Murder of 3 Catholic priests in one week in Mexico sends shivers all the way to the Vatican

Under different circumstances, the appointing of a new Papal Nuncio to Mexico, might have been a truly joyous occasion. But Franco Coppola, who arrived in the country last Wednesday, will face plenty of challenges as the Vatican’s new top diplomat here.

Even if the country is set to overtake Brazil as the Church’s largest overseas bastion and celebrated a successful papal visit last February, the Catholic Church in Mexico appears to be under siege, with three priests being murdered within a week in two separate incidents.

Last week, the bodies of two men of the collar were found near the side of the road in the Gulf Coast state of Veracruz. Hours earlier, the two men of the cloth had been dragged out of their church by unknown assailants.

According to the authorities, the priests were shot to death after having been tortured. The state prosecutor's office said in a statement last week that it had identified a suspect, but did not divulge the identity or whether the suspect had been arrested.

On Saturday, the body of another priest was found near the road in Puruándiro, in the central state of Michoacán. The victim disappeared five days earlier and, according to the Catholic hierarchy in the state, was the victim of a robbery and a kidnapping. No arrests have been made and the identity of the attacker or attackers is still unknown.

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The three murders are hardly the first attacks on priests in a country still embroiled in a bloody struggle with organized crime groups; August was the bloodiest month in the country since President Enrique Peña Nieto took office in December 2012.

According to Mexican sociologist Bernardo Barranco, one the country’s most highly regarded observers of the Church, no less than 14 prelates have been murdered while Peña Nieto’s been in office.

“It is now clear that the violence has reached the Catholic Church,” he told Fox News Latino. “It is the most unsafe country for priests in Latin America.”

Maybe the world, according to Hugo Valdemar, spokesman for the Archdiocese of Mexico. On Wednesday, he told the Catholic News Agency, “It has become clear that Mexico is the country where ministers of the Catholic Church are most at risk.”

The motives behind the killings are still unclear, as the investigations are ongoing. Both Veracruz and Michoacán are states wracked by gangland warfare and impunity and are center stage for turf battles between rival criminal cartels.

In recent years, priests have clashed with members of those organizations, either by refusing to pay extortion money or by preaching against organized crime in sermons.

According to Barranco, one of the reasons why priests have been murdered in Mexico in recent years is that the cloth no longer makes them untouchable.

“Criminals used to have a level of respect for priests. They would leave them alone,” he told FNL. “That is no longer the case.”

“Until recently we feel we haven’t been a specific target, unless we clash directly with the interests of the criminals,” Patricio Madrigal told FNL.

Madrigal is a parish priest in Nueva Italia, a town in southern Michoacán that two years ago was the scene of a small war between a the Knights Templar drug cartel and citizen militias that successfully drove them out.

“We have seen that we are among the most defenseless” potential targets, he added.

Adding to the alarm of the Catholic hierarchy over the murders were statements made by the authorities, both in the Veracruz and the Michoacán case, that suggested the murdered priests may not have been innocent victims.

Veracruz authorities were quick to announce that the priests in Poza Rica had been seen “drinking alcohol” with their attackers, and suggesting that the murders were somehow the result of a dispute between the prelates and their killers.

In Michoacán, a local paper reported that the third murdered priest had been seen with a teenage boy prior to the kidnapping – an allegation later repeated by Gov. Silvano Aureoles. This week, however, a woman said the video in question actually showed her husband and son.

The Mexican Episcopal Conference (CEM) reacted angrily to what they perceived as a smear campaign. In a statement signed by Cardinal Francisco Robles and Bishop Alfonso Miranda, CEM demanded that “the name of no priest be smeared, nor of any person, especially when the investigation hasn’t been finished.”

“It is a very cruel thing that the authorities have been looking for excuses, that they appear to be washing their hands of the whole matter,” Barranco told FNL. “It’s the current political climate, unfortunately. The priests are treated almost as if they themselves were murderers.”

So far, no concrete measures have been taken by the archdiocese of Mexico or the CEM to increase the security of churches and of priests. The diocese of Teziutlán, in the central state of Puebla, to which the priests murdered in Veracruz belonged, has issued a statement saying it urges its priests to take as many safety precautions as possible, while the Catholic hierarchy in Michoacán is still looking into what measures can be taken.

“We haven’t executed any specific protocol yet,” Madrigal told FNL. “The murder here in Michoacán still needs to be investigated, but safety measures are on the agenda.”