Vera López sits on three civil tribunals: the International Tribunal of Conscience of Peoples in Movement, the International Tribunal of Trade Union Freedom, and the Permanent Tribunal of the Peoples. Today his most prominent political commitment is the promotion of the so-called Citizens’ Constituent Assembly
Mexico is in the midst of a war and the Mexican Church has pretended it does not exist. But not Raúl Vera López, the current bishop of Saltillo and one of the most influential Church leaders in Mexico and Latin America. Unlike most of his colleagues, scolded by Pope Francis during his visit to Mexico in February 2016 for making under-the-table agreements with power and allowing themselves to be seduced by the new pharaohs, Raúl Vera López is a priest who has demonstrated his commitment to his times, to the context in which he finds himself immersed: the war in Mexico that has left in its wake displaced people, murders, forced disappearances, ghosts obliterated in hundreds of “kitchens” where organized crime gets rid of the bodies it has seized, stolen, used and tormented in the businesses of amassing capital by illegal means. It could be said that Raúl Vera López is a subject who is aware of the signs of these particular historical times, and consequently has taken a stance that includes political actions aimed at standing with the weakest and most vulnerable members of society.
From 68 to the dominicans
José Raúl Vera López was born in Acámbaro, Guanajuato on June 21, 1945. Like many other young people in the mid-20th century, he migrated to the national capital for university studies. In 1968— the climax of the student movement and its repression— he graduated with a degree in chemical engineering from the UNAM. He was 23 years old. His mind, however, was not on science but on theology. In November of that same year, he entered the Mexican Province of the Dominican order. Dominicans is the popular name of the Order of Preachers, one of the oldest and most influential organizations in the Catholic Church, founded 800 years ago (in 1216) by Dominic de Guzman in Toulouse, France. This order is known for its great theologians, like Thomas Aquinas, and at the same time, for some of the most relentless persecutors in history, like Thomas of Torquemada, Grand Inquisitor of Spain.
After entering the religious order, he was sent to Bologna for studies, and just after his 31st birthday, he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Theology from the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome in 1976. Twelve years later he was ordained a bishop in Ciudad Altamirano, Guerrero. He was the first Dominican in two centuries to attain the distinction.
On August 14, 1995 (at the age of 50) he was named Coadjutor Bishop of Sam Cristóbal de Las Casas, Chiapas, to work alongside Samuel Ruiz, whom the Vatican and the Mexican government wanted to remove from the diocese, accusing him of stirring the uprising of the Mayan communities organized by the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN, in its initials in Spanish). Perhaps because he took Bishop Samuel Ruiz’s side in he controversy and the side of the indigenous communities in rebellion who were crying “Enough!”, and not the side of the State, as the Vatican had hoped, Vera López was transferred from Chiapas to Saltillo. Pope John Paul II put him at the head of the diocese of Saltillo on December 30, 1999, at the age of 54. His four years in Chiapas were decisive for the formation of his political outlook and his understanding of a Gospel and a Church committed to the most helpless and abused.
And yet, ever since his first hierarchical appointment, Vera López has built religious and lay institutions that serve people at the bottom of the social structure. In Ciudad Altamirano he founded the Juan Navarro Social Center to meet the needs of poor people in the diocese. As bishop of Saltillo he founded the Fray Juan de Larios Diocesan Center for Human Rights, and he collaborated in the creation of the migrant houses Casa Emaús in Ciudad Acuña and the Belén Migrant Shelter in Saltillo. Vera López is one of the few (if not the only) bishop to reach out to the sexual diversity community in Mexico; in 2002 he promoted the establishment of the St. Aelred community, dedicated to accompanying young gay and lesbian people.
Aside from his commitment to the defense of human rights through institutions linked to the diocesan structure, Raúl Vera López has taken part in social organizations and political initiatives that pursue the same objective. In July 2006 he denounced the rapes of women committed by elements of the Mexican Army in Castaños; between 2009 and 2010 he took part in the Freedom and Justice for Atenco National and International Campaign. He belongs to the International Committee for the Council of Peace and is Chairman of the National Center for Support of the Indigenous Missions (Cenami, in its initials in Spanish), an important religious structure that has stood with indigenous and grass-root movements in different parts of the country. Since his experience in the diocese of San Cristóbal de Las Casas he has chaired the Fray Bartolomé de las Casas Human Rights Center, known as Frayba, one of Mexico’s most influential non-governmental organizations.
