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Gap between rich, poor expands in Mexico.

Catholic officials tread cautiously as poor cry for justice

MEXICO CITY - Mexico simmers. There are reliable reports of minor guerrilla activity in the south. International human rights agencies continue to update their accounts of torture, of impunity for a frequently out-of-control police and judicial system, of atrocities and crimes that go unpunished and uninvestigated.

The socioeconomic conditions are bleak. Much of the population is hungry. Living standards are in free fall, with most prices equal to or slightly higher than in the United States, yet the average income is $4-6 a day.

The population is 90 million and climbing rapidly, with greater acceleration ahead because half the current population is under 18. Rural depopulation is overwhelming not just Mexico's urban areas - including the world's largest city, Mexico City, with 20 million people - but potentially the southwestern United States, pushing hard against and easily breaking through the U.S.-Mexican border.

Possibly 20 percent of Mexico's actual population is living illegally in the United States, where it constitutes about 8 percent of the U.S. population.

Rich-poor gap

In Mexico, the rich-poor gap is accelerating fastest of all. In a city such as Monterey, the economy, which is linked to the global economy as much as to Mexico's, can boom. Five of Mexico's largest Monterey-based corporations - in glass, cement, and so forth - are also the largest in Latin America. Monterey's banks control 45 percent of Mexico's banking.

When the current president, Carlos Salinas de Gortari of the PRI, Institutional Revolutionary Party, took power in 1988, Mexico had one known billionaire. Today it has 14.

On the drug front, some in Mexico worry about the "Colombianization" of Mexico, though cynics suggest that whereas in Colombia the drug lords are at war with the government, in Mexico they are one and the same.

In this setting, any discussion of Catholic church issues seems almost peripheral by comparison, yet 90 percent of the population is nominally Catholic, despite accelerating inroads by Protestant sects and fundamentalist groups. The Catholic and indigenous skeins provide the strongest threads and colors in Mexico's sociocultural fabric.

The Catholic church's fortunes in Meidoo have always swung wildly between acceptance and suppression. In this century, the events that brought the ruling PRI to power in 1929 occurred during some of the worst repression against Catholics anywhere in history.


The originally anticlerical PRI was fused together by Lazaro Cardenas, father to current presidential candidate Cuauhtemoc Cardenas (NCR, July 30), from Mexican revolutionary groups as a party of the poor and the land at a time when the church was identified with the rich and the landowners.

Priests were banned, ordered to marry; property was confiscated, churches closed; sacraments ceased; anyone sheltering priests was summarily executed and the priests immediately hanged or shot.

Those events, captured in novel form by Graham Greene's The Power and the Glory, live on in the memories, too, of people such as Theresa Heimpel Gillies and Alfonso Mendez Ramirez, former delegate to PAN, the National Action Party (page 13).

Some Catholics in Mexico are concerned that despite the 1992 Vatican-Mexican reestablishment of diplomatic relations, there is early evidence of a nuanced anti-catholic repression - governmental control of Catholics seeking change, a control blided by apostolic delegate Jeronimo Prigione and the Vatican.

Examples abound. In July, after the Mexican Bishops Conference pastoral against violence referred to some government military involvement in narcotrafficking, Prigione and conference president Monterey Archbishop Adolfo Suarez Rivera were quickly called to meet with Mexicos interior and defense ministers to clarify the "misunderstanding." to clarify the "misunderstanding."

Different churches

One reason the Catholic church is soft-peddling, apparently, is that Mexico intends to tax the churches, and the hierarchy wants to cut the best deal possible.

