At drug war frontline, pope's envoy says Mexico hushed him

3 minute read

Vatican's ambassador to Mexico Franco Coppola holds a mass during a visit to the municipality of Aguililla, an area where the Jalisco New Generation Cartel (CJNG) and local drug gangs are fighting to control the territory, in Aguililla, in Michoacan state, Mexico April 23, 2021. REUTERS/Alan Ortega

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AGUILILLA, Mexico, April 23 (Reuters) - The Vatican's ambassador to Mexico on Friday said officials three years ago had asked him not to talk about the extreme violence that has swept the country during more than a decade of fighting between drug cartels, so as not to scare away tourists.

The envoy, Franco Coppola, made the comments while visiting the town of Aguililla in Michoacan, a frontline of the drug war that has seen some of the heaviest fighting in Mexico this year, forcing families in surrounding villages to abandon their homes.

In general, he said, he was surprised at the lack of public discussion about the situation in the country, home to several of the most violent cities in the world and where around 35,000 people were murdered last year.

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In 2018, during the administration of former President Enrique Pena Nieto, Coppola said government officials had spoken to him about the issue.

"When I arrived, they said to me in the foreign ministry: 'Monsignor, please don't talk so much about the violence in Mexico, which is harmful to tourism, then people don't come out of fear,'" he told reporters.

The foreign ministry, which is now under the administration of President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, did not reply to a request for comment.

Tourism is a major industry in Mexico, with millions of visitors a year, mainly to coastal resorts such as Cancun. Tourism has remained strong despite the fighting in parts of the country, although the coronavirus pandemic has hit arrival numbers.

Mexico has suffered around 300,000 murders since militarized operations were launched against the cartels in 2006.

Fighting has intensified this year in Aguililla, where the powerful Jalisco New Generation Cartel (CJNG) has been on the offensive in an area believed to be the birthplace of its leader, Nemesio Oseguera Cervantes, or 'El Mencho.'

Using military-style armored trunks, trenches, road blocks and heavy caliber firearms, El Mencho's gunmen appear to be gaining the upper hand over Michoacan-based drug gangs allied against CJNG.

Coppola, who previously represented the Vatican in Burundi and Chad, said he had told Pope Francis that he wanted to visit the town to make the violence there more visible and to show the Church's support.

"The duty of the Church is to be on the side of the people, those who suffer, so I want to be here," he said in Aguililla, where people greeted him holding white balloons.

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Reporting by Alan Ortega in Aguililla and Lizbeth Diaz in Mexico City; Writing by Frank Jack Daniel; Editing by Rosalba O'Brien

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