-haired bishop stepped before some 7,000 faithful gathered in a baseball stadium in this violence-plagued northern border state. He led the gathering through the rituals of his Mass, reciting prayers echoed back by the massive crowd. And then his voice rose.

Politicians are tied to organized crime, Bishop Raul Vera bellowed while inaugurating the church's Year of Faith. Lawmakers' attempts to curb money laundering are intentionally weak. New labor reforms are a way to enslave Mexican workers.

How, Vera asked, can Mexicans follow leaders "who are the ones who have let organized crime grow, who have let criminals do what they do unpunished, because there's no justice in this country!"

In a nation where some clergy have been cowed into silence by drug cartels and official power, Vera is clearly unafraid to speak. That makes him an important voice of dissent in a country where the Roman Catholic Church often works hand-in-hand with the powerful, and where cynicism about politics is widespread and corrosive.

Vera's realm is a wide swath of Coahuila, a state bordering Texas that's become a hideout for the brutal Zetas drug cartel. It's where the current governor's nephew was killed in October and the former governor, the victim's father, resigned last year as leader of the political party that just returned to power with newly inaugurated President Enrique Pena Nieto.

Marked by his unvarnished speech, the Saltillo bishop's voice now carries beyond his diocese here, especially when he weighs in on hot issues such as drug violence, vulnerable immigrants and gay rights.

In late 2007, Mexico City's Human Rights Commission denounced death threats against Vera and a burglary of the diocese's human rights offices. The following year, after Coahuila became the first Mexican state to allow civil unions for gay couples, a move the bishop endorsed, Vera was invited to speak at a U.S.-based conference for a Catholic gay and lesbian organization. In 2010, he was awarded a human rights prize in Norway.

Anonymous critics have hung banners outside the cathedral asking for what they called a real Catholic bishop. And last year, the 67-year-old was summoned to the Vatican to explain a church outreach program to gay youth.

Natalia Niño, president of Familias Mundi in Saltillo, told the Catholic News Agency last year that Vera had placed too much focus on supporting the gay community.

"A pastoral commitment to homosexual persons is necessary and welcomed, but not at the expense of the family and a solid pastoral plan for marriage and family, which is unfortunately being neglected in the diocese," she said.

Vera, who has had government bodyguards before, said he was foregoing similar security despite the criticism and threats. Such measures were rare and frowned upon in Saltillo, he said.

"I'm not the only one exposed, there are lots of people exposed who work with immigrants, with the missing," Vera said. "How do I cover myself? Them?"

Mexico's Bishops Conference did not respond to repeated requests for an interview about Vera. The church's hierarchy in Mexico did issue a statement in 2010 congratulating Vera on his human rights prize, and last year, the church condemned anonymous threats against him.

Vera's office often lends more weight to his words, especially when he speaks up about human rights, said Emiliano Ruiz Parra, a Mexican journalist and author of a new book that portrays Vera and other "black sheep" of the church in Mexico.

"Among the defenders of human rights he is the one who hedges the least, he says things the way they are," Parra said before Pena Nieto's Dec. 1 inauguration. "He's not afraid, for example, to take on the president, the one who's leaving or the president-elect."

Vera's homily on an October Sunday in Monclova included a lengthy diatribe about an alleged vote-buying scheme involving grocery store gift cards critics say were distributed by the Institutional Revolutionary Party, known as the PRI. Citing press reports, the bishop told the crowd organized crime paid for the scheme and helped Peña Nieto's victory. He also labeled as "collaborators" anyone who took a gift card in exchange for their vote.

"What we're seeing now is nothing other than the reaccommodation of the criminal groups with the new government teams," Vera said later as he raced back to Saltillo for another Mass. "The criminal groups always have their agreements with those who are in the state governments, in the federal government."

An industrial hub on the high desert about an hour west of Monterrey, Saltillo had long been known as a quiet haven in Mexico, distinguished by its auto manufacturing and a modern museum exhaustively detailing the surrounding terrain.

In recent years, however, the area has fallen victim to the drug violence plaguing other parts of Mexico. In 2011, 729 murders hit the state, compared to 449 the year before and 107 in 2006, according to preliminary figures released by the government this summer. Four bodies were found hanging from a Saltillo overpass earlier this month.

Until the nephew of Gov. Ruben Moreira was killed in early October, the political class had showed little concern for violence, Vera said.

"Fear of the conditions that Mexico is going through with the insecurity, with so much violence, makes us silent, and Don Raul is a strong voice who says what the rest of us are too scared to say," said Maria Luz Lopez Morales, a Vera friend and self-professed atheist who runs literacy programs for women in rural areas outside Monclova.

Vera arrived in Saltillo in 2000, after serving as the co-bishop in a deeply divided diocese in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas, where Zapatista rebels were battling government troops. He came with a reputation as a social crusader.

"Ever since I arrived here, as I came from Chiapas and I wasn't a person who was going to support the government, since this moment they decided that my image needed to be restrained," Vera said. He pointed to critical coverage from a local television network where a host once displayed Vera's picture surrounded by flames of eternal damnation. Vera said he believed the host was paid to do the government's bidding.

In February 2006, Vera celebrated Mass at the Pasta de Conchos coal mine where 65 miners had perished and spent days with their families hammering the mine's owners, government officials and union leaders for dangerous working conditions.

Five months later, he traveled to Castanos, a small town near Monclova, where soldiers had been arrested in connection to the sexual assaults of more than a dozen prostitutes. He and his longtime collaborator Jackie Campbell started their own investigation, leading the diocese's human rights office to successfully push to try some of the soldiers in civilian courts, where several were sentenced.

Mysterious cars followed Vera and Campbell during that time. Campbell's home phone line was cut and Vera was threatened. Campbell eventually moved to Argentina for three years to escape the harassment and to pursue graduate studies.

Vera has also demanded investigations into the thousands of migrants who have gone missing while passing through the state and clamored for a DNA database to identify bodies. In an email, the Rev. Pedro Pantoja, who oversees the diocese's migrant programs, said he's enjoyed total support from Vera and called his commitment to social causes "prophetic."

What's drawn perhaps the most controversy has been Vera's stand on gay rights, which even drew attention from Rome. In 2001, the Rev. Robert Coogan, an American priest in Saltillo ordained by Vera, suggested starting an outreach program to gay youth, after a teenager came to him when his parents threw him out of the house. Vera lent his support to the program, called Comunidad San Elredo, and later escaped reprimand when called to the Vatican to explain it.

"It flows out of his conviction: The church is for everyone," Coogan said.

Parishioner Julia Castillo, of Saltillo, said Vera wasn't just making headlines with his bold stands. He was also inspiring Mexicans at a time when many are feeling besieged.

"He talks about all of the injustice there is right now, of all the danger there is, that we have to stick together to fight against the corruption, above all in the government and the police," Castillo said. "We like the way he is."

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Associated Press writer Galia Garcia-Palafox in Mexico City contributed to this report.