- The Washington Times - Monday, April 20, 2009

MEXICO CITY (AP) - Roman Catholic priests in northern Mexico said Monday that they are targets of drug violence and are taking extra precautions in the wake of an archbishop’s comment that “everybody knows” where the nation’s most-wanted trafficker lives.

Fear among the region’s clergy was heightened last week when the archbishop of the northern state of Durango, Hector Gonzalez Martinez, said the alleged leader of the powerful Sinaloa cartel lives near the Durango town of Guanacevi, and “everybody knows it except the authorities.”

Law enforcement officials said that they have no evidence that Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman lives in the mountain town, and Gonzalez Martinez quickly apologized for the statement, though he stood by his claim that he had heard about the reputed kingpin’s whereabouts from parishioners.

The location of Guzman, who escaped from prison in 2001, has become a part of Mexican folklore, with rumors circulating of him being everywhere from Guatemala to almost every corner of Mexico, especially its “Golden Triangle,” a mountainous, marijuana-growing region straddling the northern states of Sinaloa, Durango and Chihuahua.

The Rev. Victor Manuel Solis, spokesman for the Durango Archdiocese, said no threats against Gonzalez Martinez have been received since his declaration Friday, but he told a local radio station that the comment may have been “reckless, dangerous and to a certain degree, irresponsible.”

Solis said clergy have been advised to take extra care in their daily lives and avoid ostentatious behavior.

“We have had to take some precautionary measures for the lives of our priests,” he said, without elaborating.

In the past decade, more than 200 priests have been the victims of threats or extortion attempts amid a wave of drug-fueled violence plaguing Mexico, church officials say.

About a half-dozen priests in the Durango Archdiocese have been threatened by extortionists in the past two months, according to Solis. The government has said that Mexico’s drug cartels are increasingly behind such threats.

“They demand money, they threaten them,” Solis said.

The Roman Catholic Church in Mexico has been an outspoken critic of the drug trade and the accompanying violence that has cost more than 10,680 lives in the country since 2006. And it has also accused politicians of not doing enough to combat the scourge.

The Rev. Manuel Corral, public relations secretary for the Mexican Council of Bishops, said threats over the past 10 years have included notes or telephone calls to priests with warnings such as “You’re going to get it if you keep talking” or “Watch what you say,” apparent references to sermons against drug use and drug trafficking.

Gunmen linked to drug traffickers shot to death Roman Catholic Cardinal Juan Jesus Posadas Ocampo at an airport in May 1993 in what prosecutors called a case of mistaken identity. Since then, there have been no documented cases of any priest killed by drug gangs.

The Mexican government has stressed that it is making strides in the battle against drug cartels.

On Monday, it announced the extradition of alleged Colombian trafficker Ever Villafane to face drug charges in the United States. Villafane is accused of coordinating with Mexico’s Sinaloa cartel to ship Colombian cocaine to the U.S.

The federal Attorney General’s Office said Villafane was handed over Friday.


Associated Press Writer E. Eduardo Castillo contributed to this report.

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