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Pope Francis, Mexico, and the Legacies of Liberation Theology and Camilo Torres

The imminent pilgrimage to Mexico of Pope Francis will highlight some of the most painful dimensions of the country’s deepening human rights crisis.

The imminent pilgrimage to Mexico between February 12 and 18 of Pope Francis, the first Latin American pope, will highlight some of the most painful dimensions of the country’s deepening human rights crisis. Liberation theology is a global phenomenon with unique roots and expressions in Latin America, which are reflected in the pope’s trajectory before being elected to the position in 2013, and in his overall leadership since then. Its emphasis has historically been on aligning communities of faith with the defense of the poor and human rights, and with social movements rooted in the most marginalized social sectors. This has often resulted in the persecution and even killing of those associated with its tenets such as bishops Oscar Arnulfo Romero of El Salvador or Juan Gerardi of Guatemala, or Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the US.

The trip to Mexico will be especially complex because of the high stakes for both the Mexican government and the pope inherent in a visit to the country with the single largest population of Catholics in the world, which is headed by a government that is widely repudiated for its serious human rights violations. The government, meanwhile, is clearly concerned that the pope’s visit will expose it to scrutiny and possible criticism that will be embarrassing.

The pope’s visit to Mexico will coincide with widespread commemorations in Colombia and elsewhere of the 50th anniversary of the death in combat of the region’s most celebrated revolutionary priest, Camilo Torres Restrepo (1929-1966). He is best known for his insistence that the “duty of every Catholic is to be a revolutionary, and the duty of every revolutionary is to make the revolution… The Catholic who is not a revolutionary is living in mortal sin.” Torres emphasized in this context that the gospel’s imperative of love had to be made effective in practice, and that, in the end, when confronted by the contradiction between this commitment and the church’s institutional limitations and complicities with oppression, he was ultimately compelled to take “off his cassock in order to be more truly a priest.”

Torres, a sociologist, is widely recognized as a key precursor of what has become known as the ethics, philosophy, theology and politics of liberation through the writings of scholars such as Gustavo Gutiérrez of Perú and Enrique Dussel of Argentina and Mexico. Torres’ legacy – and that of liberation theology – is especially relevant as Colombia’s peace process moves closer to the planned signing of a historic accord in Havana on March 23, which the pope has helped facilitate.

Mexico’s human rights landscape is one of the most devastating in the world in terms of its mounting human costs, which are comparable to much more publicized cases such as Syria or Iraq. As the UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights noted at the conclusion of his own visit in October of 2015:

Many of the people I have spoken to have painted a very bleak – and consistent – picture of a society that is wracked by high levels of insecurity, disappearances and killings, continuing harassment of human rights defenders and journalists, violence against women, and terrible abuses of migrants and refugees transiting the country on their way to the United States … (T)here is a very broad consensus nationally, regionally and internationally on the gravity of the human rights situation in Mexico today. For a country that is not engaged in a conflict, the estimated figures are simply staggering: 151,233 people killed between December 2006 and August 2015, including thousands of transiting migrants. At least 26,000 people missing, many believed to be as a result of enforced disappearances, since 2007. Thousands of women and girls are sexually assaulted, or become victims of the crime of femicide. And hardly anyone is convicted for the above crimes.

These overall patterns are reflected concretely in cases which have drawn global attention, such as the still unsolved forced disappearances in September, 2014, of the 43 students of the rural teachers’ college of Ayotzinapa. This also includes the mounting toll of journalists killed or disappeared (the largest number of such cases in the world), including most recently Anabel Flores of Veracruz. All of this tends to be swept up in intermittent media and public fascination with Mexico’s so-called “drug war,” but in fact, reflects the deeper consequences of billions of dollars of US aid related to NAFTA and support for the country’s military and police.

As a result, US policy in Mexico is deeply entangled with the responsibility of Mexican authorities for serious human rights crimes in complicity with drug traffickers. This is reflected in cases such as Ayotzinapa, where military and federal police personnel stood by while the 43 students were allegedly handed over by local police to one of the country’s most notorious drug gangs.

