Reporting on the Mexican Cartel Drug War

Catholic church grapples with donations from Mexican cartels

Sunday, March 6, 2011 |

By Damien Cave
New York Times

The large orange chapel here, with its towering cross, would be just another Roman Catholic church if not for a bronze plaque announcing that it was "donated by Heriberto Lazcano Lazcano" - better known as "the executioner," commander of the ruthless crime syndicate called the Zetas.

The nameplate goes on to quote Psalm 143: "Lord, hear my prayer, answer my plea." But Mexican Catholics are the ones struggling with how to respond.

Ever since the chapel's financing spawned a government investigation four months ago, the Roman Catholic Church in Mexico has been trying to confront its historic ties to drug traffickers. Long dependent on gifts, but often less than discriminating about where they come from, the church is grappling with its role as thousands die in turf wars between rich, and sometimes generous, criminals.

"The chapel put the entire church in Mexico on alert," said the Rev. Hugo Valdemar, a spokesman for the country's largest archdiocese, in Mexico City. "As a result, our public posture has changed, and become much tougher."

The church has indeed gone further than before, with public pledges to reject "narcolimosnas," or "narco alms," and priests linked to traffickers. A handful of outspoken bishops have also stepped up condemnations of both the cartels and the government's militaristic efforts to stop them.

But at the local level, the codependency of the church and the cartels often endures. Here in the middle-class neighborhood of Pachuca, where Lazcano is said to have grown up, priests still say Mass at the chapel every Sunday, arguing that the church is not responsible for determining whether the Zetas' leader has any connection to the building that bears his name.

Catholic officials have said there are other functioning chapels that they believe were built with drug money, in what some describe as money laundering for the soul. And yet, according to Valdemar - who works closely with Mexico's conference of bishops - the church has no formal strategy for how to deal with the cartels in their midst and no plan to develop guidelines for priests struggling with munificent killers.



The Rev. Joseph Palacios, a sociology professor at Georgetown University, and a Catholic priest who has written extensively about the Mexican church, said more must be done. "This is an endemic problem," Palacios said. "If they just issue statements and don't analyze the roots of the situation they aren't going to change anything."

The church's challenge is partly historic. Mexico's 1917 Constitution separated church and state far beyond what can be found in the United States. It forbade churches of all denominations from operating primary and secondary schools, nationalized ownership of all church buildings and barred priests and other religious leaders from voting or criticizing the government, even in private.

The restrictions were lifted in 1992, but religious scholars say the church had become impoverished by that time, reliant on the wealthy and with a mentality of "no mete en la politica" - don't get into politics.

For years, that culture of nonconfrontation and need has allowed narco alms to be an open secret, according to experts like George W. Grayson, the author of "Mexico: Narco-Violence and a Failed State?" After a Catholic cardinal was assassinated by a drug gang in 1993 (in what may or may not have been a case of mistaken identity), sociologists outlined a "religious economy" in which priests administer sacraments in exchange for exorbitant donations.

The Rev. Robert Coogan, 58, a Brooklyn-born Catholic prison chaplain in Saltillo, said that dubious donations had become an engrained feature of the country's religious life. He cited several instances in which Zetas offered him six to 10 times as much as the typical small donation for a baptism.

While he said he refused - and now insists on providing sacraments for free - Coogan explained that for some priests, danger and poverty had made it easy to say, "Hey, the guy who owns the factory, he's a bastard, but we take his money, so why not take the drug money?"

This is especially true, he said, in a country where riches are often produced by corruption and in areas where violence has pushed legitimate donors to flee. "The church in Mexico is impoverished," Coogan said.

Some Catholic leaders have openly defended their dubious benefactors. Amado Carrillo Fuentes, who was considered Mexico's most dominant drug trafficker until he died in 1997, was publicly praised by at least one powerful priest, who encouraged Mexicans to see the drug baron as a model of Catholic generosity. Carrillo Fuentes was also photographed traveling to Israel with two priests, including one who said he considered the trip appropriate because of the cartel leader's gifts to an orphanage.

But the recent surge in violence has altered the dynamic. Valdemar said that dozens of priests had been quietly transferred to avoid death threats and extortion attempts from drug gangs.

At the same time, cartels have been expanding their own "alternative religiosity," said Alberto Hernandez, a sociologist at El Colegio de la Frontera Norte in Tijuana. La Familia, a cartel that is concentrated in Michoacan State, has become known for its pseudo-Christian messages left on banners over highways. Organized crime groups have also popularized unofficial saints, like Santa Muerte, or St. Death. And increasingly, they have taken on the construction of chapels and shrines.

