POTOSÍ, BOLIVIA – In their strongest statement since Pope Francis’ visit last year, the Bolivian bishops recently issued a searing critique of the corrosive effects on public life of drug-trafficking and drug addiction, provoking an angry response from the government of Evo Morales.

The pastoral letter, entitled I Place Before You Life and Death, said narco-trafficking “threatens the peaceful and democratic coexistence of the country” bringing “violence, corruption, deceit, injustices and death” in its wake.

The bishops went on to point a finger at the state itself.

“In its strategy of expansion and impunity”, they write, “corruption linked to drug-trafficking has penetrated even state structures and the forces of law and order,” and has “undermined the credibility of authorities at varying levels who are tasked with the struggle against drug-trafficking.”

Defying the bishops to name names, Morales described them as having a “colonial mentality,” and of believing that “we’re still in the age of the Roman Empire, when they think they still have the last word.”

Morales is also the head of the union of the cocaleros, or coca-leaf growers, whose base is in the eastern region of Chimoré – the heartland of the drug-trafficking mafias. In a recent encounter with Pope Francis during a Vatican conference, Morales presented the pontiff with three books in Spanish describing the benefits of coca leaves, as well as a letter signed by the heads of two trade unions complaining about the Bolivian bishops’ denunciation of coca cultivation.

The U.S. State Department recently described Bolivia as having “demonstrably failed” to meet its international obligations to combat the coca trade in its annual report on drug-trafficking in the world.

On a brief recent visit to the Bolivian city of Potosí last week, I sat down with its bishop, Ricardo Centellas, who is also president of the Bolivian bishops’ conference. Looming over Potosí, which at 4,200m is the world’s highest city, is the Cerro Rico, “Rich Mountain”, the silver mine that in colonial times kept afloat the Spanish empire.

We touched not only on the pastoral letter, but also on the effect on Bolivia of Pope Francis’s annulment reforms and the crisis of leadership he has spoken of in Bolivia.

Crux: Let’s begin with the statement on drug-trafficking, and the government’s defensive reaction. Is this a new, prophetic phase for the Bolivian bishops?

Centellas: If you look at our previous statements, you’ll see we’ve always touched on the issue of drug addiction and trafficking – if I’m not wrong, since at least 1984 – so it’s not new. This latest letter is the product of the thinking of the bishops’ conference over many years; it has been at least four years in the making.

The pastoral letter gathers the concerns of the bishops, who receive – through their priests, Religious, and Christian communities in general– many, many complaints and expressions of anxiety. They tell us: please speak out about this situation, which is overwhelming. That’s what’s changed: it used to be just one part of the country, now it’s all over.

Bishop Ricardo Centellas of Potosí, Bolivia,
president of the country’s bishops’ conference.
(Photo courtesy of 5to Congreso Americano Misionero.)

What’s also new is that you’ve dared to touch on the penetration of narco money and power at the highest levels of the state.

Yes, it’s the first time we’ve made such an emphatic statement, although on previous occasions we have touched on the topic. Drug-trafficking doesn’t just affect one sphere of society, but takes in every part of it. In the letter we say very clearly that no one in Bolivia can ignore this concern because it’s a social phenomenon that should worry the whole of society.

Recently in Mexico the Pope strongly urged the Church to be bold in speaking out against the drug mafias. Are we seeing a continental moblilization of the Latin-American Church?

He also spoke about it when he was here [in July 2015]. This is not just a concern of the Latin-American Church, but the universal Church too. Narco trafficking reaches everywhere – at different levels, but everywhere; and it always corrupts. The most worrying thing is that it destroys families, and the Church at the moment has a special concern for families – to recover the unity, stability, and the sustainability of the family.

Turning to the family, one way of reading Amoris Laetitia is that the Church can no longer rely on culture and the law to supply the basic meaning of marriage, and that the Church has to, as it were, rebuild marriage from below. What kind of formation are you already involved in?

 One of the clear Latin-American pastoral options since Medellín and Puebla has been the family. There is a clear option for caring, protecting and helping the family. If you go back over our pastoral documents – both bishops’ conferences and CELAM – always touch on the family. Here in Potosí, for example, we began in 2012-3 a new 10-year pastoral plan, and one of the themes is the family.

If I’m a Catholic in Potosí and I want to get married, what is the Church going to ask of me? Because in many parts of the world, it will be a three-hour chat….

