Guerrero State Attorney General Xavier Olea
One of two priests shot to death in a road ambush had been photographed earlier holding an assault rifle in the company of armed, masked men, a prosecutor in southern Mexico said Tuesday.
Mexican authorities in a statement announced that two priests were shot dead and four people were wounded when their vehicle was attacked overnight in the southern state of Guerrero.
They had received a report in the pre-dawn hours Monday of a white pickup with bullet holes on a highway. The truck reportedly, was traveling from the town of Juliantla, near the colonial city of Taxco, when it was suddenly blocked by another vehicle and unknown attackers opened fire before fleeing.
Addressing the issue, Xavier Olea, the head prosecutor for Guerrero state, said the two priests went to an open-air concert Monday attended by members of various drug gangs. Olea said the priests were drinking, which he called “an indiscretion.”
The two were shot to death along with four other people when gunmen attacked their truck as they returned home from the concert.
Olea said that there was a fight at the concert involving the priests’ group of acquaintances and that the priests were killed apparently by gunmen from one of the gangs.
He said the photograph of the priest, the Rev. Germain Muniz Garcia, with the assault rifle led the gunmen to think he was associated with a rival gang. He said the photo circulated on social media with messages, presumably from other gangs.
Bishop Salvador Rangel, who oversees the diocese where Muniz Garcia was assigned, criticized the prosecutor’s comments.
“I do not agree that they want to link Father Germain with drug traffickers because of one photograph that is circulating out there,” he said.
Bishop Salvador Rangel Mendoza, prelate of Chilpancingo-Chilapa in the Mexican state of Guerrero
Some say drug gangs so dominate the area that priests have to avoid conflict with them to attend to parishioners. The bishop told AP he had been in contact with the leaders of some gangs trying to keep his priests safe.
“I have said it openly: I have talked to the capos, with the leaders of these groups, in order to take care of the priests, nuns and seminary students,” Rangel said. “I have always talked about dialogue in the search for peace.”
In previous killings of priests, Mexican prosecutors have appeared to rush to associate the slayings with the victims’ use of alcohol. Church leaders have called some of those comments an attempt to smear slain priests.
Mexico has been an exceedingly dangerous place for priests, especially in Veracruz, Guerrero and Michoacan states. Mexico’s Catholic Media Center says 21 priests have been killed in Mexico since December 2012, including the two priests killed Monday near the tourist town of Taxco, south of Mexico City.
Guerrero is one of Mexico’s most violent states and a major heroin production and trafficking hub, Mexican authorities have for years struggled to gain control of Guerrero, and both the Mexican Army and the Federal Police have a significant presence in the region alongside local law enforcement.
State attorney general Olea last year said the arteries of the state’s justice system are “congested,” its heart is “clogged with fat,” and attempts to try to rid it of corruption are like trying to perform “open heart surgery,” Olea told Spanish language newspaper El País.
With just 400 investigative state police across the whole state, Olea says he simply doesn’t have the means to bring down the organized crime cells that are now the de facto law in some parts of the region.
Bishop Mendoza of Chilpancingo-Chilapa adopts a pragmatic approach to his mission working in the dangerous region.
The bishop made headlines earlier in 2017 after he asserted that crime gangs are part of the social fabric of remote Guerrero towns, whose presence is both ‘accepted and welcomed’ by local farmers.
During an interview with the newspaper El Universal, Rangel described meeting with Isaac Navarrete Celis, ‘El Señor de la I,’ the head of the Sierra Cartel, aka, the Southern Cartel.
Mendoza met with one of Guerrero’s most dangerous criminals, at a hideout in the mountains amidst opium poppy plantations, because he felt he had to “intercede” as violence was keeping children from attending school and priests from reaching their parishes.
“I’ve certainly been in contact with and seen these people of crime with the goal of protecting the priests. When it has been necessary to see them I have done so,” Rangel said.
The preceding three or four months ago the situation in the mountains of Guerrero “was very delicate.”
“Teachers and priests weren’t allowed in, so I had to go see this man and ask for his help, and thank God there was an understanding . . .”
Whatever the conditions, Mendoza said, he will sit down and talk with criminals if it means bringing peace to Guerrero.