A religious leader and his colleague are kidnapped from a migrant shelter; they have not been seen or heard from since. Another is assaulted, extorted and threatened at gunpoint. Both provided protection to migrants and asylum seekers trapped on the border. In the same country, religious leaders warn that threats and attacks against them constitute one of the most serious problems facing churches today. Ironically, all this is taking place in what is considered to be one of the most religious countries in the world, Mexico.
The worsening situation for migrants and asylum seekers passing through Mexico has been exacerbated by the implementation of the US’ Migrant Protection Program (MPP) also known as ‘Remain in Mexico’ at the start of 2019. The policy has made it increasingly difficult for migrants to win asylum cases in the US, only 0.1% of cases have been successful, and many have sought refuge in church-run migrant shelters across Mexico while they wait, especially at the northern border. On 28 February 2020, a US federal appeals court ruled that that the Remain in Mexico policy was illegal.
While many Protestant and Catholic leaders have responded to the rising levels of need in an outworking of their faith by following commands to help the poor, shelter the homeless, and love the foreigner, their work makes them increasingly exposed to threats and attacks from organised criminal groups who prey on the vulnerable migrant population.
Attacks are not limited to religious leaders working in Mexico. South of the border in Guatemala, Father Mauro Verzeletti, director of the Scalabrini Mission “Casa del Migrante” in Guatemala City, is reported to have received death threats on 20 January 2020.
While Father Verzeletti had the confidence to speak out, in Mexico, high levels of fear engendered by the brutal and very public tactics of illegal groups targeting migrants and intimidating the population mean that church leaders and other victims of these violations are usually extremely reluctant to do so. Widespread impunity in regions where members of criminal groups very rarely have to face any kind of justice means that the consequences of speaking out are potentially too horrific to consider.
Last year marked one of the worst years in history for Mexico’s homicide rates, up 2.7% on the previous year. In the same year, just one Catholic priest was murdered. On the surface, it may appear that Mexico, which previously held the record for most priests killed for ten years running, is now a relative safe-haven for Catholic priests; however, CSW received reports of seven non-Catholic religious leaders murdered in 2019, and both Catholic and Protestant leaders continued to experience violations including torture, extortion and assault. Hundreds of Catholic priests and non-Catholic religious leaders continue to carry out their work under threat. Given the wider context, whilst attempts to murder Catholic priests may not have resulted as high a number of deaths as in previous years, neither these cases, nor the figures themselves, should be seen as indicative of an improvement in the situation for religious leaders in Mexico.
The spread and entrenchment of violent criminal groups across the country has had a substantial and devastating impact on freedom of religion and freedom of expression in many parts of Mexico. Criminal groups often demand total cooperation from civilians in areas under their influence. Civil society institutions, including religious groups, are often seen as detrimental to this goal of total and active loyalty from the population. Church leaders who openly refuse to cooperate with the criminal groups in any of these areas, or who simply attempt to remain independent, often face severe repercussions. This, in turn, has a chilling effect on the free exercise of religion.
In an interview with CSW in 2019, Father Omar Sotelo Aguilar, director of the Catholic Multimedia Centre (CCM) described the multiple factors for which priests are targeted, highlighting the social stability that religious leaders bring in an increasingly fear-filled culture. In addition to their role as community leaders, religious leaders often also take on the role of human rights defenders (HRDs), engaging with various human rights initiatives in order to bring the issues facing their respective communities to the attention of those who can provide legal, practical or advocacy assistance.
Religious leaders involved in church ministries that support drug and alcohol addicts, migrants, victims of human rights violations including trafficking, and those looking to leave or avoid involvement in criminal groups are also at risk. This is exemplified in the case of Father Alberto Ruiz Pérez, a priest who runs the El Refugio Casa del Migrante migrant shelter in the state of Jalisco, and was assaulted, extorted and threatened at gunpoint in October 2019. In a statement published on social media, the Casa del Migrante team called on the federal government, local authorities and the State Prosecutor’s Office to protect Father Alberto Ruiz Pérez, his family and team and to address what happened as “a direct and calculated attack against the El Refugio Casa del Migrante team as human rights defenders for migrants.”
Another worrying example is that of Afredo Castillo de Luna and Pastor Aarón Méndez Ruiz, the director of the Casa del Migrante AMAR migrant shelter in Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas on the US-Mexico border. Pastor Méndez Ruiz and his co-worker Castillo de Luna were forcibly disappeared on 3 August 2019. Members of a criminal group came to the shelter looking for Pastor Mendez Ruiz, who was not there at the time, and took Castillo de Luna instead. Upon returning to the shelter, Pastor Mendez Ruiz left to search for Castillo de Luna. Neither has been heard from since.
Religious leaders who resist criminal groups and do not cooperate with their demands often receive an ultimatum to ‘leave or die.’ It is believed that Pastor Méndez Ruiz was targeted because he was protecting Cubans housed in the shelter from attempts by criminal groups to kidnap and hold them for ransom. Earlier in 2019 15 Cubans staying at the AMAR migrant shelter were kidnapped. They were returned after a ransom was paid but they had been beaten and tortured while in captivity.
On 4 October the Inter-American Human Rights Commission (CIDH) called on the Mexican government to detail what measures it has taken “to determine the whereabouts or destination” of Méndez Ruiz and Castillo de Luna, and to protect the families of the victims and to report on the progress of the investigation. Despite the fact that the two men have been missing for more than seven months now, those close to them report that no communication has been received from either of them, and there has been no ransom demand. There appears to have been no progress on any investigation into their fate.
According to the CIDH report on the case, a warning attributed to the Northeast Cartel (Cartel Del Noreste) circulated on social media in the weeks following the two men’s disappearance: “Operation CATAS, sending priests to hell! Every immigrant will pay us here!!! It doesn’t matter if they come from or hide in a church. Priests, pastors.[non-Catholic] Priests. Bishops. You are warned.”
The Mexican government bears primary responsibility to address the situation of religious leaders who are under threat across the country, but the situation is exacerbated by government inaction, or inadequate action, which has led to an entrenched culture of impunity. Beyond intermittent verbal condemnations, little has been done to address the violence.
The government must carry out thorough investigations into the murders and enforced disappearances of religious leaders over the past decade, holding those responsible to account through the legal system. In the case of the disappeared, it is the responsibility of the government to find out what happened to them and to share this information with their families and loved ones. In the meantime, the Mexican government must also create a comprehensive policy to offer measures of protection for religious leaders who are under threat and root out corruption to allow for safe and effective mechanisms to report such threats and other types of attacks.
In cases involving asylum seekers who have been returned by US authorities to parts of Mexico deemed ‘no-go areas’ by the US State Department, the US must ensure that measures are in place to ensure that asylum seekers and those who provide them with material assistance received effective protection from predatory criminal groups. If such protection cannot be provided, asylum seekers must not be sent back.
By CSW’s Latin America Advocacy Officer, Emily Featherstone
 Under this policy, refugees who have crossed the Mexican border and claimed asylum in the US are returned to Mexico to await a decision on their case.
 Proverbs 31:8-9
 Isaiah 58:7
 Leviticus 19:33-34