The VICE Channels

    Drug Lords: Inside Mexico's Narco Churches

    Written by

    Brian Anderson

    Features Editor

    Los Zetas crime syndicate may be one of the more tech-savvy of Mexico's drug cartels, building and operating its very own DIY cartel radio network. But the gang, known for its brazen, intimidating acts of violence, is fulfilling another, more deep-seated mission: It's building churches. 

    That's if we're to believe some of the plaques and pew-inscriptions marking a growing number of Catholic churches that dot rural Mexico. One of these, a chapel in Tezontle, Hidalgo, is adorned with a bronze marker that reportedly sings the high praises of its donor, Heriberto Lazcano, the Zetas head (maybe) offed by the Mexican navy last October. (Lazcano, known as "El Lazca," is believed to have been connected to some 30,000 murders, some of which were fed to the guy's personal collection of lions and tigers, according to Mexican authorities.) "Lord, hear my prayer," the sign reads, referring to Psalm 143. "Listen to my cry for mercy; in your faithfulness and righteousness come to my relief.” The plaque goes on to state that the chapel was erected in honor of Pope John Paul II. 

    The head of the chapel said that it was a "community project" that saw the place go up. Not only did the money "not go through the church"--the church simply has no idea who provided the funds.

    Either way, it's not entirely new, this idea of narcolimosnas, nor is it the sole preserve of los Zetas. Drugs and gods are an ancient couple in Mexican society; narcos are no strangers to giving alms to the Catholic church in bids of redeemer, and to playing up the image of an Escobar-ian "benevolent social bandit," as Dr. Howard Campbell, professor of anthropology at the University of Texas at El Paso and author of Narco-Propaganda in the Mexican Drug War: An Anthropological Perspective, would put it.

    But as Voxxi reports, Lazcano's house of God, together with similar incidents being reported in Mexican media, casts light on "a growing concern about the possible flow of illicit drug profits in Mexico to religious institutions to pay for construction, new buildings and even charitable programs."

    Both the Mexican government and the church aren't buying it, for the most part, despite keeping mum on any claims of money laundering. Kathya Martinez, a lawyer with a high-power law firm in Ciudad Juarez, told Voxxi that Mexican penal code doesn't cite donations to the church as money laundering. “Money laundering is doing legal business with illegal money," Martinez said, "so unless the authorities can prove that a priest conducted any type of business and lied to ‘Hacienda’ (Mexican Treasury) about the origin of the money you have no case.”

    But then you've got Bishop Ramon Godinez of Aguascalientes, who's a bit more upfront about churches getting high on God. “Of course the cartels donate money,” Godinez told Televisa. And yet Godinez went on to claim that the Mexican church doesn't trace monetary donations. "If it is ill-gotten money the church can clean it,” he said.

    With drug regimes in the US turning--maybe--toward cautious legalization, that blood money may soon trickle thinner than holy water. 

    Top: Church in Tezontle, in Pachuca, Mexico, that bears a plaque honoring its donor, Heriberto Lazcano, the slain Zetas leader (via AP)

    Reach Brian at brian@motherboard.tv. @thebanderson