Mexico bishop inspires, infuriates with activism

Bishop Raul Vera arrived in Saltillo as bishop in 2000 with a reputation as a social crusader. Enlarge photo

Associated Press file photo

Bishop Raul Vera arrived in Saltillo as bishop in 2000 with a reputation as a social crusader.

MONCLOVA, Mexico – The white-haired bishop stepped before some 7,000 faithful gathered in a baseball stadium in this violence-plagued northern border state. He led the gathering through the rituals of his Mass, reciting prayers echoed back by the massive crowd. And then his voice rose.

Politicians are tied to organized crime, Bishop Raul Vera bellowed while inaugurating the church’s Year of Faith. Lawmakers’ attempts to curb money laundering are intentionally weak. New labor reforms are a way to enslave Mexican workers.

How, Vera asked, can Mexicans follow leaders “who are the ones who have let organized crime grow, who have let criminals do what they do unpunished, because there’s no justice in this country.”

In a nation where some clergy have been cowed into silence by drug cartels and official power, Vera is clearly unafraid to speak. That makes him an important voice of dissent in a country where the Roman Catholic Church often works hand-in-hand with the powerful, and where cynicism about politics is widespread and corrosive.

Vera’s realm is a wide swath of Coahuila, a state bordering Texas that’s become a hideout for the brutal Zetas drug cartel.

It’s where the current governor’s nephew was killed in October and the former governor, the victim’s father, resigned last year as leader of the political party that just returned to power with newly inaugurated President Enrique Peña Nieto.

Marked by his unvarnished speech, the Saltillo bishop’s voice carries beyond his diocese here, especially when he weighs in on hot issues such as drug violence, vulnerable immigrants and gay rights.

In late 2007, Mexico City’s Human Rights Commission denounced death threats against Vera and a burglary of the diocese’s human-rights offices. The next year, after Coahuila became the first Mexican state to allow civil unions for gay couples, a move the bishop endorsed, Vera was invited to speak at a U.S.-based conference for a Catholic gay and lesbian organization. In 2010, he was awarded a human-rights prize in Norway.

Anonymous critics have hung banners outside the cathedral asking for what they called a real Catholic bishop. And last year, the 67-year-old was summoned to the Vatican to explain a church outreach program to gay youths.

Natalia Niño, president of Familias Mundi in Saltillo, told the Catholic News Agency last year that Vera had placed too much focus on supporting the gay community.

“A pastoral commitment to homosexual persons is necessary and welcomed, but not at the expense of the family and a solid pastoral plan for marriage and family, which is unfortunately being neglected in the diocese,” she said.

Vera, who has had government bodyguards before, said he was foregoing similar security despite the criticism and threats. Such measures were rare and frowned upon in Saltillo, he said.

“I’m not the only one exposed. There are lots of people exposed who work with immigrants, with the missing,” Vera said. “How do I cover myself? Them?”

Mexico’s Bishops Conference did not respond to repeated requests for an interview about Vera. The church’s hierarchy in Mexico did issue a statement in 2010 congratulating Vera on his human-rights prize, and last year, the church condemned anonymous threats against him.

Vera’s office often lends more weight to his words, especially when he speaks up about human rights, said Emiliano Ruiz Parra, a Mexican journalist and author of a new book that portrays Vera and other “black sheep” of the church in Mexico.

“Among the defenders of human rights he is the one who hedges the least. He says things the way they are,” Parra said before Pena Nieto’s Dec. 1 inauguration. “He’s not afraid, for example, to take on the president, the one who’s leaving or the president-elect.”

Vera’s homily on an October Sunday in Monclova included a lengthy diatribe about an alleged vote-buying scheme involving grocery store gift cards critics say were distributed by the Institutional Revolutionary Party, known as the PRI. Citing press reports, the bishop told the crowd organized crime paid for the scheme and helped Peña Nieto’s victory. He also labeled “collaborators” as anyone who took a gift card in exchange for their vote.

“What we’re seeing now is nothing other than the reaccommodation of the criminal groups with the new government teams,” Vera said later as he raced back to Saltillo for another Mass. “The criminal groups always have their agreements with those who are in the state governments, in the federal government.”

An industrial hub on the high desert about an hour west of Monterrey, Saltillo had long been known as a quiet haven in Mexico, distinguished by its auto manufacturing and a modern museum exhaustively detailing the surrounding terrain.

In recent years, however, the area has fallen victim to the drug violence plaguing other parts of Mexico. In 2011, 729 murders hit the state, compared to 449 the year before and 107 in 2006, according to preliminary figures released by the government this summer. Four bodies were found hanging from a Saltillo overpass earlier this month.

Until the nephew of Gov. Ruben Moreira was killed in early October, the political class had showed little concern for violence, Vera said.

Associated Press writer Galia Garcia-Palafox in Mexico City contributed to this report.