In Mexico City, Father Omar Sotelo Aguilar runs a large multimedia center in a context where religious and journalists are targeted by organized crime. “But communication can change things,” he says
Being a journalist priest where announcing the Gospel and denouncing the contradictions of society represent the two most dangerous missions of all. It is the experience of Father Omar Sotelo Aguilar, an energetic Mexican priest of the Society of São Paulo who for years has been at the forefront of describing the criminal system that ensnares his country. In Mexico, 14 journalists were killed last year alone, while in the last decade as many as thirty religious have lost their lives for their commitment alongside the people.
But “information can help change things”. Father Omar has always been convinced of this, ever since he first heard this “double vocation” as a boy: “Since I loved playing soccer, a priest from the diocesan seminary of Mexico City invited me to participate in a tournament . By mistake, however, I ended up at the Pauline seminary and there, as well as the enormous ball pitch, I was struck by the printing press run by priests: the congregation founded by Don Giacomo Alberione in fact has the mission of spreading the message of Jesus precisely through means of social communication”.
From that meeting, everything else came as a consequence: the young Omar began his training to become a priest, while his fascination for what he calls “the art of journalism”, especially investigative, grew. And, freshly ordained, he began working with the Mexican episcopal conference, for which he helped set up the Multimedia Catholic Center: «Originally it was a project to unite the communication efforts of over one hundred Mexican dioceses – he says – but soon we began to aggregate a group of independent professionals with the aim of working on the hottest topics of current events».
Today the Centre, of which Father Sotelo Aguilar is the director, represents a point of reference at a national level – and not only – on reporting information, in particular on the violence against ecclesial workers. A role also confirmed by important awards, such as the national journalism award won for the “Human Rights” section thanks to an investigation into the “Tragedy of the priesthood in Mexico”.
Why do you argue that communication has the power to change society?
«In recent years we have carried out various journalistic projects, also through videos or short films, to denounce what is wrong in Mexico. For example, we have produced a series of thirteen documentaries entitled “Hermano narco” (“Brother narco”) with the aim of giving voice to witnesses who have unfortunately fallen into the trap of organized crime, to demonstrate that responding to violence with more violence does not than to multiply suffering. The only way to change things is to draw on one of the most proper qualities of the human being, that is the ability to forgive: forgiveness is not only a religious concept, but it is the only human feeling that can break the barriers of hate. So, with our work, we have tried to get this message across to those men and women whose lives have been turned upside down by crime, to try to rehumanize what had been dehumanized».
Does Catholic journalism have a specific message or point of view to offer?
«In the case I was talking about a moment ago, it is clear how using a language that touches the experience of both the victims and the perpetrators can transform the context. Well, this is precisely our task: to have an impact on people’s lives, on public opinion, on society. Then, of course, our commitment also focuses on denouncing attacks on the Church, given that in the last decade Mexico has confirmed itself as one of the most dangerous countries for religious. In the period of Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s government alone, that is, just over four years, we have already had seven priests murdered, in addition to another eight who survived aggressions».
Why this fury?
«The Church in Mexico has often been attacked, since the times of the “cristera” war of 1929, when attempts were made to eliminate it from the national territory. Today we are not faced with a real persecution, yet the situation is almost more dangerous than a hundred years ago, because religious are targeted to sow a culture of death, terror and corruption in society. Let me explain: in Mexico, when a priest is assassinated, it is not just a person but an entire community, in the midst of which he acts as a social stabilizer. In fact, the religious do not only provide a pastoral and spiritual service but also carry out an educational work, the protection of health, the protection of human rights. Just think of the enormous work alongside the masses of desperate people who reach Mexico from Central America with the mirage of the United States and who very often end up in the mesh of organized crime. Here: when a priest is eliminated, society is destabilized”.
And all this takes place in a context of great fragility of public institutions…
“In many parts of the country, a narcoculture, a narcoeconomy and even a narcogovernment have now been established: organized crime has managed to infiltrate organizations such as the army, the navy and even the federal and state governments. To give an idea of the situation, it is enough to know that the former Mexican Secretary of Public Security, Genaro Garcia Luna, is currently detained in the United States for conspiracy to drug trafficking: he allegedly received millions of dollars in bribes from the Sinaloa cartel of “Chapo” Guzmán. There are governors, deputies, ministers linked to crime and those who denounce this anomaly, which directly impacts the country’s progress, end up in the crosshairs. Last year there were more than 850 death threats against priests and I personally know many journalists who have suffered these same attacks”.
Why are the perpetrators of assaults and murders often not found?
“There are several factors. On the one hand, the violence is so great – more than 100,000 disappeared and 350,000 victims due to organized crime – that public security institutions are unable to keep up. Obviously then there is also the political aspect: I am only mentioning the case of Cardinal Juan Jesús Posadas Ocampo, the archbishop of Guadalajara assassinated in 1993 by the will of the Tijuana cartel for his inexhaustible fight against drug trafficking. A cardinal killed in an international airport, and thirty years later we have not a single culprit convicted of this crime! A monument to impunity. And so in 80% of cases the investigations into the murders of priests have led to nothing. A framework in which the incapacity and lack of preparation of the security forces are also evident”.
You too have been threatened more than once: are you afraid?
“Of course, we are at risk, but unfortunately in this country – especially in some areas – everyone is exposed to violence in some way: every Mexican is afraid. However, we who are engaged in communication and evangelization have the obligation and the privilege to continue to announce and denounce. It’s true, we expose ourselves, but someone has to do it, right? And I love what I do. Organized crime tries to keep us silent and to trap us in the culture of silence: we must be the voice – as the prophet says – that cries out in the desert, influencing public opinion to change things. Mexico is a beautiful place, and it doesn’t deserve what it’s going through.”