Typically when a news story about drugs begins with a priest, the focus is going be on how a community deals with the devastation those drugs have caused. And this story from Tuesday's Washington Post is no different -- except when it comes to scale. Here we aren't talking about a life lost and a city under siege, but about a whole country under the influence. The story -- "A Test of Faith in Mexico's Drug War" -- focuses on the Catholics at the heart of Mexico's drug war.
Father Miguel Lopez drives the parish pickup truck across the muddy river that separates two warring drug cartels. He follows the winding road through the dark green foothills of the Sierra Madre until he comes to a rusting archway where traffickers hung the severed head of his friend.
The Roman Catholic priest spends his days navigating this dangerous terrain, a world he describes as "fallen." He prays with widows whose husbands disappeared in broad daylight, and gives Communion to the men who may have killed them. In the village where he grew up, at the end of this lonely road, his lifelong neighbors were too afraid to unbolt their doors when they heard screams for help in the middle of the night -- when an entire family, including four children, was kidnapped in June amid a clash between rival gangsters.
"The fear is one that we all share," Lopez said, steering his gray truck through hills that conceal a vast network of marijuana farms and methamphetamine labs. "Sometimes I can't sleep at night. But these are the times when you have to define who you are. To do anything less is to be an accomplice."
Beyond the reach of the U.S. and Mexican governments in their fight against drug traffickers is an intimate, complex world of communal violence and crippled institutions. At the center of the drug war is Michoacan, a rugged, rural state in the southwest where all forms of traditional authority -- city hall, the military, police and even the Catholic Church -- have been unable to protect the people against the assassinations, kidnappings and extortions associated with the narcotics trade.
Yeah, I was excited to read on too. Especially when taking into consideration that this article was co-bylined by William Booth, who wrote a very righteous profile of the Pulitzer Prize-winning food critic Jonathan Gold.
So how does the whole package measure up to the engrossing lede? Exceptionally.
Booth and Steve Fainaru don't get bogged down in politics or the inefficacy of Mexican law enforcement or the changes in the drug trade during the past few decades. Instead they stick to what the headline and lede promised: An exploration of the struggle in Lopez's soul.
Last week, as he drove two reporters through "tierra caliente," the heavily conflicted region dubbed the hot land, the introspective 42-year-old priest said the chaos is testing his faith. Most difficult for him to reconcile, he said, is the realization that the people responsible for creating "this reality of death and hopelessness in which we live are the same people we once baptized."
Lopez said his own fear of dying was outweighed by the fear that he will not be brave enough to save his people. His struggle reflects those of other Catholic priests in Latin America who use their moral authority to defend the disenfranchised, sometimes at great personal risk.
"You know, they're going to [expletive] you one way, or they're going to [expletive] you another," the priest said of the traffickers. "And what can you do? Or, to be more exact, what are you most afraid of? To me, the worst thing would be that out of naivete, or out of stupidity, or out of fear, you didn't know when to speak or you didn't know what to say. What I ask from God is that He illuminate me so that I can do what I need to do."
The story is rich with details. Some maybe less novel than the reporters believed. "A Bible sits next to the bed in his studio apartment, beside volumes of Balzac, Kafka and Dickens" -- yeah, that Lopez is more than just some backwoods bumpkin; he's a philosopher and a priest. He even, heaven help us, drinks beer and knows what a kilo of Mary Jane costs.
But these nuggets are the sign of good reporters and great reporting. They show that the reporters did more than parachute; they really spent time with Lopez and sought to understand his struggle.
If anything is missing it's more of a discussion of how people who participate in religious traditions can lead such double lives -- Think of the closing scene from "The Godfather" -- with this quote from Lopez feeling a bit empty:
"We need to say clearly, 'Drug trafficking is a sin,' and that there is nothing more to say," he said. "And the truth is the church has not done that."
Maybe it's true when it comes to drug running, but what about kidnapping and butchering rival dealers? Those seem pretty straight forward.
The story also lacks many voices outside of Lopez's, but I'm not really sure it needed any. Experts could have been drawn in and other priests spoken too, but that wasn't this story. This was, after all, one man's "test of faith."
Fainaru and Booth also manage to do is debunk the premise of that ridiculous story about La Familia from Time.com. You know the one I'm talking about: "Drug Dealing for Jesus: Mexico's Evangelical Narcos." Doug previously noted the flimsiness of Time.com's claim.
The Washington Post story builds on that and clearly shows that La Familia is Catholic in name and wicked in deeds.
You may recognize that altered Mexican flag from Mollie's sleuthing.