Mexican government investigates cardinal for money laundering

Sunday, September 28, 2003

MEXICO CITY -- The Mexican government is squabbling with the Roman Catholic church over a money-laundering probe involving Cardinal Juan Sandoval of Guadalajara, one of a handful of clerics who oversee Vatican finances.

The affair has drawn in a wealthy friend of Fidel Castro, has renewed allegations of murder and cover-up and raised questions about the role and rights of the church in a changing nation.

It pits the church against prosecutors in the government of President Vincente Fox who, despite being divorced and remarried, is the most openly and devoutly Catholic head of state Mexico has had in 140 years.

On Sept. 11, the newspaper Reforma said the federal attorney general's office had subpoenaed bank records of the cardinal and several of his relatives and friends in a probe of possible money laundering. It published a photocopy of the request for the records, listing names. Prosecutors confirmed only that an investigation of the cardinal was under way.

Among those named were federal Congressman Fernando Guzman of Fox's National Action Party; Jose Maria Guardia, a horse- and dog-track owner friendly with the Cuban leader, as well as Sandoval, his late mother, and a deceased cardinal.

With no charges filed, Mexican law bars prosecutors from giving details of investigations. But the local press added a slew of leaked, anonymous hints and pure speculation about what might be involved.

Church activists and clergy were outraged, and the archdiocese's Web site has promoted a mass rally for the cardinal planned for today in Guadalajara. Its magazine, Semanario, has complained that the freezing of church accounts even blocked movement of donations to the Vatican.

A statement by the Mexican bishops' conference defended Sandoval's "integrity and honor." It suggested the aim was to undermine Sandoval's efforts to prove that an earlier cardinal, Juan Jesus Posadas Ocampo, was killed in 1993 to keep him from revealing ties between drug traffickers and the government. If proven, that could make Posadas eligible for sainthood as a martyr.

Repeated official investigations -- most recently by Fox's administration -- have rejected that theory.

Sandoval, 70, is one of only two cardinals in the most populous of Spanish-speaking Catholic nations. He also is a member of the office for Economic Affairs of the Holy See, which oversees Vatican finances, and some have raised his name as a possible pope.

Religious and secular

The investigation touches a deep and at times violent historical divide between religious and secular Mexicans that was thought to have ended with the election in 2000 of Fox, who was from the business-minded wing of a party that also has traditional ties to Catholic activists.

Even so, church leaders who had clearly welcomed Fox's arrival scolded him a year later when the divorced president remarried. Sandoval and others were even more irritated early this year when the attorney general's office said its renewed investigation confirmed that Posadas probably had been killed by accident in a shootout between drug gangs -- not murdered.

With the Sandoval investigation, the church has become the target of a "new style of persecution," Semanario charged. "No other religious denomination now is so persecuted in the world as the Catholic Church."

Fox himself was drawn into the uproar when he used a government helicopter to fly Sandoval to a birthday party for the president's mother on Sept. 21.

Sandoval told reporters the president had discussed the case with him, but Attorney General Rafael Macedo de la Concha insisted he was getting no interference from above.

The case also revived a 1997 scandal that began when several priests admitted taking donations from known drug traffickers -- a problem shared with other countries and churches.

Mexican newspapers said this month that officials were investigating reports that traffickers financed churches in drug-plagued Ciudad Juarez while Sandoval was bishop there -- allegations the cardinal has denied.

Milenio magazine last week ran photographs of Guardia, the racetrack operator, posing with Sandoval and with Castro, who had dined at Guardia's house during a visit to Mexico. The Vatican discourages gambling.

Guardia had claimed in earlier interviews that he helped bring religious figures together with Castro, who allowed a convent to open in Havana in March.

Roberto Blancarte, an expert on the Mexican church, and Luis Astorga, a historian of the drug trade, both say the case shows a demand for higher standards when it comes to sources of donations to the church.

"The old rules of the game ... are changing," Astorga said.

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