ROME — The bodies of four catechists who had been reported missing on Saturday in Mexico were found on Tuesday, displaying clear signs of torture. News of the murder of the young Catholic missionaries in the drug-hit state of Michoacán follows the killing of three priests in late September.
They were found half-naked, tortured, with gun-shot wounds and wrapped in plastic bags in a lemon plantation on the side of a road.
In the first four days of October, 16 people have been murdered in Michoacán , among the most violent states in Mexico, arguably the most dangerous for Catholic priests and missionaries.
There are several organized crime groups that operate in the state, such as Jalisco New Generation Cartel, La Familia and its spinoff, the Evangelical-inspired Knights Templar cartel, The Viagras and The H-3, beyond several small organizations, all producers and traffickers of a synthetic drug known as crystal.
The four murdered catechists have been identified as: Willibaldo Hernández, Adán Valencia, Jesús López Urbina and Jesús Ayala Aguilar, all members of a missionary group called “Arcoiris” (Rainbow).
“These were good people, hardworking people,” Hipólito Mora, leader of one of the regions self-defense groups told Efe. “These young men worked with their parents, their families. One of them, ‘El Chuy,’ recently left the self-defense group to continue his work in Arcoiris.”
At least 15 Catholic priests have been killed in Mexico in the last four years, including Father José Alfredo López Guillén, whose body was found the night of Sept. 24.
This means that Mexico, the country with the second largest Catholic population in the world, is more dangerous for a priest than Syria or Iraq, where the so-called Islamic State is perpetrating genocide against Christians and other minority groups.
Despite the fact that more than 80 percent of the population identifies as Catholic, the country has a long history of anti-clericalism and until a constitutional reform in 1992, the government officially- and violently- suppressed the Church.
Although the government often denies a relation between the murdering of Catholic ministers and drug cartels, the Mexico-based Catholic Multimedia Center has found that violence against the clergy occurs disproportionately in states with high levels of organized crime, such as Michoacán and Veracruz.
Much of Michoacán, well-connected with the rest of the country because it is the geographic center of Mexico, is part of a region known as the Hot Land (Tierra Caliente in Spanish), a name that comes both from the high temperatures and the brutal tactics of drug lords who control its fertile, and therefore lucrative, territory.
In February, ahead of Pope Francis’s trip to Mexico, which included a stop in Morelia, capital of Michoacán, Father Armando Flores Navarro, director of the Mexican seminary in Rome, told Crux that this dichotomy between religiosity and violence requires the Church to recognize that “something has failed” in the moral formation of Catholics.
However, he said, endemic poverty (45 percent of the country lives below the poverty line), and the unequal distribution of wealth also explain the phenomenon. In many states, small farm owners rent their land to drug-dealers, because it’s more lucrative than growing other crops, and children grow up wanting to become drug lords.