Cardinal caught in the crossfire of drugs and state: Accounts of how he died are numerous and contradictory. His death stunned Mexico. Phil Reeves in Guadalajara on the slaying of an archbishop

THE CARDINAL lay on his back, his face turned up to the spires of the cathedral and the heavens beyond. He was wearing his gold and white robes of office, and holding a crucifix across his bullet-punctured chest. His right hand was clutching a silver rosary.

By the tens of thousands they shuffled silently past his coffin, pausing only for a few seconds to cross themselves and cast a sickened glance at his bier. Outside, the queue stretched for hundreds of yards, a coil of quiet indignation that weaved around the plaza, through its trees and fountain and colonnades. Two days passed before the procession thinned to a trickle.

At first the Mexican crowd had been angry, waving newspapers that demanded 'Justice]'. When their president, Carlos Salinas de Gortari, came to Guadalajara Cathedral to pay his respects, some shouted abuse.

Crime and politics have exacted a bloody price in Mexico's history, but never before has the country mourned the murder of a Roman Catholic cardinal, the apparent victim of a shooting by a drugs cartel. Mexicans, 93 per cent of whom are baptised as Catholics, were appalled. So was Guadalajara, its second largest city, a conservative society with a tradition of intense loyalty to the Church.

It happened on Monday afternoon. Cardinal Juan Jesus Posadas Ocampo, the Archbishop of Guadalajara, was sitting next to his chauffeur in the car park of the city's international airport. They were awaiting the arrival of the Vatican's diplomatic envoy, Jeronimo Prigione, from Mexico City. His visit was to be a low-key affair, an opportunity to underscore the already strong relationship between the Church and local business by pressing the flesh at the opening of a furniture store.

The cardinal was in his new car, a 1993 white Grand Marquis that had recently replaced his rather more drab Ford Topaz. As usual, despite his status as Mexico's second most senior churchman, he was without an entourage. To pass the time, he read a religious text, Liturgia de las Horas. A few chaotic moments later, the cardinal and his driver were slumped in their seats, killed by a volley of automatic weapon fire. Five others lay dead, some in the car park, but a number inside the airport terminal.

The authorities took more than 48 hours to get their stories straight. At first, they claimed that the cardinal died after being caught 'in cross-fire' during a gun battle between drugs traffickers that happened to erupt while he was at the airport. But this version, always highly improbable, crumbled after the Jalisco state coroner revealed that the cleric was shot 14 times, mostly from just 3ft away. The shooting looked like a deliberate cold-blooded slaying.

As public anger and scepticism swelled, the media were summoned to the official residence of the Jalisco governor to hear a revised account. The coroner was absolutely right, declared the state attorney-general, Leobardo Larios. The cardinal had been shot from close range. But this was because the elderly cleric had been confused with a narcotics trafficker. The assassins had gone to the airport to murder a notorious drug baron, Joaquin 'El Chapo' Guzman, who has been waging a vendetta against a rival cartel.

Mr Larios speculated that the murderers mistook the cardinal for 'El Chapo' himself. The cardinal's flashy new car was the sort of vehicle that narcotics traffickers drive. And his black clerical suit was their kind of attire. The fact that the portly churchman was 66 (some two decades older than the drug baron for whom he was supposedly mistaken) was glossed over. So were the clerical collar and chain he was wearing.

More convincingly, the attorney-general argued that a cartel would hardly need to send 15 gunmen with an arsenal of military-style equipment (including 17 rifles, five grenades, flak jackets and cellular phones) just to kill an unprotected churchman. Their true target was the highly dangerous Guzman, who never went anywhere without a praetorian guard of 10 heavily armed thugs. The weapons, however, have yet to be put on public display.

The government's story may yet be true, as may its claim that Guzman and his cronies escaped the scene by private aircraft shortly after the shooting. But it failed to convince the elders of the Catholic Church. At the cardinal's funeral mass on Thursday, senior churchmen repeatedly demanded a 'credible explanation' and a full investigation.

Their scepticism is embarrassing for the Salinas administration, which last year re-established diplomatic relations with the Vatican after a rift that lasted more than a century. Until then, Mexico's 76-year-old constitution banned the Church from owning property, and prohibited clergy from wearing clerical garb publicly - an anti-clerical era graphically described in Graham Greene's The Power and the Glory.

But neither the church nor anyone else has been able to supply another believable explanation for the killing. Many maintain that the cardinal was targeted by drug runners because he had criticised them. Yet his reputation is that of a moderate conservative, a diplomat no more outspoken than any other senior Mexican cleric.

