Dozens of priests have either died or vanished without trace in the country in the past 25 years

Fr Gregorio López Gorostieta thought he had done enough to stay safe on the night of December 21, 2014. He had spent a long day celebrating Masses and overseeing a religious festival at the cathedral of Ciudad Altamirano, in southwestern Mexico’s troubled Guerrero state. The end-of-year collection – to fund Asunción seminary, where he taught – had been substantial, so it was late when he finished counting the donations. At 11.30pm, he locked the money in the cathedral and drove back to the seminary. But the priest who locals nicknamed Goyito (“Little Greg”) never arrived.

Fr Fidencio Avellaneda, his colleague at the seminary, describes what happened next: “The seminarians say a group of armed men were waiting for him, because they wanted to rob him, thinking he had the money. When he refused [to give them money], they took him away.”

The disappearance of the well-liked priest – known for his voracious reading habits and crunching tackle on the football pitch – marked a turning point for locals. Another priest of the diocese, Fr Ascensión Acuña Osorio, had been found dead in a river in suspicious circumstances the previous September. November had brought news that the body of a third cleric, Fr John Ssenyondo, had been discovered in a mass grave in nearby Ocotitlán.

After Fr López Gorostieta disappeared, Ciudad Altamirano’s bishop, Maximino Martínez, led 30 priests and hundreds of protesters through the streets, demanding the priest’s return. But the protests were in vain: Padre Goyito’s body was found on Christmas Day, strangled and dumped at the edge of the Acapulco-Iguala highway.

“It hit us hard,” says Fr Avellaneda. “Gregorio was very dedicated, and he went about his ministry with real affection for the people.

“The real challenge is the same as ever: to stay safe. I no longer travel after dark, except when a parishioner is very sick. When I do, I always travel accompanied.”

Precautions like these – and tragic stories such as Fr López Gorostieta’s – are becoming the norm for Mexican priests.

Mexico is the second-largest Catholic country in the world, with almost 87 per cent of its 123 million citizens identifying with the faith. But Mexico is also the world’s most dangerous nation in which to be a Catholic priest. According to a recent report by the country’s Catholic Multimedia Centre, 38 priests have either died or vanished without trace in the past 25 years.

There has been a steady increase in attacks on clergy since 2006, when the then president Felipe Calderón launched a military offensive against the country’s organised crime cartels. Twelve priests died in the spiralling violence of his presidential term, which left 77,000 dead and a further 25,000 missing.

The situation is no better under the administration of Calderón’s successor, Enrique Peña Nieto. When the body of Fr Erasto Pliego de Jesús was found – bullet-ridden and partially burned – in the eastern Mexican parish of Cuyoaco, Puebla, last November, the number of priests killed or “disappeared” during the first three years of Peña Nieto’s term rose to 12. After Calderón’s first three years in charge, that number stood at five.

The violence racking Mexico has coincided with the unravelling of constitutional reforms that undid much of the anti-clericalism that had taken hold after the country’s independence from Spain.

The mid-19th century Reform Laws of president Benito Juárez were secular in character, partially in an attempt to dispossess the Church of its wealth and lands. The postrevolutionary constitution of 1917 formalised the process, with president Plutarco Elias

Callés leading mass expropriations of Church property. These were so severe that Catholics in the central Bajío region – as well as in the northern states of Jalisco, Zacatecas and Durango – formed armed factions against federal forces in a three-year war that claimed the lives of some 90,000 people.

Although the 1930s saw something of a thaw in Church-state relations, a crackdown led by governor Tomás Garrido in the southeastern state of Tabasco was aggressively anti-clerical. The activities of the state’s “Red Shirt” paramilitary groups later inspired Graham Greene’s novel, The Power and the Glory.

But Andrew Chesnut, professor of religious studies at Virginia Commonwealth University, says the dangers facing priests today can only be understood in the light of contemporary Mexican politics.

“The constitutional reform of 1992 spearheaded by president Carlos Salinas de Gortari was a watershed moment in Church-state relations since the Mexican Revolution,” he says. “With a stroke of the presidential pen, much of the anti-clericalism of the previous 75 years was reversed. The successive National Action Party (Pan) administrations of 2000-12 were most beneficial to the Church. As a right-of-centre party, Pan has enjoyed close relations with the Mexican episcopacy since its inception.”

This article first appeared in the Catholic Herald (12/2/16)