Mexican church leaders fend off assassination threats

Leaders of Mexico's Roman Catholic church fended off death threats last month phoned in by purported members of a drug cartel demanding extortion payments, a church spokesman confirmed Monday.

The calls were received November 20 and 21 as church leaders were holding a training seminar for priests in Mexico City, said Hugo Valdemar, spokesman for the archbishop of Mexico City, Cardinal Norberto Rivera.

Men identifying themselves as members of La Familia, a drug cartel based in the state of Michoacan, threatened to kill church leaders unless they were paid 60,000 pesos (about $4,500), Rivera said on Sunday.

Valdemar said the church reported the phone calls to authorities and made no payments.

"The order is not to hand over money for any reason," he said, adding that Rivera "made it clear that giving money would start a spiral that has no end."

He said the church declined an offer from Mexico City authorities for stepped up security at the meeting, and that the telephone calls stopped.

In recent weeks, church officials have acknowledged that they are struggling with a rise in violence in various parts of the country that has made their work more difficult.

Last month, the bishop of Aptazingan, in Michoacan, Miguel Patino, had to be put under guard because of the threat of an imminent attack, after he issued a statement accusing the state government and police of either being in collusion with or under the thumb of drug traffickers.

Two priests were murdered late last month at their residence in Veracruz, and another has been missing since November 3 in the violence-plagued northeastern state of Tamaulipas.