Another view is that the drug lords killed him as a show of force to the government: a savage demonstration that recent attempts to clamp down on their activities had not diminished their capacity to wreak havoc. They chose the cardinal because of his prominence; he was the certain successor to the head of the Catholic Church in Mexico, Cardinal Ernesto Corripio, who is due to retire next year. This is more plausible. But it does not address the lingering suspicion that the Mexican federal police may have been involved, possibly by tacitly assisting the attack of one cartel on another.

One of the dead 'bystanders' apparently carried police identification. And the police have yet to explain how the gunmen, supposedly more than a dozen of them, managed to get away along the 12-mile open road leading from the airport, without being stopped.

Few doubt the claim, however, that the drug barons played a role. Much of the public outrage flows from a growing frustration with the government's failure to curb the handful of small but immensely rich and powerful bands of narcotics traffickers who annually ship billions of dollars worth of drugs across the border into the United States, much of it from Colombia. The past six months have been punctuated by drug-related killings, including the murder of more than 60 people in 20 days in Sinoloa, the country's drug capital.

The Salinas administration has jailed some of the country's leading godfathers - Los Desperados, as they are known - seized record quantities of drugs and launched an investigation into several hundred allegedly corrupt police officers. Its efforts have won the praise of the United States, with which it now works closely. The authorities have managed to mend some of the diplomatic damage caused by the kidnap and gruesome murder of the US Drugs Enforcement Administration agent, Kiki Camarena, in Guadalajara in 1985.

Yet the cartels are as active as ever. They are believed to handle up to 70 per cent of the cocaine smuggled into the US, as well as large quantities of marijuana and imported Thai heroin. In recent months, they have been engaged in a ferocious territorial war, partly created by the imprisonment of Mafia don Felix Gallardo. Gallardo, who carried on business with a fax and telephone from his cell, controlled the western end of the Mexico-US border, territory coveted by Guzman.

In Guadalajara, the cartels' presence is discreet, and yet they cast a shadow over the community. The western Mexican city's communications and industries - it has four breweries and is the capital of Jalisco state, the world centre of tequila production - make it an ideal shipment and money-laundering centre.

'Sometimes you come across them,' said Manuel, (not his real name), an English teacher. 'They dress like cowboys, swaggering around the place in leather boots and shades. You know when you see them that they are either 'narco' or the federal police. You know not to catch their eye.'

Next time he may choose to look more closely. The government, desperate to clear up the matter, is willing to pay for information leading to the arrest of the gangsters whom it blames for the cardinal's murder.

The size of the reward reflects the fear that the drug barons inspire: dollars 5m (pounds 3m).

(Photographs omitted)

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Banksy's 'The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' in Bristol
art'Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' followed hoax reports artist had been arrested and unveiled
News
Pistorius leaves Pretoria High Court to be taken to prison
news

Voices
Stephanie first after her public appearance as a woman at Rad Fest 2014
voices

Life and Style
tech

Board creates magnetic field to achieve lift

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
James Blunt's debut album Back to Bedlam shot him to fame in 2004
music

Singer says the track was 'force-fed down people's throats'

News
news

Endangered species spotted in a creek in the Qinling mountains

Life and Style
tech

Company says data is only collected under 'temporary' identities that are discarded every 15 minutes

News
peopleJust weeks after he created dress for Alamuddin-Clooney wedding
Life and Style
A street vendor in Mexico City sells Dorilocos, which are topped with carrot, jimaca, cucumber, peanuts, pork rinds, spices and hot sauce
food + drink

Trend which requires crisps, a fork and a strong stomach is sweeping Mexico's streets

Arts and Entertainment
George Lucas poses with a group of Star Wars-inspired Disney characters at Disney's Hollywood Studios in 2010
films

George Lucas criticises the major Hollywood film studios

Sport
football West Brom vs Man Utd match report: Blind grabs point, but away form a problem for Van Gaal
Life and Style
health

Some experiencing postnatal depression don't realise there is a problem. What can be done?

Arts and Entertainment
Gotham is coming to UK shores this autumn
tvGotham, episode 2, review
News
i100
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Primary Teacher Jobs in Blackpool

Negotiable: Randstad Education Preston: Primary Teacher Jobs in BlackpoolWe ar...

Health & Social Teacher

Competitive & Flexible : Randstad Education Cambridge: The JobRandstad Educati...

***SEN British Sign Language Teacher***

£60 - £70 per day: Randstad Education Preston: Successful candidate should hav...

Early Years and Foundation Stage Primary Teachers in Blackpool

Negotiable: Randstad Education Preston: Early Years and Foundation Stage Prima...

Day In a Page

Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
Let's talk about loss

We need to talk about loss

Secrecy and silence surround stillbirth
Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

Women may be better suited to space travel than men are
Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

How to dress with authority

Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

Tim Minchin interview

For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album