Church officials say there are about 6,000 independently built chapels nationwide. They note that the benefactors are rarely known, but priests at nearby parishes often perform services in them.

At times, the distance between the church and the cartels is obvious: Hernandez cited an instance in Sinaloa when, after a senior cartel figure was killed, his associates shot to bits a giant image of St. Jude, patron saint of lost causes, apparently because they felt he did not answer their prayers.

The Lazcano chapel, however, is a more complicated case. Despite the plaque, and Lazcano's roots in the area, the archbishop of the local diocese, Monsignor Domingo Diaz Martinez, insisted that "whether the chapel was built dishonestly, that we cannot say."

He noted that the authorities did not appear to have finished their investigation, which federal prosecutors confirmed. More important, he said, "people in the community have asked for services, and when they ask, we go."

Many of those who attended on Sunday seemed to agree with both the archbishop and the priest conducting services, the Rev. Margarito Escorcia Reyes, who said after Mass that the chapel's financing and services should be judged separately. Outside the main door, below a banner of flowers from a recent festival, Elvira Rodriguez Lopez, 59, insisted that "the mysteries of God are great" and that all donors should be thanked.

"It's not like the government helps us," she said. "If there's someone willing to support the community, to support us, why question it," even if that money might have come from crime.

Even if the money that built the church might have been earned through crime - through killings? "I'm not interested," she said. Others echoed her view, but their darting eyes and quick answers revealed something different: fear. No one else interviewed outside the church was willing to provide a name. Many claimed that it was their first time visiting the chapel.

Residents of the neighborhood's homes, usually one-story structures with small gardens on the roofs, were even more wary. Conversations behind closed doors yielded a portrait of a community, without severe violence, that nonetheless felt powerless and afraid.

One 33-year-old woman with enough bravery to say that her name was Natalia, said she wished the chapel had never been built because now she worried about who attended services, and who might be milling about. "I don't go out at night, and when I see new people I'm worried about their associations," she said.

What church officials seem to have missed, she said, is that what sounds like support is partly the culture of "nadie se mete" - no one gets involved. Yes, she and others said, the community cooperated with the church at first, because no one knew who was paying. But once that became clearer, said an older woman in a blue frock who would identify herself only as Mrs. Tellez, how could they have resisted?

"Whether we cooperated or not," she said, "they would have built it."

The Catholic Church, the government or the neighborhood - were they too weak to stamp out the influence of the Zetas' commander, even by just removing the plaque?

"Exactly," Mrs. Tellez said, smiling, seemingly glad someone else said it first. "Exactly."

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24 Borderland Beat Comments:

Anonymous said...

The sooner they kill that evil scum bag bastard the better off the world is going to be! death to the scum bag coward bastards that kill women and children! Kill them all! When and if they catch him alive they need to stuff money in his throat until he is dead! fuck him, he is going to burn in hell for what he has done no matter how many fake ass churches he builds! he is a traitor to Mexico and its people and he needs to be killed! the sooner the better! I can not wait for the day to see his head in the narco blog! He is a fake as scum bag!

Buela said...

Gee I wished this would be a story that read "churches and charities grapple with donations from mexican cartels" that would be a more accurate portrayal. It is by no stretch of the immagination soley the Catholic church. and I want people to know there are many priest doing dangerous work in Mx protecting targets such as the central american migrants, if not for their shelters CAs would have no where to go. Each shelter I help and all that I have found have been operated by priests that cartels would just as soon see "gone" than helping CAs, no money offered to them.

But money is offered/given to schools, churches charities, citizens abundantly. If a cartel hears of a case in the news perhaps a sick child they will give money. It is why some people are so grateful and look away, the gov doesn't help, so they become "Robin Hood" instead of "Hoods Robbing"

My foundation has been offered funds twice. I politely refused and I mean politely & shankign in my buela boots, explaining why I could not accept and it had nothing to do with ethics, or at least that is the impression I tried to give. It was tough but necessary, I kept thinking of the disabled kids that would benefit, but I could not accept it.

Anonymous said...

I would rather have church in a tent, then set foot in that narco building, it doesnt matter how they spin it, it stinks in the nostrils of God.

zak said...

Now we know the Catholic church of Mexico is taking blood money, the good people of the country had better find their spirituality elsewhere, no God in that church anymore, remember all religions are based in moral and ethics.

