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RELIGION : Pope's Envoy Had Meeting With Mexico's Most Wanted

August 05, 1994|JUANITA DARLING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MEXICO CITY — Even as Mexican church leaders were demanding that federal police find the drug lords believed responsible for the gun battle that killed a Roman Catholic cardinal and six others last year, the Pope's ambassador was secretly meeting with the suspected masterminds.

Papal Nuncio Geronimo Prigione's revelations that he spoke separately with two of the notorious Arellano brothers in December and January has set off a new wave of controversy in the sensitive relationship between the traditionally anticlerical Mexican government and the Catholic Church.

The Arellanos are believed to control the drug trade in northwestern Mexico, and since May, 1993--when a gunfight in the Guadalajara airport killed Cardinal Juan Jesus Posadas Ocampo, his driver and five others--the government has offered a $5-million reward for information leading to their arrest.

"These are the most wanted criminals in Mexico," said Atty. Gen. Humberto Benitez in an interview this week. "They are fugitives from justice."

Prigione has exacerbated the outcry by refusing to tell police what the alleged drug dealers told him, even though the statements were not made in religious confession. This week, politicians from four political parties called for the ambassador's expulsion from Mexico for interfering in domestic affairs.

"In cases such as that of Prigione, the Mexican constitution should be applied as in all (instances) that violate our laws," said Fernando Solana Morales, former foreign relations secretary and current ruling party candidate for the Mexican Senate.

Prigione's main defenders have been priests and the conservative National Action Party (PAN), long linked to the Roman Catholic Church. One newspaper cartoon showed PAN presidential candidate Diego Fernandez de Cevallos sprinkling holy water on Prigione, who in turn sprinkled it on a drug dealer. The scandal's effect on Fernandez's campaign is not clear.

Juan Sandoval, Posadas' successor as archbishop of Guadalajara, has defended Prigione while continuing to dispute the government's version that the cardinal was a victim of mistaken identity.

Sandoval has said publicly that he has spoken with at least four witnesses whose accounts of the shootout indicate that there was no confusion involved in the cardinal's murder.

However, Benitez said the attorney general's office has not been given the names of those witnesses, whom Sandoval said are afraid of the police. "We have 40 people awaiting trial in this case, and all of them agree that he got caught in the cross-fire of a gun battle between two narcotics gangs," Benitez said.

The incident is the most recent controversy surrounding Prigione, the first Vatican nuncio to Mexico in more than 60 years. President Carlos Salinas de Gortari re-established diplomatic relations with the Vatican while eliminating the most egregious portions of anticlerical laws. Since becoming the Pope's ambassador, Prigione has been implicated in attempts to remove a bishop known for defending Indian rights in the southern state of Chiapas, where peasant rebels rose up against the government Jan. 1. Bishop Samuel Ruiz has since become an important factor in maintaining the uneasy peace in the state.

The government was embarrassed by the cardinal's death, especially because it came so soon after relations with the Vatican were re-established. Prigione's meeting with the Arellanos has served to shift part of the public condemnation for the killing back to the church.

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