Cartel battle leaves church looted, bullet-ridden in western Mexico

Pilgrims from Mexico at the General Audience in St Peters Square Sept 21 2016 Credit Daniel Iba n ez CNA Daniel Ibanez/CNA.

A clash between drug trafficking cartels last week left a church pillaged and full of bullet holes in a village in the Mexican state of Michoacan.

Saint Joseph the Worker parish in San José de Chila, about 25 miles southwest of  Apatzingán, found itself at the center of a power struggle between the Jalisco New Generation Cartel and the Knights Templar Cartel the evening of March 19.

Speaking to ACI Prensa, CNA's Spanish language sister agency, Fr. Isaac Barajas Castañeda, the pastor of Saint Joseph the Worker, said the drug traffickers "engaged many weapons, a lot of ammunition, armored cars, they left many men dead, many pools of blood" in the village.

The church was reportedly seized as a fort by one of the cartels, leading their opponents to open fire. Barajas was not at the parish at that time since he had left the village two days prior to the confrontation, on March 17. He is now assessing the damage to the church and rectory.

"The bell tower is full of bullet holes, the bells are shot through, the baptismal font is overturned, they opened up the sacristy, broke windows, knocked down doors," he said.

"They went looking for people and at the same time for money, jewelry, weapons, they searched everywhere, there wasn't a small box they didn't open."
The drug traffickers took from the church a motorcycle, money, and gold objects, as well as the priest's personal belongings.

The distance to the village, he said, meant that the authorities could not intervene.

"This is a rural village far from Apatzingán, the authorities are there in Apatzingán. They knew what was going on, but they didn't come."

However, he said "anyhow the local authorities are outmatched, because the (federal) government has already come twice. While the government comes it's perfectly quiet here. You don't see anyone here doing any harm."

"The government spent two days here and then they left. And as soon as they had left, the shooting started up again. There would have to be I don't know how many platoons living here for that not to happen."

Despite the level of violence going on in the area, Barajas is not thinking of abandoning the village or his ministry. He said he is staying "for the mission the bishop has entrusted to me and because my presence shores up the few remaining families."

Bishop Cristóbal Ascencio García of Apatzingán visited San José de Chila March 24 to see the damage caused by the violence of the drug traffickers.

"He looked surprised and offered a prayer of reparation for the church, the baptismal font, and the sacred vestments," the pastor said.

Barajas said that Bishop Ascencio "explained the readings on the call of Moses, who liberated a people, the Gospel reading on the fig tree and emphasized that we must bear fruits of love, peace and justice."

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