For many years, the Mexican state of Guerrero has been synonymous with violence and death. Crime rates are now decreasing, especially for high-impact crimes like murders. Salvador Rangel, 75, is the Catholic bishop of its second-largest city, Chilpancingo, and he says that the situation is better now because the criminals who run Guerrero’s central region, a group known as Los Ardillos, are “good.” Or at least better than their predecessors.
Rangel defends dialogue and mediation with criminals as the only way to work towards peace. “It’s imperative to look for a solution, a way out. There will always be illicit businesses around. But if just one life is saved, it justifies the way I act,” he argues. The bishop’s frankness is surprising; he only asks for a few names or details about specific negotiations to be omitted, more out of shame than fear for his own safety.
Shortly before his departure from the diocese after six years in the role, the leader of the Catholic Church for the region receives EL PAÍS for an interview that touches on many subjects, though always in connection with Los Ardillos. In January, two members of a self-defense group in Chilapa, a community near Chilpancingo, went missing, presumably on orders from Los Ardillos. In February, federal authorities descended on Quechultenango, their bastion, where several houses were raided and turned up drugs, weapons and three tigers.
Question. Did you see that they found three tigers during the raids?
Answer. Oh, yes, yes.
Q. Do you know why [Los Ardillos leader] Celso Ortega and his friends had them?
A. I don’t know, I haven’t asked them. He was with people when I saw them the other day, so I was too embarrassed to ask. Certainly it’s noteworthy... I’m familiar with Iván’s house, he’s Celso’s brother. I’ve been to eat there twice, but they don’t have any animals. I don’t know why they would have the tigers there. It seemed strange to me.
Q. There are people saying that they were used to do away with human remains. Do you think that could be true?
A. I think they use another method: acid. There are people who have asked me to go get the remains of their family members. And when I’ve asked about them, I’ve been told that it’s too late, that they’ve been “dissolved.”
Q. So the tigers are just pets.
A. Exotic pets. But one day I’m going to ask about them.
Q. The other day there was a demonstration in Quechultenango. People were angry with the military for carrying out the raids. How should we view this?
A. The person who organized the big demonstrations in favor of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) and for the candidate Mario Moreno [during the electoral campaign for state governorship last summer] was Celso Ortega. The PRI’s best rally was the one held in Quechultenango. It was a big scare for [Mexico’s governing party] Morena, they almost lost. And in my view, these raids were an act of revenge by Félix Salgado [a candidate from Morena who was disqualified and replaced with his daughter, now the current governor]. That’s why they sent down the military and the National Guard.
Q. You came to the job in 2015. What do you remember about those first weeks? Were you already familiar with the region?
A. Not really. I came from a somewhat marginalized archdiocese, Huejutla, in the Huasteca region of the state of Hidalgo. When I said where I was going, a bishop perfectly summarized what my new placement was going to be like. He told me that I was going “from bad to worse.”
Q. It doesn’t sound easy.
A. But when I got here, I didn’t find things as hard as I’d been told they’d be. And there’s something interesting I’m going to confess. I haven’t said it before. I had a certain relationship with the drug traffickers in Hidalgo. When I came here, they communicated with the bosses from the region. And so when I arrived in Chilpancingo, instead of being received by the clergy, I was received by the drug traffickers. The first meal I had here was with them.
Q. Do you mean to say that you came from Hidalgo with the narcos?
A. Yes, yes.
Q. But why?
A. Because they offered to.
Q. But didn’t the Church have any forms of transportation to offer you?
A. They did, but the thing is that I had a good friend there in Hidalgo, a politician who’s also doing other things [he smiles]. And he offered to take care of me, to bring me here. And above all, they had already made a deal with some drug traffickers from here and they told me “don’t worry, you’re in good hands.”
Q. A group of drug traffickers from Hidalgo turned you over to another group of drug traffickers from Guerrero.
A. But peacefully so.
Q. And how do you feel about it? On the face of things, it sounds strange.
A. I think there is something stronger: friendship, service, getting close to people. These men wanted to protect me, the ones from Hidalgo. That’s why they brought me here, to protect me, with their allies from here.
Q. I see.
A. My task during this time has been mediation. We’ve saved a lot of people from dying! For example, that architect from Chilapa who was kidnapped five or six months ago. He was moments away from being assassinated when we saved him. We did it. And a little later, two months ago, we saved two boys who distributed ice [methamphetamine]. Afterwards the narcos often joked with me, asking me why they should have to forgive.
Q. And what do you tell them?
A. I tell them that for once they’re doing a good deed... It’s really bad that they’re distributing drugs, particularly this ice. And then there’s another really terrible drug that they make here in the mountains that’s called China White, it combines heroin with fentanyl...
Q. Regarding the narcos that you’re in touch with, did they not like for that type of drug to be sold, or do they want to control its sale? What was the problem with those boys who sold it?
A. It’s just that this drug poisons the young people. And the narcos don’t want drugs to be distributed around here. In fact, Los Ardillos don’t produce drugs. Their business isn’t even in Guerrero. They have it outside the state.
Q. And what is it?
A. Well, it’s not going to be the Stations of the Cross and the Holy Rosary, is it?
Q. Well then, if they don’t have any business in Guerrero, why do they go on fighting around here?
A. Well... It’s that the fight is about something else. Politically, Los Ardillos support the PRI. That’s what I said: Morena very nearly lost the election because of the votes Los Ardillos secured for the PRI.
