Fr Juan Miguel Contreras Garcia was reportedly hearing Confession in his office last Friday when a gunman burst in and shot him dead. The 33-year-old was the fourth priest to be murdered in Mexico this year. Just two days earlier Fr Ruben Alcantara Diaz was stabbed to death in his church on the outskirts of Mexico City.

Mexico is regarded as the world’s most dangerous nation to be a priest. That is, on the face of it, surprising. Mexico has the world’s second-largest population of Catholics after Brazil. Unlike other South American countries, it has avoided a steep drop in Catholic affiliation. Only one in ten Mexican adults raised as Catholics abandon the faith, compared to a quarter in Nicaragua. Admittedly, many Mexican Catholics dissent from the Church’s moral teaching – just 45 per cent, for example, say that sex outside marriage is wrong – and many believe in superstitions such as the “evil eye”. Nevertheless, the country has a profound Catholic culture which includes a deep respect for priests.

Mexico has seen virulent outbursts of anti-clericalism in the past. But this does not seem to be the prime motive for the latest killings. Mexico is becoming more dangerous for everybody. Last year was the most murderous on record, with 25,339 homicides, a 23 per cent increase on 2016. Earlier this month in Cancún, Mexico’s most popular holiday destination, 14 people were murdered in 36 hours.

The violence is chiefly caused by cartels competing for control of the lucrative drugs market. Organised criminals have, in some places, successfully infiltrated politics and corrupted the judiciary, meaning that they can act with impunity.

The Church is sometimes the only institution preventing total subjugation of the local population. Clergy are routinely intimidated. According to World Watch Monitor, which reports on anti-Christian persecution around the world, it is “very common” for cartels to demand “taxes” from Church leaders. Bishop Dagoberto Sosa Arriaga of Tlapa, for instance, is forced to pay criminals to leave his cathedral undisturbed.

Meanwhile, Mexico is preparing for a critical presidential election on July 1. President Enrique Peña Nieto is standing down due to term limits amid criticism of his handling of the cartels. All the candidates to replace him reject his legacy, including the current favourite, the left-wing firebrand Andrés Manuel López Obrador, known as Amlo.

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