MEXICO CITY — A top Roman Catholic leader suggested that violent drug traffickers have been “generous” to their communities, drawing a swift rebuke Saturday from another high-ranking church official and ruling-party politicians.
Texcoco Bishop Carlos Aguiar Retes, president of the Mexican Bishops Conference, said drug lords had financed public works in rural areas that are little served by the government and also had built churches.
“They are very generous with the people in their communities, and in general they install electricity, telecommunications, highways, roads, paid for by them,” Bishop Aguiar said after a meeting of bishops Friday, according to news reports. “They are very generous, and many times they also build a church or a chapel.”
The bishop stressed that “I’m not justifying this; I’m simply saying what is evident.” He added that even the smallest drug distributor does “immense” damage.
Drug lords should be forgiven if they repent, Bishop Aguiar said.
“There have been some who have approached us and asked for orientation about how to change their lives,” he said, adding that they come “from all levels.”
The bishop said narcos should have a legal way of starting a new life through a witness protection program similar to one in Colombia.
Mexico City Cardinal Norberto Rivera, the nation’s highest-ranking churchman, said through a spokesman that the bishop’s comments could be misconstrued as being soft on the traffickers.
More than 3,000 people have died in the drug fight since Felipe Calderon began his presidency 16 months ago with a military crackdown on the drug cartels that operate along the Mexico-Texas border and elsewhere in Mexico.
“Our position is the church’s traditional one that categorically condemns drug trafficking activity as immoral,” Rivera spokesman Hugo Valdemar said in a telephone interview. “Their good intentions to change do not undo the damage they have done to thousands of people.
“From here we send them a message: If they want to change their lives, then they should do so, but not with the support of the church,” Mr. Valdemar said. “That’s what there are laws for.”
Bishop Aguiar said through a spokesman that he was too busy to be interviewed Saturday.
Top officials in Mr. Calderon’s conservative National Action Party, or PAN, said the church should not accept drug money.
“Even if bad money is used for a good end, that is still wrong, and we should close the doors to drug traffickers in every way,” said Santiago Creel, coordinator for the PAN in the Mexican Senate. He was quoted by the official government news agency Notimex.
Carlos Abascal, a PAN member and former interior minister who is close to the conservative wing of the church, told the news agency that “the end does not justify the means.”
Jorge Chabat, a political commentator who follows the drug fight, said Mr. Aguiar’s “revival” of the sensitive subject of narco-church relations comes at a bad time for Mr. Calderon, whose party is closely linked with the church.
“The PAN does not want to give the impression that drug traffickers are helping the Catholic Church and the government is not doing anything,” he said. “That could be considered money laundering.”
The topic is a recurring one, he said, with news reports of priests officiating at drug traffickers’ weddings and other religious ceremonies in exchange for donations.
Occasionally, church officials speak openly about the topic, Mr. Chabat said, although it’s difficult to tell their motives.
“In principle, it is the position of the Catholic Church that all human beings can be forgiven if they repent,” he said. “But one thing is the church’s forgiveness, and another thing is the application of the law.”
News assistant Javier Garcia contributed to this report.
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