In the Name of the Fathers—The Priests of Juarez

In the Name of the Fathers—The Priests of Juarez

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JUAREZ, Chihuahua, Mex.--Father Isidro Payan was saying mass for a group of children on a Sunday morning, one week before Lent, when he was approached by his deacon, who informed him that a 28-year-old man had been executed outside the church, less than 25 yards away.  The mother of the victim was pleading for the priest to administer Extreme Unction, the last rites, over her son’s inert body.

“I left the mass in the charge of the deacon and went to attend the request and did what I had to do as a priest,” said father Payan three days after the tragedy. He was sitting in his office at Saint Trinity, a church he has headed for the last five years, after having served for 37 years at the cathedral downtown.

“He was already dead,” said the 83year-old priest.

Contrary to news reports, he said, children inside the church were never in danger or frightened because the church doors were closed and the walls are thick. “We never heard any shots whatsoever. They [the children] found out about what happened when the mass was over and they went outside,’’ he explained.

Walking a Tightrope

Bound by both the Church's discretion and the Mexican Constitution -- which restricts the role of the Catholic Church in civic life -- Catholic priests in Mexico are cautious in how they confront the recent widespread violence.

By law, priests can’t be involved in political issues. But many priests in Juarez say that not being involved does not mean they shouldn’t take a stand--morally.

“We have to be careful how we say things and how we refer to the gangs or the police. But we can’t remain quiet or ignore the pain our community is suffering,” said Father Francisco Galo Sanchez. He is a priest at San Mateo Church in the north side of Juarez, an area barely spared daily killings on the streets.

“Just two blocks away, two young men were killed and a young woman was seriously wounded last year. I heard the shots and went out. Then I saw the police helicopter swirling around the area and went back inside. I couldn’t escape the worry that the killers might seek refuge inside the church. I was afraid,’’ remembers Galo, who has been living in Juarez since 1967.

The paranoia he senses in himself, Galo also now senses throughout the city. “The city is crumbling but we can’t give up. We can’t lose our faith. Our mission as priests is to give hope to the people,” he emphasized.

Father Galo remembers the once-vibrant city, full of American tourists, with lots of jobs.

“This used to be a great city and we are about to lose it, mainly, because the citizens are losing confidence in their authorities--at all levels,” said Galo.

He continued, “Whatever the authorities say has nothing to do with our reality. How can you trust a high level official [Mexican Secretary Treasurer, Ernesto Cordero], who declares on national television that a husband and wife can pay a mortgage, meet their car loan and have enough money left over to send their children to a private school with 6000 pesos (about $450) a month? The government is completely out of touch with our reality.”

A priest for 28 years, Galo does not remember a time like this. “Juarez used to be filled with life. In summer, the kids used to play in the streets while their parents chatted outside, waiting for their homes to cool down. Some even used to sleep outside. There was never any problem. Now, as soon as it gets dark, everybody wants to get home and lock their doors,” he said.

Galo also recalled his six years as a priest in Guadalupe Bravo, a municipality two hours from Juarez. Once, he said, the community produced cotton that was competitive with the that of Egypt—the best in the world.

“We used to go up and down the road without any problems, aside from the fact that they were narrow, dirt roads,” Galo remembered. “Yes, there where families that dealt drugs, mostly marijuana and cocaine. Even in those less violent years there were Cessna planes (in the drug trade) that used an airstrip built by the government-owned oil company, PEMEX," said the priest.

Galo recounted, “My predecessor told me that if I was driving around the landing strip and happened to see a plane landing or taking off, the best thing was to slow down and not pay attention to whatever was going on. Of course, I knew they were unloading drugs, but the drugs were being moved up north [to the United States]. It wasn’t that I didn’t care, but what could I do? My job was to take care of the spiritual life of my community.”

At least once a year, he said, a family in the parish used to visit him with an envelope full of money. “The advice I got from the previous priest was not take it, but let them know that they could give it to charity,” Galo said. “I can’t tell you if the same happens now in other communities, but it happens,” he added.

Hope--The Only Option

“We can’t lose hope,” stressed Father Jose Rios Galarza. He spoke in his church office at Our Lady of Peace, in a run down neighborhood on the outskirts of Juarez. “Our job [as priests] is to give hope. We can’t give up on that,’’ he added.

Just as many other priests interviewed for this story, Rios Galarza recalled the night last year when a vehicle stopped in front of the church and the priests heard the bang, bang of an automatic pistol followed by the screech of a car speeding away.

“When I got out, the victim was dead,” the priest remembered. He also revisited the day he performed a wedding. As soon as the newlywed got into the parking lot, armed men drove up and took away the new husband and his best man. Both were discovered executed a few days later.

“God will not forget us. He will bring light into this darkness and will expose the intentions of our hearts and everybody will get what they deserve,” said Rios Galarza, as darkness began to show on the horizon and the city lights became a distant glow.