Abelino Ortiz needed a miracle. The farmer, a devout Catholic, had rallied the peasants in this mountain village to build a chapel, but the project was short of cash--until the local drug lord happened by, briefcase in hand.
"He threw out 100,000 pesos," then about $3,500, recalled Ortiz, sitting on his porch overlooking the tiny red-brick church he built 15 years ago. Because of Rafael Caro Quintero, a local boy who had become Mexico's marijuana king, the people of Bamopa could now praise God.
Caro Quintero is now in a Mexican prison, convicted of drug trafficking and the murder of Enrique Camarena, a U.S. drug agent. But in Bamopa, he enjoys a saintly status. "The good memories he left will not be erased," Ortiz said.
Such incidents are at the center of a national uproar over "narco-charity"--donations by drug traffickers to benefit the Roman Catholic Church. While the practice has existed quietly for years, it has burst into public view after a speech by a Catholic priest praising Mexican drug lords' faith and charity.
Church leaders fiercely deny condoning drug trafficking. But the scandal has focused attention on how some of Mexico's most violent, ruthless men have gained public acceptance and protection--and how the Catholic Church may have contributed.
"The church has been the same as the local society--it closes its eyes in front of those who give interesting contributions," said Luis Astorga, a sociologist who has studied the social impact of drug trafficking.
The controversy began with a recent sermon at Mexico's main Catholic shrine, the Basilica of Guadalupe in Mexico City. A priest, Father Jose Raul Soto Vazquez, said Catholics should be more generous, like the drug traffickers.
"Such as Caro Quintero--we'd like to do the kind of charity he did," Soto Vazquez reportedly told the startled congregation last month. "People like Amado Carrillo, who at times gave money to do great works, and people didn't care if he was a drug trafficker. . . . If sinners do good things, how much more should we, who aren't sinners!"
The comments about Caro Quintero and Amado Carrillo Fuentes--considered Mexico's top drug lord before he died in July after undergoing plastic surgery--provoked a furious reaction in this overwhelmingly Catholic country, in which the church is one of the most esteemed institutions.
"The penetration of drug trafficking in politics, banks, the army and of course the police is nothing new," the Mexico City daily Reforma said in an editorial. "To this list, will we have to add some members of the church?"
The government quickly called on the church to investigate whether it had received drug money. In a chorus of protest, bishops around the country have denied accepting donations from traffickers--and said they were not about to police the collection plate. "The Catholic Church does not launder dollars. The only thing that it cleanses is sin," declared Matamoros Bishop Francisco Chavolla.
But here in the rugged, dirt-poor hills of Sinaloa state, the traditional home of Mexico's drug lords, it is obvious that "narco-charity" has been an important weapon in winning hearts and minds, if not souls.
Just consider what traffickers have done for Babunica, a hamlet near Bamopa. They built the pink church, the French-style park with a bandstand and the imposing cemetery with two white towers on a hillside, local residents say.
Nearby, in La Noria, Caro Quintero's hometown, a small hill is topped by a pink-and-white church, reportedly built by the trafficker. The lovely building is an eye-catcher in a region where many houses are built of primitive concrete block.
Ortiz, 80, an old friend of the Caro Quintero family, says there is much more. Drug traffickers paid for electricity to be brought to the area. Caro Quintero carved out the rutted dirt "highway"--and his family still maintains it, Ortiz says. The drug lord handed money to the sick, the poor, those who didn't have running water. "He did the work of a government," Ortiz says.
No wonder people here speak of the trafficker--who was convicted of overseeing the brutal, 30-hour torture and death of the Drug Enforcement Administration agent in 1985--in almost reverential terms.
"The drug traffickers act almost like Robin Hoods. With the money they make, they help their communities," said Emilio Goicoechea, a senator from the conservative National Action Party who represents this region.
But at the same time, he said, the traffickers buy the people's loyalty, ensuring they won't cooperate with authorities fighting drug trafficking.
Have they bought the loyalty of the church too?
Father Humberto Patron, 31, who spent two years ministering to these villages in the sierra, said no. But he acknowledged that he did not criticize or boycott churches built with drug money. They were already built when he arrived, he said, and served a good purpose.
"In these towns, people don't have the money to build a church. They don't even have enough to eat," he said with a shrug.
"I condemn drug trafficking," added Patron, who now works in the state capital, Culiacan. "But as a priest, if someone says, 'Father, baptize my child,' I can't say: 'You're a killer, I'm not going to baptize your child.' Everyone has the right to God."
Some priests appear to have gone beyond simply ministering to traffickers' families. Father Benjamin Olivas, who conducted Carrillo's funeral rites, cheerfully admits that the trafficker was a friend. The drug lord built the white church near his mother's house in Guamuchilito, Sinaloa, Olivas said.
In an interview with the Culiacan newspaper Noroeste early this month, the priest said he had declined money from Carrillo. But the cleric recalled telling him of the church, "If you build it, I thank you very much, and God will also take it into account." The drug lord, who shipped tons of cocaine and other drugs to the United States, was "very attached to God," the priest said.
Jorge Madrazo Cuellar, Mexico's attorney general, recently told reporters that a priest from Guamuchilito was under investigation for accepting drug money but declined to identify him.
The church was further embarrassed recently when newspapers published a startling photograph showing Carrillo--with a giant wooden cross on his shoulder--walking through Jerusalem several years ago accompanied by a Mexican priest, Father Ernesto Alvarez. Alvarez claims he didn't recognize the infamous trafficker, who reportedly joined his mother and her Catholic tour group in Israel.
Catholic leaders say coziness between priests and traffickers is rare and that the church doesn't turn a blind eye to the drug trade. As far back as 1988, they note, Mexico's bishops issued a document condemning drug trafficking. A few priests and bishops have been outspoken in denouncing the practice.
And analysts agree that the church hasn't received huge sums from traffickers. "The social works [of traffickers] that are most spoken of are peanuts compared to the amount of money narcos handle," says Astorga, the sociologist.
But the latest controversies indicate that some priests may be as unfazed by drug trafficking as many other Mexicans. Even as trafficking has exploded in recent years, it rarely is named as one of Mexicans' top concerns in public opinion polls.