However, as presidential contender Cuauhtemoc Cardenas of the PRD, the opposition Party of the Democratic Revolution, recently told NCR, Mexican Catholicism is several churches. Two of them were in view on July 15, less than a month before Pope John Paul II's Aug. 10 brief stop at Merida, Yucatan, on Mexico's east coast, en route to Denver:

* At a luncheon for bishops and high government functionaries at the exclusive Club de Raquet in San Luis Potosi to mark the first anniversary of renewed Mexican-Vatican relations;

* I And in a Mexico City bus station cafeteria, where Catholic human rights workers breakfasted with one of "the widows of Amilcingo," whose husbands were decapitated and buried in unmarked graves for supporting Mexico's opposition party, the PRD. Also present was Dominican Fr. Julian Cruzalta Aguirre of Mexico's oldest Catholic rights group, Fray Francisco de Vitoria.

The official church

The public comments at the San Luis Potosi luncheon were diplomatic pablum.

Apostolic delegate Archbishop Girolamo Prigione said that the pope, on his third Mexican visit, will find "a new and different Mexico, a Mexico that has turned to normalcy."

Prigione then fiddled with an unlit cigarette as he listened to Secretary of the Government Patrocinio Gonzalez Garrido praise church-state relations as a "healthy living-together that will lead to a national unity."

Elsewhere, many Mexican priests favored a situation of no official recognition by the state for the church because it rids Mexico of the notion of Catholicism as the de facto state religion. The 1992 accords, therefore, were seen by some as a retrograde step.

Mexican Catholicism is structured through more than 60 archdioceses and dioceses. More than 100 bishops belong to BEM, the Mexican Bishops Conference.

Today, in the chronically priest-short country, vocations in many places out-run facilities, though not the population curve.

The Mexican Catholic church was traditionally racist: light-skinned, European-blooded priests became bishops. John XXIII began, and Paul VI accelerated, the appointment of indigenous bishops - Chiapas, Oaxaca and Yucatan are examples - and it is frequently these local bishops who are considered more leftist? because they identify more easily with their people's plight.

For decades, because there were no seminaries, many Mexicans studied for the priesthood in the United States and Europe, where they absorbed Vatican II's reform ambitions. Some were influenced by the Latin American bishops' own advances, such as their 1968 Medellin statements, and in large measure by Paul VI's Poputorum Progressio encyclical.

For 40 years, the church did have unofficial recognition (although priests, for example, could not vote, and clerical garb was prohibited). Even so, before the new formalities, Tijuana Bishop Emilio Carlos Berlie Belaunzaran was on a local weekly television program in full regalia, discussing church issues.

Prigione, the nuncio, has committed a couple of notable gaffes. Once the charges in the law occured, he announced that God had returned to Mexico, and Mexico had returned to God. This failed to endear him to the bishops or government.

Next, Prigione registered the Holy Roman Catholic Apostolic Church with the secretary of the national government, keeper of the registry of recognized religions, which further offended the bishops because Prigione is simply a diplomat. The bishops and the bishops conference are the ones to register the church, which they subsequently also have done.

The various religious orders, such as the Jesuits, must also register. Any group, religious or not, unregistered in Mexico is in fact either illegal or in law does not exist. The delicate dance currently under way between the bishops and the government has to do with whether, and the extent to which, the church will be taxed.

Big words, small acts

Concerned Catholics worry that the registration is a new and tighter form of control, since the bishops conference is cooperating. Critics contend that the bishops conference is good at denunciation but never follows through with action, even at the local level.

The Mexican hierarchy is conservative, but even antihierarchy priests caution against measuring the Mexican church with a U.S. yardstick. Survival has been the major Catholic church goal for decades, and its true nature will take time to emerge.

For example, an interesting sidelight has surfaced since the May 24 assassination of Guadalajara Cardinal Juan Jesus Posadas at the Guadalajara airport.

Rumors are that Posadas was involved in drug trafficking (unlikely); that it was retribution from the immensely powerful Mexican Masons (who deny it) because of the Catholic church's potential return to power; or that the government wanted him gone for speaking out against NAFTA

The sidelight, according to Cruzalta, who edits the Dominicans'quarterly human rights magazine Justicia y Paz, is that the cardinal appeared to be undergoing a "Romero-like" conversion.