Anonymous said...

"Robin Hoods"... For every 1000 women and children they kill they donate $1! AND they make sure EVERYONE knows they have done it, just look at that plaque all shiny, you can BET that was a requirement was to have his sick name attached for ALL to see, it is a lame, ignorant PR stunt that only people with very low IQ's would fall for, they do that so people will "look away" and its ignorant and evil... Its not out of any goodness, they have no goodness in them! Like I have said they ALL need to be killed and the sooner the better, I wouldnt go inside that evil house of the devil if it was the last church on earth! Sad how little it takes to fool some people... Narcos are scum of the earth and have done nothing but hurt Mexico and they need to be killed each and everyone, then they need to smash all of those narco shrines that people have built on the grave sites, take a bulldozer and smash every single one of them and until Mexico stops glorifying narcos it will continue to be the ass backwards shit hole from hell that it is...

Anonymous said...

Do the narcos hope God will forgive them?

Anonymous said...

The New York Times finally mentions the Mexican drug war. Figures they would go way out of their way to find a story that puts the Catholic Church in a bad light.

Even so, shame on that church for accepting the donations from a murderer.

ckretjr said...

"It's not like the government helps us," she said. "If there's someone willing to support the community, to support us, why question it," even if that money might have come from crime.

I bet she wouldn't be saying that if it was her husband, kids, or grand kids that were killed by the cartel! How freaking stupid some people are!

Anonymous said...

"Anonymous said...The New York Times finally mentions the Mexican drug war. Figures they would go way out of their way to find a story that puts the Catholic Church in a bad light."

Are you F'ing kidding? A basic search of NYT articles mentioning the term "mexican cartel" brought up over 5,000 results on google.
Try again.

Anonymous said...

Did you see the movie EL INFIERNO at the end Benny shoots the drug lord the governor AND THE CATHOLIC PRIEST good work Benny.Mexico needs to morph out of FEAUDALISM. Political systems and religious systems are almost identical in there outcome CONTROL some of it good some of it bad,so whats new.

Anonymous said...

If I lived there I would splatter pigs blood all over that plaque and wall! Send my own message.

Anonymous said...

Taking donations from blood money is sacrilegious, this priest who take money from ill gain have lost their moral compass - money taking in from extortions, drug trafficking, theft in essence from making people lives hell -es un sacrilegio, this is not serving the benevolent god they claim they worship.

Anonymous said...

What makes this different from the Catholic church and the Mob in the rest of North America?

Buela said...

Lets be clear, this is what I hate about this post, focusing on one religion misrepresents the reality. It is across the board religions, and schools and helath clinics tending to the needs of the people. Catholic churches stand out because the majority of people in Mx are catholic.

But any priest that runs a rehab or shelter for central american migrants rec no money from any source including the church. They are threaten and abused along with those in the shelters. these priests are caring and brave providing a place for migrants to stay instead of the streets. These are not just migrant going through Mexico to the US, but also many CAs deported FROM US while the US knows they are undocumented in Mx and could be killed in Mx or raped, abused etc. Yes, our US government dumps these poor migrants at the international bridges and tell them to march into Mx.

The shelter in my city recieves 70-80 per week apx 4000 last year. Men women and children. The shelters operated by the catholic priest are their only safe haven. SO lets not put all the apples in one basket and not limit the "take" on catholics. I agree it is wrong, but being in Mx I see desperation. I ask anyone if you child was dying from lack of medical care and cartel offered money..what would you do? I know some self rightous people will say refused the money. and let the child die. Yeah, so easy to say from the safety of your home in the US. Most people would take the money, I honestly do not know what I would do.

Anonymous said...

Exactly! What is the difference between what happens in Italia with the mafia there and catholic churches to what happens in Mexico and their mafia? Let's not say they don't push their money there either? Dirty money either way but there is no money these days that doesn't have it's ties to immoral values.

Anonymous said...

Y si, the " catholic church in Italia " runs a deeper mafia then you and I know. What is the difference there between la mafia de Italia and Mexico gathering and donathing dirty money.

Pedro the Great said...

CLOSE THE BORDERS NOW !!

RHINO.LOCO said...

why is veryone pointing fingers at the zetas, gulf cartel, sinaloa cartel and la familia are the same they hav all killed innocent people they all kidnap and extort familys are cartels are scumbags not just the zetas no sean pendejos don be stupid i hope the governemt eliminates all these cartels soon

Anonymous said...

