Are Mexico's Drug Cartels Funding the Catholic Church?

By Tony O'Neill 05/13/11

As the deadly drug war in Mexico rages on, the Church is pulled into the vortex.

Wrestling with blood money.
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Is Mexico's Catholic Church knowingly accepting money from the country's murderous drug cartels?

In the decade since Mexico's competing drug cartels began their bloody battles, the country's media has published a long string of stories exposing the unholy financial ties between Mexico's drug cartels and its Catholic clergy. Now the consecration of a massive new church in the Mexican province of Hidalgo is adding new fuel to the fire. A few months ago, the impoverished village celebrated the construction of an ostentatious 1,000-acre house of worship, dominated by a massive, gleaming silver cross. Modestly affixed to the church's entrance is a bronze plaque praising the the project's sole benefactor, Heriberto Lazcano, a man described as a "proud and committed Christian."  But as it turns out,  Lazcano is more than a devout Catholic.  He's also one of the most feared and vicious drug lords in the country—a  gangster who's earned world-wide notoriety as the head of one of Mexico's most ruthless drug cartels.

Thanks in part to his to his willingness to eradicate entire families without a blink, Lazcano is more commonly known to his peers by his street-name, El Verdugo (“The Executioner.”) Originally trained as a member of the Grupo Aeromóvil de Fuerzas Especiales, an elite Anti-Drug unit of the Mexican Army, he and thirty of his Special Forces colleagues defected to the opposition in the late nineties, after Mexican drug lord Osiel Cárdenas Guillén spent millions of dollars to convince them to serve in his personal army.  Guillen's potent paramilitary force eventually gave rise to Los Zetas, a group denounced by the DEA as one of the most dangerous drug cartels in the world. Distinguishing himself from the pack with his with his brutal methods,   Laczano soon became the top dog at the cartel. But his well-documented history of violence and bloodshed did not stop the Church from accepting (and celebrating) his largesse.

Which isn't that surprising. 'The Executioner'  is far from the first high-profile gangster to donate huge sums to Mexicos's Catholic Church. In fact, according to the Mexican media, millions of dollars in drug money is donated by the mob to various Catholic dioceses ein Mexico very year.  In January, a well-known Catholic priest made headlines after he presided over the marriage of Sinaloa Cartel chief Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman to his dewy new wife. The lavish ceremony, held in Guzman's mountain hideaway,  took place while Guzman was on the run from Mexican authorities.

Officially, the Church harshly condemns the use of “dirty money” to fund good deeds, and there is no evidence that the corruption in Mexico is condoned by Vatican higher-ups.  But as anyone who's watched The Godfather can attest, the Catholic Church has had a long tradition of turning a blind eye to unsavory financial dealings, from the Mafia’s links with the Catholic Church in Italy, to its  harboring of Nazi gold confiscated from fleeing  Jews during World War II. But as it struggles to overcome a string of scandals, and with its membership steadily ebbing,  can the Church still preach the gospel of Christ while turning a blind eye to gangster loot? In Mexico, for the moment at least, the answer seems to be yes.


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Tony O'Neill, a regular contributor to The Fix, is the author of several novels, including Digging the VeinDown and Out on Murder Mile and Sick City. He also co-authored the New York Times bestseller Hero of the Underground (with Jason Peter) and the Los Angeles Times bestseller Neon Angel (with Cherie Currie). He lives in New York with his wife and daughter. You can follow Tony on Twitter.

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