We have different ways of working with engaged couples. In this western part of Bolivia, most couples get married after four, five, even 15-20 years of living together. We try to involve them in the life of the parish, the Christian life, to discover the richness of living their married life with God.

In practice, they are already de facto married. They have children, a home, experience of living together—all the signs of stability. Of course we also have young people who get married before living together, but that’s very rare.

Where does that tradition of living together before marriage come from? Is it the result of a shortage of clergy in the past?

No. It’s part of the culture, both in the Aymara and the Quechua people, which are the main cultures of Bolivia, along with the Guaraní. What constitutes the marriage is the consent of the parents and the agreement of the authorities, which institutionalizes the marriage. So it’s a wholly constituted marriage. Later, they seek the blessing of the Church.

What does that mean for the couples involved?

What it adds is the spiritual dimension. The first years of marriage, everything goes fine, but then, with the arrival of the children, financial difficulties and other challenges, things get more difficult. For a marriage to reach a certain solidity, to get through these times of stress, what is needed is the support of the sacrament, because it helps them to stay united in spite of their difficulties. What really benefits them is the discovery of this spiritual dimension through integration into the life of the parish.

How much impact is the pope’s reform of the annulment system having on Bolivia?

I would say for most people the [annulment] process is unknown. I’ve been bishop in Potosí for 10 years, and I can only remember one or two cases. Because there’s no tribunal here, they can begin their case here but it then goes to Sucre.

Now, with all the news generated by what Pope Francis has said, it’s just beginning, above all in the central axis [of Bolivia] – La Paz, Santa Cruz, Cochabamba.  We’re seeing a clear increase in applications; the statistics show a rise just in the past months.

In terms of the Bolivian church as a whole, we’re just recently beginning to establish tribunals in all the jurisdictions, which will open their doors in July. In May we have a course in La Paz to prepare for the short-form process, which should be available in all the jurisdictions. We don’t have experts in law, trained judges and so on, so at the moment we can only offer the short-form process, which requires only the bishop and one other to assist. This is what we’re learning to do, and in July we should be able to offer that in the whole of Bolivia.

So there’s a clear effect of the synod here in Bolivia?

Absolutely, yes. What we’re hoping is that people whose marriages have failed and who have this possibility open to them can live in peace and remake their lives, because there are many cases where it’s really clear that there was no marriage: lack of consent, social pressures, and so on.

For example, here in Bolivia it is very common, when two young people have a child, for their parents to put pressure on them to marry. But we know the existence of a child by itself does not make a marriage. In some cases, they make a go of it and it works out, but in many other cases they separate. In Bolivia, the figures show that at least 50 per cent of all marriages end in divorce. With these reforms we can help many, many marriages.

You spoke at the opening of the bishops’ assembly of the lack of leadership. We have more four years of the government of Evo Morales, but he recently lost a referendum which would have given him the right to seek a fourth term in 2020. What can the Church do in this vacuum to build the basis of the kind of politics that Pope Francis here described so well?

What’s missing in Bolivia is the formation of leaders. When people enter politics they are looking to promote their own interests, or the interests of their group, rather than the common good of the country. A clear sign of this is that our country is not industrial. And it could easily be, given the huge riches that it has – starting with our minerals, which are hundreds of years old.

So the Church can collaborate in the preparation of leaders, as it has done in the past, but they should be leaders who can really give their lives in service to Bolivia.

What is needed are leaders who can really think of the interests of all Bolivians, not just a few … In my address I said clearly that a leader has to be capable of, and open to, working with diversity and in diversity, because if not, it’s someone who will respond to particular interests [rather than] those of the whole.

I’m fascinated that you should call for more industrialization and exploitation of the mines here in Bolivia, when we are sitting less than a mile from probably the most notorious mine in history – the Cerro Rico, from where so much silver came and where so many died from the appalling conditions. I’m guessing you’re calling for a different kind of exploitation of the mines?

 Of course. We’ve long said that the mining here in Potosí should not be merely extractivista [i.e extracting the minerals and selling them to others], but should be sustainable and give life to the families here.

Some 20,000 people continue to work in the mines of Cerro Rico, of whom 3,000 are part of co-operatives. So it’s easy to see that 16,000 merely survive, while 3,000 are doing well. But nothing is industrialized. They’re extracting zinc, lead, silver, gold with traditional tools, and everything is sold. What we need is for the minerals to be worked here, in factories, with the raw materials from these mountains. That way people could have greater economic and social stability.