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Pope To Visit Mexico As Priests Find Themselves On Drug War's Front Lines


Pope Francis will be arriving in Mexico tomorrow. He'll be on a six-day tour of the world's second most populous Catholic country. The pope's trip comes as Mexico's priests find themselves on the front lines of that country's protracted drug war. As NPR's Carrie Kahn reports, 11 priests have been killed in just the past three years.


CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: It's the afternoon rosary at Mexico City's basilica. Bishop Salvador Rangel Mendoza asks all present in the grand church in the north of the capital to pray for peace...


UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Speaking Spanish).

RANGEL: (Speaking Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: ...And, Rangel says, an end to the violence in his home state of Guerrero, one of the hardest hit by drug trafficking in the country. Caught up in that violence are more and more priests. Eleven were murdered in the country since current president Enrique Pena Nieto took office three and a half years ago.

RANGEL: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "It's very difficult to be a priest in Guerrero," says Bishop Rangel. "We provide our ministry in isolated communities where the only employment is poppy cultivation for heroin production," he says. Drug trafficking and criminal gangs fight over that valuable crop and for control of the port of Acapulco, now the most dangerous city in Mexico. Late last year, several bishops from Acapulco issued an urgent plea to the government to stop the violence.

RANGEL: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "Unfortunately," Rangel says, "Guerrero was one of the states most ignored by our federal government and is rife with corruption." In September of 2014, 43 students were abducted and presumed murdered by local police working for a drug gang there. On Christmas Day that year, a priest was found shot dead after he accused the gang of participating in the students' disappearance. The remains of a murdered priest were found in an unmarked grave discovered in the search for the 43. Violence against all church workers is up. Last year, seminary students in Mexico City revealed they were being extorted by drug gangs. And robberies against lay workers jumped, as did death threats, says Father Omar Sotelo, who runs the Catholic Multimedia Center.


OMAR SOTELO: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: In an interview on Milenio TV, Sotelo says the situation is getting worse. Critics fault the church hierarchy for not being more forceful with government officials, and many hope Pope Francis' visit here tomorrow will change that. In remarks before his arrival in Mexico, the pontiff says he knows of, quote, "the little bit of war hitting Mexico," and he has no plans to overlook the corruption, violence and drug trafficking afflicting the country. Anthropologist and religious scholar Elio Masferrer Kan says the pope's visit has given progressive elements in Mexico's church the opportunity to speak out.

ELIO MASFERRER KAN: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: He says progressive priests in Mexico's church weren't as influential under the past two popes, who were more conservative than Francis. That new outspokenness was evident in a recent editorial in an archdiocese publication. It warned government officials not to try and hide Mexico's violence and killings where the pope will visit. The trash remains below the red carpet, it read, and added, Francis is not coming for a tidy and whitewashed event. Carrie Kahn, NPR News, Mexico City. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Carrie Kahn is NPR's International Correspondent based in Mexico City, Mexico. She covers Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central America. Kahn's reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning news programs including All Things Considered, Morning Edition and Weekend Edition, and on