In the past year," said Cruzalta, "we began to hear him giving very strange homilies, not the way he usually talked. He spoke about the poor, about.the ills of the free-trade agreement, and against narcotrafficking. He was a very institutional man, his priests did not like him, he was against base communities, but something strange was going on in him. He was a member of CELAM (the Latin American Bishops group) and maybe, like Romero, he was just beginning to see the reality."

The establishment of diocesan human rights organizations is a mark of courage, then only five or so of Mexico's 60 diocesan leaders can be described as courageous. But they have been in this new world, where the churcb is legally able to make such moves, for only 12 months.

As the plight of their people worsens, the episcopal response could be sharper than is presently predicted.

Amilcingo's widows

The government has offered Antonia Neri Juarez $ 22,000 - more than she will otherwise see in her lifetime - to drop her demands for an independent inquiry into the assassination of her husband, Esteban Morales Glodias, who disappeared in May 1989. "But I will not take it until we get justice," she told NCR, as her 4-yearold, Esteban - born after his father's death - stood at her side.

"I am speaking for myself, not the other widows [there were 12]," said Neri, who believes that local police commandant and ruling PRI party delegate Apolo Bernabd Rios Garcia and his henchmen are responsible for the deaths. Garcia!s henchmen are not charged but are being held in protective custody in the state of Mexico after one accomplice confessed.

In 1988, PRD opposition party workers in the village of Amilcingo, state of Morelos, about 90 miles from Mexico City, began to disappear. This particular village had a spirit of independence dating back to the 1970s and the founding of a teachers' training school for campesinos by a professor, Vinh Flores Laureano, who was himself assassinated in 1976.

Neri and others, such as Rosario Ibarra de Piedra (who, two decades ago after her son's murder, founded Mexico's first human rights organization, the Eureka Committee), have publicly accused Bemabd, and hold responsible Morelos'governor and PRI appointee, Antonio Riva Palacio.

Riva Palacio made Bernabd eastern state region police commandant as well as local PRI head, and allegedly provided the arms, vehicles and money to, suppress the opposition PRD. The men began to disappear, according to human rights groups.

Attempts to demand an inquiry were met with more violence. Then, within the past few months, remains of 27 bodies were discovered in several places around Amilcingo and in the neighboring state of Puebla. The men had been tortured, many decapitated.

Neri's husband, Esteban Morales - whose remains were unearthed from a Puebla public cemetery in March - bad been detained by Bernabe in 1989, but the federal judicial Police had freed him because no charges were filed. A month later, Morales did not return home from work.

Palace sit-in

For the past two months, Neri and other widows have participated in a sit-in in front on the governor's palace, demanding an independent inquiry.

Not at any time has the Mexican bishops ofference, or the local bishop, refenrred to the brutal slaying of the Amilcingo men, nor sided with the widows in their call for an independent inquiry.

Supporting Neri, and those other widows who have not taken the government's payoff, have been such people and groups as Ignacio Suirez Huape of the Morelos Independent Human Rights Commission and Cruzalta.

Huape, protage of the late activist archbishop of Cuernavaca, Sergio Mendez Arceo, also writes for the Mendez Arceo-founded independent weekly, Correo del Sur.

Huape, one of those present at the bus-terminal meeting, told NCR that despite threats, the sit-in will continue. Neri agreed.

Said Cruzalta, who travels the country on human rights work yet also spends several days at a time at the Amilcingo widows' sit-in, human rights issues are steadily emerging as a major factor in Mexican life. For example, the Dominican human rights commission, he explained, has already been the subject of a government disinformation campaign - the government wrote to U.S. publications charging that Fray Francisco was unreliable.

Earlier this year, the government had the Fray Francisco representatives disinvited to the Vienna U.N. human rights meeting. But Swiss Dominicans saw what was happening. Consequently, the World Council of Churches had the Mexican Dominican group attend the Vienna gathering as WCC invitees.

"The government will not stop," Cruzalta told NCR, "but neither will the 110 independent Mexican human fits organizations."
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Author:Jones, Arthur
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:Aug 13, 1993
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