It is widely hoped that the pope will agree to meet with the parents of the 43 students during his trip, publicly or privately, but there is still no confirmation of this. Many of us in Mexico’s transnational human rights community were greatly disappointed when he failed to meet with a delegation of five mothers of the 43 students in either New York or Philadelphia during his visits there in September 2015, which coincided with the first anniversary of the case. The pope has referred specifically to the case on several occasions, but some speculate that his decision not to meet the parents may have helped lay the groundwork for the upcoming trip to Mexico, which was initially postponed because of tensions produced by his earlier references to the dangers of “Mexicanization” in reference to the violence and corruption associated with the drug war. There is also concern that the demands of the Mexican victims of child sexual abuse by clerics such as former Legion of Christ head Marcial Maciel will not be adequately addressed during the visit.

The pope’s visit will include stops at or near the country’s northern and southern borders (Ciudad Juárez, bordering El Paso and Chiapas, respectively). These will highlight both the plight of migrants in transit primarily from Central America subjected to convergent persecution by Mexican and US authorities and human traffickers, and the continuing efforts of the Maya Indigenous communities of Chiapas to build autonomy within the framework of the Zapatista rebellion.

Liberation theology played a very important role in the origins of the Zapatista movement in Chiapas during the period when Bishops Samuel Ruiz and later Raúl Vera helped ground it there through their commitment to its expressions in the region’s Indigenous communities. Gustavo Gutiérrez has emphasized the historical roots of contemporary liberation theology in the defense of the rights of Indigenous peoples by the first Bishop of Chiapas, Fray Bartolomé de Las Casas [1]. Ruiz identified himself closely with this tradition, including his founding of the Las Casas Human Rights Center in the highlands city of San Cristóbal de Las Casas (named for its first bishop), which the pope will visit on February 15.

Ruiz was also instrumental as a mediator in the now suspended peace process between the Mexican government and the Zapatistas, which produced the San Andrés accords on Indigenous rights issues, signed on February 16, 1996 (yet another key anniversary that coincides with the pope’s visit), and which the Mexican government continues to flout.

The pope will have the opportunity to express his solidarity with the continuing struggle for the full recognition of the rights of Mexico’s Indigenous peoples in contexts such as Chiapas. Hopefully this will include a meeting with the Abejas (“Bees”) of Acteal, who represent the survivors and family members of the 45 victims (36 of them women and girls) of the December, 1997, Acteal Massacre of Maya villagers forcibly displaced due to counterinsurgency programs carried out by Mexican authorities with US knowledge and support. Bishop Raúl Vera, who served first in Chiapas as coadjutor to Ruiz and is now bishop of Saltillo in the northern border region of Coahuila, has become the country’s single most widely recognized human rights defender [2], and played a key role in briefing the pope regarding his upcoming trip to Mexico.

Juárez, meanwhile, was the site of the most concentrated urban casualties (over 10,500 deaths between 2007 and 2012) in Mexico’s drug war, and has also been the epicenter of cases of feminicide [3]. The pope’s trip will also include Michoacán, one of the regions most affected by violence related to the drug war, where entire communities (such as the Purepecha Indigenous people of Cherán, and Nahuas and their allies in Ostula, and others) have risen up to organize community-based police and self-defense forces in resistance to the complicity between local, state and federal authorities and drug lords.

The pope’s relationship to liberation theology is complex. On the one hand, many argue that the convergence between liberation theology and the Vatican has never been greater than during his papacy, including an unprecedented private meeting in Rome with one of its key founders, Dominican friar Gustavo Gutiérrez. The pope has also underlined the centrality of the poor and of the defense of marginalized groups such as migrants, which has been highlighted in the church’s social doctrine since Vatican II and the Latin American bishops’ conferences of Medelín in 1968 and Puebla in 1979.

On the other hand, he is a head of state and will be received as such by Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto. The pope’s presence has awakened the hopes of many in Mexico that he will speak out forcefully in solidarity with the country’s poor and most oppressed sectors. Will this be muted due to the political implications of his visit? Millions will be watching and listening closely during the next few days as his pilgrimage unfolds.


1. Gustavo Gutiérrez, Las Casas: In Search of the Poor of Jesus Christ (Orbis, 1993).

2. Vera was awarded the prestigious Rafto Prize for human rights in 2010, and has been a nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize, as was Ruiz.

3. (2010) Fregoso and Bejarano (eds.), Terrorizing Women: Feminicide in the Americas (Duke University Press); (2009) González et. al v. Mexico (“Cottonfield Case”, Inter-American Court of Human Rights):