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Mexicans respond to quake with generosity, concerns about aid distribution

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Catholic News Service

CUERNAVACA, Mexico — Donations from Caritas chapters across Mexico started streaming into affected areas after an earthquake rocked central Mexico Sept. 19, claiming more than 300 lives, leveling homes and churches and leaving thousands homeless.

Bishop Ramon Castro Castro of Cuernavaca, Mexico, celebrates Mass Sept. 24 outside the city’s cathedral, which dates to the 1500s and was badly damaged by the Sept. 19 earthquake in Mexico. (CNS photo/David Agren)

Some of those donations being trucked into Morelos state, just south of Mexico City, were stopped, however, and diverted to government-run collection centers, said Bishop Ramon Castro Castro of Cuernavaca. He sounded the alarm in a short video — and set off a scandal.

“This surpasses any minimal moral logic,” Bishop Castro said in an online video, which described how three trucks with Caritas supplies were detained, then diverted by police. “I ask those who have the authority and ability to stop this to do so.”

Bishop Castro’s video went viral in Mexico, where people have responded to the earthquake with generosity and rushed to rescue those trapped in rubble, even risking their own lives and working without sleep in the process.

But his comments have come to embody the country’s fatigue with politicians, some of whom have been chased away or jeered by irate locals while visiting disaster areas. Some politicians have put their promotion or logos on supplies or made assistance in poor areas conditional on recipients showing an electoral identification.

Mexico’s Catholic leaders have joined in the condemnation of the country’s political class, while also accompanying a population often distrustful of their authorities and depending on each other in a time of crisis. In a homily Sept. 24, Bishop Castro called for citizen vigilance to avoid corruption and crass politicking.

“I would ask the government to honestly distribute this money, this disaster fund to reconstruct the country and that no percentage of it ends up in anybody’s pocket. That we as citizens observe and denounce any abuse,” Bishop Castro said in a Sept. 24 homily.

“We hope this tragedy serves to humanize our political class,” added an editorial published Sept. 24 in the Archdiocese of Mexico City publication Desde la Fe. “Mexicans are fed up with the excess of politicians and public officials, the corruption, scandalous salaries, benefits and frivolities … politicians’ ostentatiousness, which insults the more 50 million poor people living in our troubled country.”

The magnitude 7.1 earthquake struck central Mexico especially hard, with the epicenter about 45 miles southeast of Mexico City on the border area of Morelos and Puebla states. In Morelos, served by the Diocese of Cuernavaca, at least 73 people died. Some towns reported more than half the homes there damaged or destroyed.

The citizen solidarity and generosity in Morelos has been overshadowed somewhat by concerns state officials and politicians are trying to use the tragedy for political purposes and to promote themselves ahead of the 2018 elections.

To prevent abuse, Caritas Mexico has developed an application that allows people to identify the disaster areas with the greatest needs, but also to track the delivery of donated supplies.

The application, still in its test phase, allowed the Diocese of Cuernavaca to spot a Caritas truck carrying relief supplies from northern Mexico being stopped by state police as it entered Morelos. Caritas officials rushed to the scene so the truck would be allowed to continue to its original destination, said Oscar Cruz, diocesan communications director.

Bishop Castro told Catholic News Service the Morelos government issued a directive to have all aid arriving from out-of-state distributed by state agencies.

“They want to distribute (church aid) because later they put a label on it, ‘Government of Morelos,’” he said. “This is support from many other people, and (labeling it otherwise is) a total lack of honesty.”

The diocese reports 111 parishes were either damaged or destroyed, while 13 parish residences were left uninhabitable, leaving those priests homeless.

“Some of these churches are 400 years old,” Bishop Castro said at the Cuernavaca cathedral, which dates back to the 1500s. The cathedral was undergoing renovations, but suffered such damage that services could no longer be celebrated inside. “These buildings were still standing after previous earthquakes, storms, but didn’t survive this. That tells you how powerful this was.”

The Diocese of Cuernavaca has focused on “accompanying people,” Bishop Castro said, meaning Masses and funerals were celebrated at all parishes, outside of the buildings.

