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."