MEXICO CITY — A priest was found dead of a gunshot wound to the head, his diocese said Friday, marking the latest in series of abductions, attacks and highway robberies against Roman Catholic clerics in an area of southern Guerrero state dominated by drug cartels.
Rev. Gregorio Lopez Gorostieta is the third Catholic priest to have been killed in the region this year, and the first to die since the federal government launched a special, stepped-up security operation in the area following the disappearance of 43 teachers' college students three months ago.
The motive in Lopez Gorostieta's killing remains unclear; Bishop Maximino Martinez said a group had been seen lurking around the seminary where the priest taught on the outskirts of Ciudad Altamirano, Guerrero, on Sunday and Monday. Lopez Gorostieta was apparently kidnapped by the gang early Monday; his truck was found abandoned two days later.
"This is another priest added to those who have died for their love of Christ," Bishop Martinez said. "Enough already of so much pain, of so many murders. Enough already of so much crime. Enough extortions."
That was an apparent reference to the "protection payments" that the local drug gang, the Knights Templar, demand from business owners in Ciudad Altamirano. One business owner, who did not want to be named for fear of reprisals, said his family had been forced to pay thousands of pesos (dollars) each year to the gang for the right to operate a pharmacy.
While the Rev. Jesus Mendoza Zaragoza said gangs have also demanded protection payments from parish priests in the nearby resort city of Acapulco, Lopez Gorostieta didn't have a parish or collect tithes.
But Bishop Martinez said there could be other motives: Priests have received threats when they refuse to perform quickie marriages or baptisms for drug gang members. The church normally requires extensive paperwork before performing such ceremonies.
"At times, if they ask for a baptism and you don't do it, they start to threaten you," Martinez said. "They want a marriage, or a blessing" for a car or a home, he said, and won't take "no" for an answer.
The Mexican Council of Bishops issued a statement saying "we demand authorities clear up this and so many other crimes that have caused pain in so many homes, and ensure that it is punished."
But Mendoza Zaragoza said there appears to be little likelihood authorities will find the killers, because they haven't done so in past cases. "The government offers to investigate, but nothing is ever known," he said referring to the other recent killing of a priest in the Altamirano diocese.
In September, the battered body of the Rev. Ascension Acuna Osorio was found floating in the Balsas river near his parish of San Miguel Totolapan, near Ciudad Altamirano. Guerrero state prosecutors said the priest's body had head wounds, but it was unclear whether they were caused by the body being dragged by the current, or whether he had been killed before being dumped in the river. Martinez said authorities never offered more information on the investigation into his death.
Residents of San Miguel Totolapan told reporters that Acuna Osorio was well liked in the town, but they were afraid to speak more about his death, or the gang that operates in the area. The town is an area dominated by the Guerreros Unidos drug cartel, which has been implicated in the mass killing of 43 students in September in the nearby city of Iguala.
The area is so dangerous that Martinez said one priest had been briefly kidnapped in the mountains above San Miguel Totolapan by cartel gunmen who complained the priest had been speaking in favor of "La Familia" — the name of a rival drug cartel.
The priest had to quickly explain he had been preaching in favor of family values, not the rival cartel.
Nor have authorities cleared up the killing of a Ugandan priest whose body was found in a clandestine grave in a nearby Guerrero diocese in November.
Father John Ssenyondo, 55, had been kidnapped about six months earlier. His body was later identified as one of 13 found in a clandestine grave discovered Nov. 2 in the town of Ocotitlan.
Ssenyondo, a member of the Combonian order, was abducted April 30 in the town of Santa Cruz after celebrating Mass, when a group of people in an SUV intercepted his car.
Several priests have also been victims of highway assaults in Guerrero in recent months that appear to be attempted robberies.
Church officials also believe three abductions of church workers in March may have been intended to discourage priests from leading protests against rampant violence. The three were released unharmed.
The Catholic Multimedia Center, a church group, reports that eight priests were killed in the past two years in Mexico — now nine including Lopez Gorostieta's death — and that two priests remain missing.