The state of Guerrero, in southwestern Mexico, is a troubled land where almost two dozen cartels, gangs, and vigilante groups battle for supremacy over drug production and shipping routes. The state has largely given up trying to maintain order here, ceding large swaths of the countryside to criminal bands.
Many rural communities have become ghost towns, their residents often fleeing north to the U.S. border to escape the armed groups that prey on them. A recent video that went viral on social media shows a squad of Mexican soldiers at a remote highway checkpoint watching helplessly as a massive convoy of sicarios bearing assault rifles rolls through their outpost.
“It is in the rural areas where criminal groups take advantage of the local populations and force them to cultivate drug crops. If they refuse they will be summarily executed,” said a federal police officer, who agreed to speak only under the condition of anonymity.
“The security situation in Guerrero and many other areas in Mexico has fallen prey to the hyper-violent cartels,” said Mike Vigil, the DEA’s former chief of International Operations, in an interview with The Daily Beast. “Guerrero currently has more criminal groups than any other region in Mexico, slightly over 20, fighting each other for control of drug production and distribution, especially heroin.”
In the absence of state power, it has fallen to the church to keep the peace. Enter Bishop José de Jesús González, the newly appointed pontiff based in the provincial capital of Chilpancingo, who has vowed to travel out into rugged deserts and mountains of Guerrero to meet with the various warring factions of narcos and auto-defensas [self-defense forces] in an attempt to bring peace to his diocese.
But such attempts at ecclesiastical intervention can come at a steep price. About 50 priests have been murdered in Mexico in the last 15 years, including two who were gunned down in their own church last month after trying to grant sanctuary to another cartel victim. In a separate incident in June, a third priest was attacked and savagely beaten by sicarios in the state of Michoacán, which borders Guerrero to the north.
For his part, González said he is willing to sacrifice himself for others as a martyr in the name of peace. “As a shepherd, one must stand ready to give one’s own life for the flock,” he said. “It would set a very bad example for other priests if the bishop was afraid to do this.”