The Daily Dangers for Priests in Mexico

By Ambassador Callista L. Gingrich

In May, Augustinian priest Javier García Villafaña was found shot to death in his car on a rural Mexican highway. This marked the ninth murder of a member of the clergy under President Andrés Manuel López Obrador. The recent attack underscores the violence and instability plaguing Mexico, as the government fails to mitigate the ongoing criminal savagery.

Citing U.S. officials, The Washington Post reported that a 2018 Central Intelligence Agency classified study found that about 20 percent of Mexico is controlled by drug-trafficking groups. As former Attorney General William Barr wrote in the Wall Street Journal in March, the Mexican cartels “use bribery and terror tactics to entrench themselves as essentially states within the state, controlling large areas of Mexico.”

The U.S. Department of State has released travel warnings for Americans going to Mexico and a Level 4: “Do Not Travel” advisory for six states in the country. According to the State Department, “Violent crime – such as homicide, kidnapping, carjacking, and robbery – is widespread and common in Mexico.” Earlier this year, four Americans were violently kidnapped, two of whom were killed, after getting caught in the middle of rival cartel violence during a road trip.  

Tragically, these perils are also a daily reality for priests in Mexico. Father Omar Sotelo, director of the Catholic Multimedia Center, said “for more than 10 years, Mexico has been the most dangerous country to exercise the priesthood in all of Latin America, and it is one of the primary places in the entire world.” In 2022, the only country that recorded more homicides of priests was Nigeria, a report by Vatican Fides found.

From 1990 to 2022, 63 priests in Mexico were murdered, according to a report by the Catholic Multimedia Center. Father Sotelo said that they have tracked at least two dozen churches being “desecrated, attacked, robbed, looted, [or] violated in a week.” Additionally, between October 2021 and October 2022, there were 800 reported incidents of extortion and threats against priests.

The U.S. Department of State noted in the 2022 Report on International Religious Freedom that government officials and Catholic Church leaders do not attribute religion as the basis of these acts of violence. Further, research by Father Rafael Luévano, an associate professor in the Religious Studies department of Chapman University, found that the majority of Roman Catholic priests were not killed for confronting drug traffickers, but rather as a result of getting caught in the crossfire of cartel violence. 

Ultimately, priests are vulnerable to violence for what they represent – the moral opposition to the criminal activity and sheer brutality of the cartels.

As Father Luévano wrote, “Priests are by their very person God’s representatives and pastoral leaders in the local community. … Therefore, whether a priest is killed in order to steal his car, pilfer the parish collection or punish his refusal to administer sacraments to known narco personnel, in the end, the underlying and real reason for this violence is that the singular integrity of the priest threatens the narco reality and the new social order of Mexico.”

Father Sotelo also noted that priests work as a “social stabilizer,” and said, “The priests compete against organized crime. When they eliminate [a priest], they send two very strong messages: One, if I am able to kill a priest, I can kill whomever [I] want. Second, by eliminating a priest they are not killing just one person, they are attacking this entire community and this stability.”

More must be done to bring attention to this violence against priests. As international human rights lawyer Kelsey Zorzi and legal counsel for Latin America with ADF International Julio Pohl Garcia Prieto recently wrote, “The violence against religious leaders in Mexico is not only unconscionable in itself but also a canary in the coal mine signaling that significant regions of Latin America are becoming hotbeds for religious persecution, as is already the case in Nicaragua.”

The United States government must strongly condemn the violence against priests in Mexico and put pressure on the Mexican government to end these atrocities.