The diocese also established three collection centers, which were swamped with donations and offers of assistance. One of the centers in the diocesan seminary had as many as 800 volunteers working at a time.

“People are showing a lot of solidarity,” said Father Israel Vazquez, seminary director. He said people sent donations to the church because they thought the church would distribute the aid to those most in need.

Some in the state went straight to the disaster areas. Otilia Diaz and four relatives collected clothing and shoes they no longer needed and drove to the town of Jojutla, which was hit especially hard.

“We collected all we could find in the house to give,” she said. “One woman asked us for shoes because her husband only had sandals and was clearing the rubble of their home.”

In a Mass celebrated outdoors for the victims of the earthquake, Bishop Castro called for change after the earthquake and expressed hopes the disaster, with its expressions of solidarity and demands for better from Mexico’s political class, would lead to a better country.

“Concern yourself with your country, a more just and honest society, that there’s justice. Concern yourself with defending the truth,” Bishop Castro said. “You’re leaders in this story. You’re a protagonist in a new Mexico. It’s the opportunity for change.”

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Bishop says Mexican mayor’s murder was message from organized crime

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Catholic News Service

MEXICO CITY — The assassination of a Mexican mayor the day after she assumed office was a message from organized crime and evidence of its influence in the area around the city of Cuernavaca, said the bishop who celebrated her funeral Mass.

“How is it possible that all of a region of the state is in the hands of organized crime, that people are paying protection money,” said Bishop Ramon Castro Castro of Cuernavaca, in comments published by the newspaper Reforma.

Gisela Mota takes the oath of office as new mayor of Temixco, Mexico, Jan. 1. She was killed the next day at her home by four gunmen. (CNS photo/Stringer, Reuters)

Gisela Mota takes the oath of office as new mayor of Temixco, Mexico, Jan. 1. She was killed the next day at her home by four gunmen. (CNS photo/Stringer, Reuters)

“This is evidence of our reality,” Bishop Castro said Jan. 3 outside the home of slain Mayor Gisela Mota in Temixco, about 50 miles south of Mexico City in Morelos state. “I’ve been saying it for some time and pleading, and no one has been able to do anything.”

He said Mota’s murder sends the message, “If you don’t cooperate with organized crime, look at what’s going to happen to you.”

“This crime is a signature act that characterizes the failed public security system in the state,” he said at the funeral. “I hope and pray to God that Gisela’s death helps to make us all more conscious.”

Authorities said Mota was murdered after assailants burst into her home Jan. 2, one day after she took the oath of office. Two of the suspects were subsequently killed in a shootout with police, while three more were arrested. The exact motive remains unclear, though Mota promised to clean up Temixco, a suburb of Cuernavaca.

Morelos Gov. Graco Ramirez said the suspects belonged to a drug cartel known as Los Rojos. The mayor’s Party of the Democratic Revolution said at least 100 mayors in Mexico had been attacked over the past 10 years as criminal groups attempt to infiltrate and corrupt local governments.

Drug cartels have been fighting over territory in Morelos for much of the past decade, causing crime to escalate and damaging the tourism economy of Cuernavaca, a city once popular with expatriates and weekenders from Mexico City and known previously for its local pastor, now-deceased Bishop Sergio Mendez Arceo, nicknamed the “Red Bishop.”

Former Mexican soccer star Cuauhtemoc Blanco, controversial for his on- and off-field behavior and a novice to politics, assumed office as mayor of Cuernavaca in late December, sparking a dispute with the state government over policing.

Ramirez took to Twitter to blast Blanco for backing out of a scheme for putting all police in the state under a single commander, a concept promoted as an attempt to prevent police corruption. Blanco, who won the last mayoral race with less than 30 percent of the vote, said the scheme was not working.

Bishop Castro has stayed out of politics and has promoted peace in the Diocese of Cuernavaca since arriving in 2013, although his work has not been without controversy.

Before the June election, he organized a Walk for Peace that resulted in attempts at a boycott and buses from one parish being prevented from leaving.

Follow Agren on Twitter: @el_reportero.

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