ENSENADA, Mexico — Until recently, Father Gerardo Montano was just another anonymous and overworked padre running a parish on this fast-growing town's southern fringe.
Now his years-ago friendship with the Arellano Felix brothers, who once led one of the world's most powerful drug cartels, has catapulted him into controversy and raised questions about the drug gang's relations with the church.
The case of Father Montano has also added fuel to a debate on the clergy's responsibilities to the Mexican justice system, just weeks after Mexican bishops defended the church's practice of keeping incidents of sexual abuse by priests secret.
A new book by a former Mexican attorney general alleges that Montano broke the law by acting as go-between for brothers Ramon and Benjamin Arellano Felix in their respective meetings with papal nuncio Girolamo Prigione in Mexico City in December 1993 and January 1994, to absolve themselves of responsibility for the death of Cardinal Juan Jesus Posadas Ocampo.
Montano admits that he arranged the meetings even though he knew the brothers were wanted men.
The first audience with the pope's representative came seven months after the killing of Posadas Ocampo at the Guadalajara airport during a shootout between the Arellano Felix gang and a rival drug-smuggling band.
"To clarify the murder of Posadas, who was my friend, was the only motive for my actions," Montano, who was ordained by Posadas Ocampo in 1978, said in a recent interview.
Montano had known several members of the Arellano Felix family since the late 1970s, when he was their parish priest. He was closest to Benjamin's wife, Ruth, who had been active in his parish long before her marriage to the cartel's "chief executive." Montano baptized three of the couple's four children.
Until Benjamin's March 10 arrest in Puebla and Ramon's Feb. 10 death in a police shootout in Mazatlan, U.S. law enforcement officials viewed the brothers as among the most vicious criminals in the world.
Montano, 51, acknowledged his friendship with the Arellano Felixes, who he said had a "human side" as devout Roman Catholics concerned for their children and "as people who wanted to repent and present their side." Montano, who grew up in Tijuana, says he didn't know until after the cardinal was killed "what kind of business [the Arellano Felix brothers] were managing."
In another recent interview, former Atty. Gen. Jorge Carpizo MacGregor, the author of the new book, scoffed at that notion. "That's as if someone living in Chicago in the 1920s were saying they didn't know who Al Capone was," Carpizo said.
Carpizo alleges in his book that Montano should have turned the pair over to police and that the priest falsified church baptism records to give two Arellano Felix brothers alibis on the day of the cardinal's death. He hints that Montano's motives were pecuniary, that in exchange for cooperation he received financial support for the "Versailles-like" Tijuana seminary of which he was treasurer.
Priest Says It Was 'Matter of Conscience'
At his church in a windblown barrio of shacks and unpaved streets here, Montano defended his decision to keep silent about the brothers, saying it isn't the business of priests to denounce anyone "in matters of conscience."
The tall, affable priest, who likes to laugh and crack jokes, was clearly upset by the accusations in Carpizo's book.
He flatly rejected Carpizo's charges that he falsified church baptismal records on May 24, 1993, a Monday, to show that Benjamin and his brother Javier were at the Tijuana ceremony on the day the cardinal was killed in Guadalajara. Most baptisms in Mexico take place on Saturdays.
Carpizo's version of the killing maintains that Javier was in Guadalajara when the gunfight took place, as was Ramon.
"The baptism happened, and the brothers were there," Montano countered.
He denied having received any financial help from the drug cartel, and he rejected Carpizo's assertion that the Tijuana seminary is ostentatious, saying that the former attorney general has never seen it.
"We of the church believe in the conscience of people, and we are there to help them, above all those who are the most scorned. And [the Arellano Felixes] were pursued by land, sea and sky," Montano said.
"At one time, if a girl got pregnant in Merida or there was a shipwreck in Colima, they were blamed for it."
Canonical Law May Justify His Silence
Montano's decision to remain silent is based on canonical law, said Professor Mario Medina of Mexico City's Pontifical University.
Although Montano didn't hear either brother's confession, which would have more strictly bound him to silence, he had the option of remaining silent about his knowledge of alleged crimes or criminals, facing neither a "mandate nor a prohibition," Medina said.