Q. In Chilapa people accuse Los Ardillos of dozens of disappearances, and the community police also accuse them of...
A. Yes, but in Chilapa it’s José Díaz Navarro [leader of the organization Siempre Vivos, which has fought for years for the search for missing people in Chilapa] making that accusation. Los Ardillos killed two of his brothers. But it was because they were distributing drugs. You can ask around.
Q. But how do you know that?
A. Everyone knows it in Chilapa. And it’s Díaz Navarro’s very personal crusade against Celso and Los Ardillos. Where am I going with this? The fact is that in Alcozacán, in Rincón de Chautla or in Ayahualtempa [areas of Chilapa defended by community police who are close to the veteran self-defense group CRAC-PF] the community police are divided by the question of money. In the background, Morena is supporting the police in these communities because those who are ruling right now are from the PRI. And what Morena wants is to get into those places, into those communities. How? By giving money to those men. I’ve made harsh statements against them, the community police. For example when those 10 musicians were killed [in January 2020, members of Los Ardillos allegedly killed a group of musicians from a location controlled by the community police]. I said that they were scoring an own goal.
Q. An own goal?
A. Yes, that they were the ones who assassinated them. The community police. And later they killed four more from Alcozacán.
Q. Why would they do that?
A. For attention.
Q. It’s a little drastic, isn’t it?
A. In our minds yes, but in theirs, no. What they want is a media firestorm. I’ve said it to them. A show so that they can raise money. There were people recently who wanted to make things hot again, but they calmed down. Why? Because they were given money and that fixed things. Either that or I’m the one who is high on drugs.
Q. Let’s see... From what you’re telling me, it seems like Los Ardillos are very good and the community police are bad, or maybe not bad but only interested in money.
A. Yes, yes.
Q. Do you feel comfortable with that?
A. I feel comfortable because I know these men [Los Ardillos]. They’re accused of kidnapping? There’s no kidnapping. Of charging a tax? There’s no tax. Yes, there have been murders. And I ask for explanations. And they give them to me.
Q. And when they tell you those things, what do you say to them?
A. God Almighty, like St. Francis, our Father who art in heaven... I can’t get involved, but what I see is more order, more discipline. And for example, five months ago [Los Ardillos] killed a youth from a good family in Chilapa... But he was also distributing drugs. His parents were in the United States and he was distributing drugs. So there you have it. Who’s going to right these situations so that drugs aren’t distributed, so that kidnappings don’t happen?
Q. But why do you believe them? All of this that you’re saying is what they’ve told you. Why do you believe them?
A. Look, the thing is that six or seven years ago, the situation was terrible with El Chaparro Zenén [leader of the criminal group Los Rojos in Chilapa, arrested in 2019]. Now he’s in jail. And I have to proceed somehow. And what I see is that Los Ardillos have credibility.
Q. But they have confessed murders to you.
A. Well, that’s a show of confidence. I ask them in order to get a sense of how things are going, and what the solution might be. For example, I gained confidence in them when some time ago they kidnapped the daughter of the secretary of the cathedral in Chilapa. Because the girl was into drugs.
Q. Okay, but did they tell you that, or did you have any evidence?
A. Yes, yes, yes. She was a crazy girl. And I asked them to release her and they released her. And that was when we began to have this... When I began to believe in them. That was five years ago. Now, look, six years ago, if you remember, Chilapa was in a terrible state.
Q. That was when Los Ardillos made a ton of people disappear from town.
A. Remember how you couldn’t even go from Chilpancingo to Chilapa? It wasn’t possible to go via that road. And for a time, traffic was stopped, because they were killing the bus drivers. Then, all of the holders of the public transit concessions came to see me. I went to see those men [Los Ardillos], and they told me, “Look, this is really simple to fix, just tell them to stop killing indigenous people and to stop bringing guns to the mountains.”
Q. Hold on. Los Ardillos accused the public transit operators of killing indigenous people?
A. Yes, they accused the concession holders.
Q. But, who, where, in what context?
A. In this whole region, they would kill them for any little thing. They gave me two conditions, that they shouldn’t kill indigenous people and they shouldn’t traffic arms. And I told that to the public transit operators. Because what they were doing was that the drivers would take the drugs from the mountains, marijuana more than anything else, and bring it here to Chilpancingo. And from here, they would take guns and bring them to Chilapa. And they eventually confirmed that three arsenals of weapons belonged to [Los Rojos leader] Zenén Nava. That confirmed my theory.
Q. That’s to say, you’re saying that the public transit operators worked for Zenén, for Los Rojos.
A. He was the owner. But that’s another story. They also burned two buses around here in Tixtla [near Chilpancingo]. The operators came to see me. And I went over to ask. And Los Ardillos simply told me that the operators had weapons. But we were able to re-establish the transit system. And the men all believed in me, the public transit men and the drug traffickers. And I feel so much joy seeing the buses running again! There weren’t even private vehicles on the road, everyone was afraid. Because what was the method Los Ardillos followed? They killed the drivers.
Q. And this closeness with Los Ardillos, it hasn’t existed with other groups? With Los Rojos for example?
A. No, because that period that I’m talking about, about five or six years ago, is when the problem was difficult and I’d just arrived. And I didn’t have that relationship with Zenén. I just knew that they kept murdering people and charged a tax. They had already devastated Chilapa and Chilpancingo. They were the lords of the land. But, well, it’s not just Los Ardillos, there’s also still a beautiful friendship with the guys from Chichihualco, with Isaac Navarrete [head of the Cártel del Sur or South Cartel]. I worked a lot with him. Later he was unseated by a different group. But I just spoke with him and he’s alive.