Breakfast with… Adrián Alejándrez, A Pastor Fighting Against Drug Trafficking in Michoacán, Mexico (Paula Chouza, El País)

This article first appeared in Spanish in El País on 31 January 2014. It has been translated without permission for the Mexican Journalism Translation Project (MxJTP).

Breakfast with… Adrián Alejándrez, A Pastor Fighting Against Drug Trafficking
by Paula Chouza (El País)

“Michoacán’s violence comes from shared blame”

– The pastor fights against drug trafficking in the Mexican city of Apatzingán

Father Adrián Alejandro Chávez (Tepalcatepec, Mexico, 1979) was studying law in Rome when abuses by organized crime began to wear down the population of the Tierra Caliente, in southern Mexico’s violent State of Michoacán. “When I left – in 2010 – the cartels were fighting each other.” On 24 February 2013, residents of neighboring townships decided to take up arms because of “the authorities’ inaction.” Father Adrián is the priest in the cathedral of Apatzingán, a city of 80,000 people, the economic heart of the region, and the stronghold of the Knight’s Templar, a group formed in 2011 after a split from La Familia Michoacana. “When I returned [from Rome] a few months later, the atmosphere had changed completely.” His family hails from Tepalcatepec, one of the townships that decided to take things into their own hands. “As we have said in several published letters, the Church opposes violence, from whichever side.” For this reason, the priest does not support the militia movement of armed civilians.

In a chat in his office after enjoying an uchepo (a maize tamal served with milk) from a street stall in front of the Cathedral, Father Adrián says that over the past decade Apatzingán’s people have borne the brunt of drug trafficking violence. “They’ve managed to put themselves in every institution because they resolved problems rather than the government. They have taken power everywhere but the Church. They don’t leave us alone.”

“We are suffering the consequences of shared guilt,” recognizes Alejándrez Chávez. “Blame doesn’t just rest with the government but also with the Church and civil society. We’re used to staying silent, covering things up. Many of these people were baptized and they took the catechism. They are part of the problem, yes, but they aren’t alone. For example, in the community these people helped build a basketball court and that shut the neighbors up. It’s just too easy. When the government began to negotiate, that’s when things worsened. We were all wrong,” he admits.

Apatzingán’s diocese has been threatened because it dared speak out against the violence. Some of the priests officiating at mass have for months tried to reassure themselves by wearing bulletproof vests. “I can’t really go on talking about God and about life when everything stinks of death,” he told the press a few days ago. “Yes, death is all around,” ponders the priest during our interview, “but I do believe that we must continue talking about God. Statements like the one I made to the media come from being worn out, from listening day in and day out to violent stories: disappeared family members, rapes, beheadings, or dismemberments. I don’t justify why people think like that, but I do understand it.”

This pattern of painful stories repeats itself throughout the region’s townships. Father Adrián heads up the recently created Compassion Pastoral, a 14-person group that accompanies victims’ families. The priest confirms that Michoacán’s situation has forced people to seek refuge in the institution. “The Church is packed. Our membership has increased.”

Journalist Paula Chouza reports from Mexico for El País. Follow her on Twitter @pchouza. This story first appeared in the series, “Desayuno con… Adrián Alejándrez, Vicario en lucha contra el narcotráfico,” available at: http://sociedad.elpais.com/sociedad/2014/01/31/actualidad/1391193813_031851.html

Translator Patrick Timmons is a human rights investigator and journalist based in the Americas. He edits the Mexican Journalism Translation Project (MxJTP). Follow him on Twitter @patricktimmons.

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