Vera López sits on three civil tribunals: the International Tribunal of Conscience of Peoples in Movement, the International Tribunal of Trade Union Freedom, and the Permanent Tribunal of the Peoples. Today his most prominent political commitment is the promotion of the so-called Citizens’ Constituent Assembly, which he presented in December 2014 in Saltillo. He has received at least thirteen outstanding awards for his work in favor of human rights, including a nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2012.h
Raúl Vera (left), accompanying Bishop Samuel Ruiz. Photo: AFP
The disorderly bishop
His pastoral and political commitment does not keep him from enjoying his passions, such as classical music, painting, popular music and dancing. With less reserve than one might expect, the bishop admits that he loves dancing and Bohemian pleasures. “Of course! I love trova music, anyone who can take poetry and set it to music. One of my favorites is Mario Benedetti.” His delight in dancing is legendary. “I learned to dance because my sisters taught me what was in style back then. I was very young, and my oldest sister was an excellent dancer; my mother’s sisters too. I learned to dance the fox trot and the tango: when it comes to more modern steps, I got as far as the twist and rock.”
He still dances occasionally: not as much as before because “some people are scandalized. There are cell phones now, so I need to be prudent. But there was a time when I did it.” Because of his peculiar approach to pastoral work and his ecclesiastical appointments, Raúl Vera López told Emiliano Ruiz Parra: “Two popes gave me orders, and I’ve done the disordering myself.” (Gatopardo, January 2012). In August of this year he came to ITESO to give a lecture. Before that, he sat down for this interview with MAGIS.
A day does not go by in this country without new atrocities, new names on our geography of terror: Tierra Blanca, Tlatlaya, Tetelcingo. Why do you think we have found ourselves in the midst of a war in this country and what do you attribute this spiraling violence to?
Well, one reason is that inequality is the mother of violence. The inequality we live in is pure violence. Pope John Paul II said that poverty and hunger are the original violence. The country is coming apart, slowly at first, but the process is now accelerating because the inequality has gone deeper. This violence that people are suffering is not explained by saying that inequality somehow just took off. Inequality is induced; this economic model generates inequality, because it is a model that deliberately concentrates wealth in the hands of a few and excludes millions of people. This happens all over the world, and Mexico is no exception. The second cause is the structural violence perpetrated by the Mexican state with its trumpeted structural reforms. In practical terms, our public policies are genocide. Let’s take a close look at one issue: the minimum wage. A person earning the minimum wage is automatically living in poverty, and if that person has to share her wages with others, then both live in extreme poverty. Who makes that decision? It’s made by the business elite, union leaders, and the government representative who make up the National Minimum Wage Commission. So this is deliberate. Another cause: the Energy Reform has taken out of public spending 40 percent of what the government used to invest in services for people: housing, medicine, social security, education, subsidies… we hardly have those things anymore. It’s genocide. Every government since Carlos Salinas de Gortari has adhered to the Free Trade Agreement. All of these reforms are aimed at applying the [neoliberal] economic model in Mexico. It’s genocide. Mr. Salinas and his governing team, [Ernesto] Zedillo, [Vicente] Fox, [Felipe] Calderón and now Enrique Peña Nieto, were judged by the Permanent Tribunal of the Peoples in Mexico and found responsible for crimes against humanity. With what they’re doing to farmers, introducing transgenic corn to replace traditional varieties—Monsanto already has the intellectual property—they are taking away our food sovereignty. The Energy Reform took away our national sovereignty… Mexico is less and less ours. The Educational Reform, designed outside the country, is taking away our free education and turning teachers into freelancers. They’re not education workers any more; they’re administrative teaching agents.
Bishop Vera marches to demand respect for mine workers’ labor rights. Photo: AFP
What about the justification of the war against drugs? How does that fit into the generalized violence?
No, the war against drugs is fiction, it’s the militarization of the country. Now we have direct violence, which under the guise of violence against drugs is becoming a tool for controlling the population. It’s a government strategy: horror and terror unleashed on the population in response to these so-called outbreaks of violence that we have… No, sir! They’re induced, it’s direct violence and of course it’s about controlling the population.