@buela, the reason people are saying what they said about the catholic church is because that is what the article was about ( duh) and besides that people like you are the real problem, what I mean by that is you are sympathetic for what they have done even though morally its wrong no matter "who they help". The reason the cartels survive is because ignorant people look the other way at their crimes etc just because the cartels throw out a few trinkets to win over the people...blood money will always be blood money...if the catholic church really wanted to "help" people, they would have rejected the blood money(or church building) to send a message that God doesnt approve of their lifestyle and doesnt need their money, this might cause them to think harder about their wicked deeds and repent from them, until then I guess theyll just keep killing people while being accepted by the "catholic church".

Anonymous said...

Does any one have any info in regard to the involvement of the predominately Hispanic churches that have started up in the US,(all faiths)? in laundering money for the drug cartels. It does seem like there are a lot and nearly every strip mall seems to have one I see how they can take in large sums of money and send it back and forth across the border. I have had several different people tell me of this. How sad if proven to be true.

Anonymous said...

Buela, I often don't agree with your point of view, but in this case I think you are right on point.

Most people commenting here are ignorant of the fact that there is no simple solution. They are so one-dimensional that to them everything only has on option.

Unquestionably, every church and charity probably has received some questionable funds at some point. But if it shows in the collection plate, how can you be sure?

Churches, as charitable organizations, have taken money from the cartels, the mafia, the nazis and even more.

Priests are dying for helping others. Other priests turn a blind eye to what is going on. And how can you blame them in a society where "no one gets involved". This attitude is a cultural failing in Mexico (as a long-time resident, I can say this honestly). If the people don't care where there money comes from, it is hard for the priests to go it alone.

There is no single quick fix to these problems and the trolls here need to think beyond the 3rd grade level to realize that their uninformed comments are not helpful.

ajulio said...

They asked Abraham Lincoln what his religion was and he replied with, "When I do good, I feel good. When I do bad, I feel bad."

To me, that says it all. Every church is different so each church has to use it's own discretion, as long as they truly feel good about it afterwards.

I believe that drug money is blood money and that it is wrong for a church to KNOWINGLY accept money directly from a narco or cartel but a priest may disagree and feel that its okay as long as the money goes to a worthy cause instead of being used to kill people.

Everyone knows when they are doing something bad. So I say, leave the discretions to the church. But I will say this, the Vatican is the biggest religous conglomerate and fraud known to man. They will easily accept money from anyone. I mean, does the pope really care? I don't remember him saying or doing much about Mexico's problems.

Then we have the scum of the earth Christian evangelists or the extreme Muslims who use their money to train terrorists or the Jews who invest in Zionism.

I believe in GOD, Jesus Christ and the bible but I gave up on religion a long time ago.

RELIGION+MONEY=BUSINESS

Adrian said...

@10:17, listen up and learn something in that tiny walnut you have for a brain, first, go back and READ the story, that is if you can, no one said ANYTHING about money in the offering plate, obviously you wont ever know where that money comes from, what we are talking about is a donated building with a plaque WITH LAZCANOS NAME ON IT! Think about that one stupid, you dont need to wonder " where the money comes from" when they put their name on it! And what did you say" priests turn a blind eye"? That doesnt surprise me, most of them do, thats why thousands upon thousands of innocent children across the world have gotten raped and molested by "catholic priests", and that is a fact...maybe if they quit looking the other way it would teach people morals, and that is something mexico lacks as a whole...and after reading this story is there any wonder why?

Buela said...

@ March 7 ...5:02
DUH back to you kiddo, I was speaking OF THE POST..asking why focus on the catholic church when cartel love gifts are widely accepted by religious groups, charities, schools, and citizens, deseparate cash poor circumstances allow the ethical and morality cloak to slip.

I was citicizing the post itself as being narrow and misleading. I for sure am not saying the catholic church is not a part of it, they surely are and I understand they are the most widely practice religion, however it does a diservice to focus on one group when many groups practice this.

Our foundation is a family foundation which means 100% of all funding is from my husband & I. I was fed up with the government relying on me for construction, materials plumbing electrical repairs etc. One school needs a new transformer. I was pissed and said NO, the gov needs to do this. So I went to the press and the following monday my offices gets "the call" with the "offer" to provide the new transformer and other funds, and it was not the ashamed government calling.. That is how easy it is. I was not tempted, but I am not desparate. and so it goes.

Read slow, and repeat..

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