Bishop Gets Heat for `El Chapo' Remarks

By Tracy Wilkinson
(c) 2009, Los Angeles Times

MEXICO CITY -- In the state of Durango, Roman Catholic Archbishop Hector Gonzalez announced over the weekend that the fugitive drug trafficker "El Chapo," who tops Mexico's most-wanted list, was living nearby.

And everyone knows it, the archbishop added. Except, it would seem, the authorities, who fail to make an arrest.

A shocking revelation, but in Durango, local newspapers and television stations declined to report the comments, and national newspapers that printed the remarks did not appear on many newsstands.

Was the prelate being censored?

"We have no information on that," said a Durango government spokesman.

Gonzalez's remarks perhaps embarrassed regional authorities in Durango, some of whom have long been rumored to be lending support and protection to the fugitive Joaquin Guzman, alias El Chapo. The billionaire head of the powerful Sinaloa Cartel has been in hiding since escaping from a high-security Mexican prison in 2001.

Sinaloa and Durango are adjacent states, part of what is known here as the Golden Triangle, a rugged patch where Guzman is believed to be living. As legislators demanded an investigation and associates expressed concern for Gonzalez's safety, church officials said they were taking to steps to protect the senior cleric.

The Rev. Manuel Corral, a spokesman for the Mexican Bishops' Conference, said Monday that priests in eight Mexican states had been threatened with harm or death, presumably by drug traffickers.

Although the threats are anonymous, he said, many come via missives and third-party go-betweens when priests have attempted to turn members of their parishes away from the traffickers and use of drugs.

"It's always when the priests denounce violence, injustice and crime, or when we try to get our people to leave the `narco-menudeo,' " or drug street sales, Corral said.

A few priests have been transferred from their churches because of threats, but many traffickers remain discreet. However, the potential danger can hurt the church's work.

"The fear is there," Corral said.

The Catholic Church has a complex position in Mexico. It officially supports the Mexican government's war on drug traffickers but laments the spiraling violence. In some parts of the country, priests have used money from traffickers to pay for church repairs or community projects. One senior priest was even quoted as praising drug lords' propensity to tithe.

Ismael Hernandez Deras, the governor of Durango, said in a communique that if Gonzalez really had information on El Chapo's whereabouts, he should report it to the attorney general's office.

He added: "By the same token, the attorney general's office should guarantee the physical integrity of the archbishop."

With the pressure mounting, Gonzalez dropped out of sight, missing a "peace and justice" march that he had convoked.

Then Monday, he issued a statement in which he apologized if he had "scandalized" anyone with his remarks.

"They were based," Gonzalez said, "on what people say, speaking to their pastor."

(Cecilia Sanchez of the Times' Mexico City bureau contributed to this report.)

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