San Salvador, El Salvador, May 20, 2019 / 04:30 pm (CNA).- A priest has been shot and killed by a suspected gang member in El Salvador, Vatican News reported Sunday. His funeral was held today in Sonzacate, El Salvador.
Father Cecilio Perez Cruz, 38, was pastor of San Jose La Majada Parish in Juayu, El Salvador, in the Diocese of Sosonate near the Guatemalan border.
A group of parishioners found his body Saturday morning; he had been shot three times.
There was a handwritten note next to the priest’s body, signed by the Mara Salvatrucha gang saying “he did not pay the rent,” Vatican News reported. Gangs in El Salvador often use extortion as a means of control.
Mara Salvatrucha is more commonly known as MS-13, a gang formed by children of Salvadoran immigrants in Los Angeles in the 1970s and 80s.
Bishop Constantino Barrera of Sonsonate asked Catholics to pray for Father Perez, and praised the priest’s pastoral ministry, saying he was “close to his people.”
The Government of El Salvador condemned the murder and in a statement expressed condolences to the priest’s family and to the Catholic community.
“We stand in solidarity with all the victims of violence, of any type of violence, and we ask the authorities to administer justice in all cases,” Archbishop Jose Luis Escobar Alas of San Salvador said at a news conference yesterday.
“It’s not that we seek revenge, but justice is necessary for the good of the victims and for the good of the whole society, because violence will only be overcome if impunity is not allowed. It is truly worrisome the degree of violence that our country suffers. We must work and pray intensely for peace,” the archbishop said as quoted by Catholic News Service.
A local police officer told AFP an investigation was in its earliest stages and the killer was not yet known to the police.
El Salvador has one of the highest rates of murder in the world, with 51 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants last year, and gang violence is especially acute.
The Salvadoran government also announced Sunday new orders have been issued to security forces to make sure the priest’s killers are brought to justice, Vatican News said.
Gangs such as MS-13 compete with the government for power and in some cases control entire neighborhoods.
Rick Jones, a policy expert for Catholic Relief Services, told CNA last October that after the United States began deporting large numbers of Salvadorans from Los Angeles after the country’s civil war ended, many of the young people who returned were already involved in gang activity.
“You have a situation where in the mid-1990s most young boys were out of school and unemployed, and only made it to 6th grade. And so they started organizing and [the gangs] spread through the metropolitan area,” he said.
“Then, in 2003, the [US] government decided to put out the ‘Iron Fist’ policy. Meaning zero tolerance. Meaning any kid with baggy clothes, tattoos and a hat on backwards could get picked up and thrown into prison.”
These hardline policies backfired, however, as the homicide rate continued to increase despite the changes.
“The level of violence has risen ever since the country put in these hardline policies,” Jones said.
“What you have in the country, as I said, is you have the underlying conditions of people living in marginal, overcrowded neighborhoods, that were created spontaneously because of the war, so there’s no social service, kids don’t have access to school, and the communities are all living in fear during the war, and that just gets translated to the next generation. And this generation acts out on that by joining gangs.”
“I think it’s the latest manifestation of both structural issues, lack of opportunity, and then trauma from the war getting worked out in a new way, and thirdly the levels of repression that they’ve had now under the Iron Fist policies for over a decade,” he said.
Clergy in El Salvador continue to be outspoken about human rights violations, in the country, with many working with young people, to try to turn them from gang violence, while also speaking out against El Salvador’s highly overcrowded prison system and the hardline policies that have led to it.
“We’re now working with governments, we’re trying to work with the police, to try to help them understand that the repressive tactics are not being effective, and to get better community policing, and more targeted, focused policing, and working with the kids before they get to the point where they need to be locked up…We need to work with adolescents and their families before they get engaged in gangs,” Jones said.
“You have to work with the guys that are locked up. So that when they get out, they don’t just go back into the gangs or into criminal behavior, that they actually become peace promoters among some of these neighborhoods.”
Catholic organizations and leaders in El Salvador have recently decried the “impunity” with which gangs often operate, including in the death of another Salvadoran priest killed last year during Holy Week.
Fr. Walter Osmir Vásquez Jiménez was shot and killed the afternoon of March 29, 2018, Holy Thursday, on a dirt road outside of the town of Lolotique, El Salvador, as he was on his way to celebrate Mass. The local press attributed the crime to gangs active in the area.