Would you call them counterinsurgency strategies?
Of course it’s a counterinsurgency strategy, because they know, ever since they started to apply the Washington Consensus model, that the people are going to protest, and now states have to be police states and they’ve been preparing for this, not just in Mexico, everywhere. One of the parts that they’ve already planned for is control of the population, because again, the people are going to protest. For example: Central American migrants are insurgents: they refuse to simply give their work away to foreign transnational companies. They leave and head to the United States, even though they earn less there than legalized workers do. In developed countries they do have dignified wages for citizens; for migrants there is a lower level of wages and social security, but still better than in their home countries. So, seeing that they won’t stay home, here in Mexico they’re punished on the United States’ behalf. Why? In the end, what our Central American brothers and Mexican brothers are doing is recovering back wages, because those starvation wages are just one step removed from human trafficking […] The much vaunted foreign investment morphs into human trafficking. So of course the violence is induced, aimed directly at the people. Why? Because they need to have the people repressed and scared.
In your pastoral and political work you have gotten close to migrants, as well as mothers and other relatives of missing people, human trafficking, in other words, countless horrors, victims of violence. What has made the biggest impact on you in recent years?
One of the things that have made an impact on me is when I look in vain for an ethical backbone, a vocation for public service, in politicians today. That makes an impact. They’re cynical, they’re shameless. I mean, didn’t we just find out that this man [Enrique Peña Nieto] got his law degree by outright cheating? And there he is, impervious. And then, how can there be people who manage finance, the economy, the distribution of income in the world this way? Can they be called human beings? No, they can’t. This is a dehumanized society, and they’re going to pay the price themselves. Not long ago I broke my leg and had to stay in bed. I switched on the TV and watched a dystopian movie where the pariahs were relegated to living in caves while the “good people” lived aboveground. But those pariahs came out at night on their motorcycles to behead the “good people”…
Raúl Vera celebrates a Mass in solidarity with the Ayotzinapa students. Photo: Reuters
It seems like fiction, but that’s the country’s reality today, isn’t it?
Where to you think the beheaded bodies come from? The pozole-maker [the person who tried to get rid of bodies by incinerating them to destroy all evidence], the mass graves full of burned, chopped up body parts? They come from a sick society. The Pope [on his visit to Mexico] said that it’s a matter of social health. The fact that there are people who end up in jail is evidence of a lack of social health. There are people here [in a prison] because they were never nurtured in a situation of formal education, in a home with parents who looked after them, who guided them and gave them a dignified life. There’s an Italian priest, Luigi Ciotti, who started a movement called Liberia against the mafias in Italy, and Father Ciotti says that the issue of organized crime is a social health issue. People are sick and it is the sick people who are recruited to cut off heads and to do what they call “kitchen work” [disposing of bodies by cutting them into pieces and burning them in diesel or other kinds of fuel]. In prisons I’ve talked to young men who have done that and they tell me it’s the worst horror and that “we don’t want to do it,” the kitchen work, cutting bodies into pieces, because it’s the most horrific thing. You have to not be a man, you have to not be a human being.
Now that you mention the Liberia movement in Italy, which offers a way out of the violence, where do you see possibilities of stopping this war, this barbarity that we have in Mexico?
There’s no alternative to organizing ourselves as a new society, where all the public policies are corrected and these atrocities come to an end. The greatest responsibility for this violence lies with the Mexican State, there’s no doubt about it. The general director of Amnesty International passed through Saltillo a year and a half ago, and sparked a discussion about whether there were forced disappearances, whether that category could be applied, because organized crime was involved, and he said: “Hold on for one moment: when it comes to forced disappearance, or any disappearance, the Mexican State is responsible, even if the agents are private citizens.” It’s the State that has left the entire population defenseless; it’s guilty of sins of both omission and commission. The ones who bear the responsibility for this in Mexico and around the world are the politicians who are out to make money. Politicians brazenly go into politics to get rich.
In December 2015 the remains of Oliver Wenceslao Navarrete were found in a mass grave. In the picture, Raúl Vera prays together with relatives of Oliver and the poet and activist Javier Sicilia. Photo: Procesofoto
How to you see the role of the Mexican Church? It seems it has not been up to the task in this context of war and capitalist dispossession that we have in our country. Has the Mexican Church evaded its commitments in this context?
