This post is part of our Peacemaker in Action Nominee Profile Series, featuring Fr. Jesús Mendoza from Mexico.
The state of Guerrero, on Mexico’s Pacific coast, has a fraught past. From the late 1960’s to the early 1980’s, the Mexican government carried out the so-called “Dirty War” there, capturing, killing, and torturing hundreds of suspected subversives. Thousands of people disappeared. In 2006, a Mexican special prosecutor leaked a report whose authors alleged a “genocide plan” was concocted under the government of then-President Luis Echeverría.
Over the last fifteen years, violence has resurged. A bloody war of attrition between the Mexican government, drug cartels, and vigilante defense groups is largely to blame. Heroin production and trafficking have cropped up as leading criminal enterprises in the region with steady demand from the U.S. More recently, gangs have branched out to extortion and kidnappings. Guerrero was the site of the disappearance of 43 teacher trainees from Ayotzinapa and the International Crisis Group has called it the “epicenter of organized crime in Mexico.” Between 2006 and 2019, Mexico saw over three hundred thousand homicides, and for at least three of those years, Guerrero held the highest homicide rate per capita. So enters Father Jesús Mendoza, a catholic priest from Acapulco.
For twenty years Fr. Mendoza has worked in the churches and streets of Acapulco. He has set out to develop a ministry of peace, practicing a theology in which he regards victims and perpetrators alike as human beings. As a pastor, he calls attention to the injustice of exploitation and murder, distancing such acts from scripture. He walks the streets in simple raiment, engaging passers-by and merchants with the goal of comprehending their lives and their burdens.
Over his tenure, Mendoza has observed the social burdens of organized crime evolve in the city. The ubiquity of armed non-state groups has precipitated what may be described as a “culture of violence.” It is the normalization of violence. In some cases, it is the expectation of violence. Mendoza lives and negotiates with this culture in everyday life.
Acapulco was once an oceanside haven for tourists, but its reputation has soured in recent years because of rampant organized crime. The last three parishes in which Mendoza has worked–La Laja, El Treinta, and La Sabana–exemplify the deterioration of peace and security. In all three, there is little trust between neighbors; violent crime and poverty are everyday phenomena. According to Mendoza and his colleagues, local drug traffickers have expanded their operations to include human trafficking and the “taxing” of local businesses. From extortion, no one is excluded, even fruit and vegetable vendors. Kidnapping rackets have also targeted local school children, widening a threat that previously kept to more affluent individuals.
Over the last two decades, members of the clergy have not been spared from violence. More than once, Mendoza found himself in the crosshairs of local conflict. During particularly menacing periods, the weight of conflict and violence took its toll on Mendoza’s health. At one point, he lost vision in one eye and was unable to work for six months.
Amazingly, the father from Acapulco has not used his pulpit to decry or pillory the individuals who cause him so much grief. He has instead pursued a method of radical empathy and compassion. In early 2017, when fifteen armed men stormed his mass demanding that he bless them, Mendoza implored the bandits to lay down their weapons outside but not to take leave of the congregation. He blessed the men once they had returned unarmed.
Mendoza’s magnanimity leads him in service of those who have taken up weapons, but to many others as well. Working with an array of NGOs and local associations, Mendoza has built a formidable coalition for equality and justice in the Acapulco area. With SERAPAZ, he helped to mediate a conflict between local government and a council of peasants and landowners over the controversial construction of La Parota dam. In collaboration with Catholic Relief Services and Cáritas Mexico, he participated in the design of the Mexican Catholic Church’s pilot peacebuilding project. Closer to home, he tirelessly promotes an association of families in search of disappeared relatives.
Mendoza’s function as a pastor plays a crucial role in all of these endeavors. His office is both an opportunity and an obligation to organize acapulqueños around issues that concern the poor and the survivors of violence. Hence the constant outings made and conversations had in the streets of Acapulco. For Mendoza, serving the most vulnerable is an inextricable tenant of Catholicism. And of course, he must come to know by the sweat of his brow those whom he will serve.
Thank you to Cecilia Suarez and her team at Catholic Relief Services for nominating Fr. Jesús Mendoza.