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May 26, 1998

In the Hills, Marijuana Fields and a Priest's Murder


SAN JUAN OZOLOLTEPEC, Mexico -- When the lone telephone in this mountain hamlet rang recently, it was the archbishop of Oaxaca calling with bitter news: San Juan's parish priest, the Rev. Mauro Ortiz Carreno, was dead.

The details of Ortiz's death were almost as wrenching as his loss itself to the black-shawled women and sandal-wearing farmers who live here. The 42-year-old priest was seized on May 6 in Oaxaca's state capital and killed, mob style, with one shot to the head. The police found his body in the trunk of a car.

No one has been charged in the case. In interviews, Ortiz's parishioners as well as church leaders familiar with his ministry blamed a gang that they say controls the drug industry in Oaxaca's Sierra Madre del Sur. When traffickers set mountain woodlands on fire this spring to clear new marijuana plantations, devastating virgin forests, Ortiz spoke out to denounce the drug culture and the torching of rich timberland, they said.

The priest's slaying came as vast tracts of timber and grasslands were in flames. Corn farmers use fire to raze fields before planting, the authorities said, but traffickers have also been igniting forests to expand marijuana and opium poppy plots.

This year, Mexico's drifting smoke cloud was intense enough to provoke health warnings across the southern United States.

The official version of Ortiz's killing contrasts starkly with the view held by those who knew him. In an interview, Oaxaca's attorney general, Roberto Martinez Ortiz, said the main suspect was a man to whose former wife Ortiz lent $1,250 last year.

The priest had been pressing the woman to pay interest, Martinez said, and the authorities hypothesize that Ortiz was killed to cancel the debt.

Statements by Archbishop Hector Gonzalez Martinez appeared to accept the government account. But other church authorities scoffed.

"Father Mauro was no usurer," Auxiliary Bishop Miguel Angel Alba said in an interview. "This is a self-serving version invented by the government, so that no one will think drug mafias are operating in Oaxaca. We suspect that authorities ordered this murder."

San Juan sits in a remote valley, shaded by stands of towering pine and spruce, five hours' drive south of the state capital, also called Oaxaca. Whether baptizing parishioners in the village's 17th-century chapel or instructing catechists in his cement-floored office, Ortiz was the center of San Juan's spiritual and intellectual life.

As with most rural priests, his ministry involved travel to surrounding villages. He drove a Ford pickup, often wearing a jaunty straw hat.

He was so beloved that Tereso Hernandez, San Juan's Mayor, said he feared a lynching if parishioners identified the killer. "People are crazed with sorrow," he said.

Guadalupe Aragon, a village council member, challenged the state government's portrayal of Ortiz as a greedy moneylender. Sometimes the priest responded to parishioners' pleas by lending a few pesos here and there, Aragon said, but he never sought to profit from the loans.

So what could have provoked the killing? Ortiz aroused the anger of powerful people before, the village leaders recalled, for instance in 1992, when he denounced the embezzlement of timber-cutting fees by local officials of a previous administration, drawing death threats.

But Gabriel Silva, San Juan's treasurer, drew nods when he voiced a stronger suspicion.

Residents in San Francisco Ozololtepec, a bordering hamlet also in the priest's jurisdiction, Silva said, cultivate marijuana and patrol their plantations wielding rifles. In March, fires set by the traffickers to clear new plots spread into San Juan's forests, he said.

The devastation angered the priest, and during a visit to San Francisco he urged parishioners there to replace their Mayor, Estanislao Ga-llardo Roque, with someone who would crack down on the drug culture, Silva said.

Weeks later, back in San Juan, Ortiz denounced the drug culture and the burning of forests in a sermon, Silva said.

Church officials in the state capital outlined events leading to the priest's murder in similar terms.

"His preachings confronted the narcotics traffickers," said a report on the murder issued by the Rev. Wilfrido Mayren Pelaez, a priest who knew Ortiz. "He denounced the burning of forests to plant marijuana and the enrichment of some people by poisoning others."

Gallardo, San Francisco's mayor, denied in a phone interview that marijuana was grown in his village, although he acknowledged that he spent a month in jail in 1980 on what he described as trumped-up marijuana charges.

"I have no idea how or why this priest was killed," he said. "I hope they arrest the person who did it."

Town officials in San Juan and the church authorities in the state capital said that the traffickers in the Sierra Madre were protected by a network that appeared to include state government officials.

"I don't know anything about any mafia," said Israel Jarquin Magno, the state government delegate with jurisdiction over San Juan and San Francisco. In a phone interview, Jarquin said he had no information about drug cultivation in the Oaxaca mountains. Enforcing narcotics laws is a federal responsibility, he said. "Don't ask me about that," he added.

Ortiz was buried in the village near the state capital where he was born. But following a tradition, his parishioners gathered on May 17, nine days after his burial, for an all-night memorial session to say the rosary.

In San Juan's plaza at midnight, smoke from smoldering forests mingled with incense wafting from the chapel, where 200 peasants knelt before a bank of glowing candles, many weeping. At dawn, musicians sounded an Indian dirge as villagers trudged up a trail to a mountaintop cemetery, bearing a wooden cross honoring the slain pastor.

One woman in the procession, Severina Heredia, described the impact of the priest's death. "Our world has turned black," she said.

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