An ambassador from the Italian Republic who was once assigned to Colombia told me, when this was all starting and getting worse by the day, “I’m baffled and dismayed by the silence of the Mexican Church. The Colombian bishops, when the violence was at its worst, organized follow-through and interventions to put a stop to the situation. I’m perplexed by the absence of the Mexican bishops.” I think we’ve fallen terribly short. Some bishops are now doing something, and there’s more talk about this, but before they didn’t even want to make a public statement.
It’s been ten years of omissions, in a climate of violence, with forced disappearances…
Yes, it’s very grave.
Most bishops and the Mexican Church in general claim to defend life and take to the streets to protest against abortion, but not against forced disappearances or against this war. Does that strike you as a contradiction?
First of all, it strikes me as a staggering lack of sensitivity; secondly, as a lack of formation in the fundamental wisdom of the Gospels, a lack of formation in distinguishing among things in social causality. We’ve gotten used to a Church that is all closed up in churches. Our work is very administrative, and we are not able to see what is going on. We have no idea. We give lay people a leading role in the Church, but always close to the altar, always within parish groups. We’ve turned the Church into a religious system for our own benefit, where we occupy a high level, where being a bishop gives us a plus, and it’s thanks to the Church that we’re bishops. The Church for us is almost a personal instrument, not a social instrument, not an instrument at the service of the world. The Pope’s insistence that we come out of the churches, that we undertake a mission, takes this as a starting point. We’ve locked ourselves inside a Church that is a religious system; it’s not the Church of Jesus Christ who walks out into the world, and that’s why we do not venture past the topics of abortion and homosexuals.
Raúl Vera during a visit to Iguala, Guerrero, to show solidarity with the relatives of the Unidad Popular members executed in June 2013. Photo: Procesofoto
During his visit to Mexico, the Pope took the Catholic hierarchy to task. Have the hierarchs of the Mexican Church assimilated the scolding and shown a willingness to change?
Well, in the first place, the Pope spoke directly of our dealings with power. He said: “Look, you are not to make back-room deals, and you are not to climb into the cars and onto the horses of the new pharaohs. You need to be transparent.” This is what the Pope said. So this is very important and we need to understand it: transparency in the administration of our lives as pastors. And the pope said very strong things: “You are distracted by other things” […] as long as you have your sights set on other things, you will not be the pastors that Christ wants; your interest will not be Jesus’ flock.” So, things can’t be otherwise in this country. This is just plain logic: if there had been a Church here doing what it’s supposed to do, things would not taken the turn they did in this country.
You say the country needs to be rebuilt and reestablished, but not with the political parties and the traditional ruling class. How does one go about reestablishing it then? What can you say about the Citizens’ Constituent project that you are promoting?
That project belongs to society, and looks for ways to make the people the subjects of their own history, the authors of a new national pact, a new social project, to be reflected in a Constitution. But this Constitution is built by the people, so that the people can see the creative capacity that they have, so that the people appreciate themselves, and their proposal is protected by a Constituent Assembly. I had a fabulous experience like this: our pastoral plan was built that way, with the voice of the people, both in Saltillo and in Ciudad Altamirano.
During the Second March for National Dignity “Mothers Looking for Their Daughters and Sons,” Raúl Vera stops to greet the mothers on hunger strike outside of the Department of Justice (PGR). Photo: Procesofoto
Is this reestablishment meant to sweep away the ruling class of the traditional parties?
We have to go beyond them. They either adjust to living with the people and doing what the people tell them, or they won’t have a future. And they won´t be installed in their political positions, but rather collaborating in the construction of an honest people.
Do you consider yourself a leftist bishop, a priest who communes with Liberation Theology?
My source if the Gospels: the Gospels liberate. The first thing they liberate is our ego. That’s the first thing the Gospels teach us. If I want to understand the Gospels, I have to clean that inner face of mine, I have to shake off those interests, I have to suffer losses in order to be able to serve the poor and serve the victims. We have to be people of flesh and blood. I don’t want to be on the left or on the right; I want to be where justice is, I want to be where truth is, above all I want to be where love is. And even though the goal is as far as the nearest star, I want to be a good man. I’m not one now, that that’s what I want to be. m.