FoRB on the Frontlines: “If I can kill a priest then I can kill anyone”

In several Latin American countries, religious leaders often take on the roles of community leader and human rights defender. As a result, these leaders often face harassment, intimidation and even violence at the hands of state and non-state actors. Over the next few weeks CSW will be presenting interviews with religious leaders working in the region to highlight their experiences on the frontlines of freedom of religion or belief.

Father Omar Sotelo Aguilar works in Mexico for the Catholic Multimedia Centre (CCM) documenting attacks against Catholic priests.

“In recent years Mexico has been a dangerous place for journalists, priests and other religious leaders. I have been a Catholic priest and a journalist for about 25 years now, so I face a double risk. But even without taking this into account, we are as exposed as any other person.

I decided to approach this work from a journalist’s perspective as it is an issue that was not very visible, but was a very harsh reality. Good journalism, like good advocacy, is based on facts, figures and documentation.

Over the last thirteen years we have documented 44 murders of priests in Mexico, in the last four we have documented more than 800 cases of extortion and death threats made against priests across the country.

Mexico continues to be the most dangerous country in the world to work as a priest.

Religious leaders are a target for organised crime for multiple reasons, however there are some patterns which indicate that violence against priests and their pastoral support staff can be attributed to the fact that a priest contributes to social stability. By targeting these figures with disappearances, extortion and threats, the parish area is destabilised; members of organised criminal groups take advantage of this to impose a culture of silence and terror. These are key factors in the development of corruption, injustice, violence and death.

When criminals kill a priest they are sending a message – “If I can kill a priest then I can kill anyone.” Torture has also been a recurring theme in cases of violence against priests, as has kidnapping.  

Recently, on Thursday 22 August, Father José Martín Guzmán Vega, 55, was killed in the village of San Adelaida in the Matamoros municipality. This case is just one more in a long list of attacks against religious leaders this year and over recent years.  

More than 80% of the registered cases involving priests remain open. Currently the states with the highest rates of crime are Guerrero, Michoacán, Veracruz, Tamaulipas, México, Jalisco and Mexico City.

The government has done very little to address this. Many government institutions at the municipal, state and federal levels have been made ineffective by organized crime. However, the work to end this phenomenon continues.

It is not, however, just about seeing changes in the government, this is a countrywide problem which begins close to home. As Eleanor Roosevelt put it in 1953: “Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home – so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world.”

If there is no respect for human rights locally, neither laws nor international obligations will have any significance for those who suffer violations of their fundamental human rights.

Often, fear is an obstacle to justice. Many of those who receive threats fear the possible repercussions of reporting these violations and prefer that their cases remain in silence. Pain can also be an obstacle when it is too traumatic for family members to tell journalists their stories.

Unfortunately, those who put in place public policies are rarely interested in individual cases, they want to see statistics. Each case deserves to be and should be documented, even if the person wants to remain anonymous. Facts and figures about specific cases are crucial in order to determine the themes and trends to share with those who have the power to create laws and make changes.

The Church needs to understand the importance of the work that we do and its contribution to society. Little by little there has been support and recognition from the leadership of the Church for the work we have done and are developing, but more must  be done to raise awareness of what we do and why it is imperative that the work continues.”