A Mexican bishop who served in conflict-torn areas abroad and survived an attack by drug traffickers in his own country hopes dialogue with criminals will pacify one of Mexico's most violent regions.
Jose de Jesus Gonzalez's diocese of Chilpancingo-Chilapa is located in the southwestern state of Guerrero, where gangs fight over drug production and trafficking as well as access to Pacific ports such as Acapulco.
The violence used to be even worse, said Gonzalez, who was appointed to the flashpoint region by Pope Francis after previous postings in the Holy Land, Sweden, Belgium and Mozambique.
"Now it's different," said Gonzalez, 57, who took up his new post last week and plans to continue his predecessor Bishop Salvador Rangel's dialogue with the "bad guys."
Rangel's controversial strategy involved regularly communicating with the drug traffickers, and asking them to stop killings, abductions and extortion.
"It was worth it. I saved a lot of people who were kidnapped. In Chilapa five years ago every day there were deaths, mutilation, extortion. That stopped," Rangel, 75, told AFP.
At one time residents were too afraid to go outside, said an ambulance driver living in the area who did not want to be named.
"Now thank God it's calmer. Things happen, but not like before," the 68-year-old said.
From a peak of 117 murders reported in Chilapa in 2017, the figure dropped to 14 in 2021, according to the government.
In Chilpancingo -- the capital of Guerrero -- the number fell from 159 to 50 over the same period.
"Chilapa thanks Bishop Salvador Rangel for bringing peace to our land," read a banner at events marking his retirement.
- 'Cured of horror' -
But the violence has not abated completely.
On March 31, six severed heads were found on the roof of a car abandoned on a street in Chilapa along with a message from suspected gang members warning their rivals not to deal drugs in the area.
The two bishops know that dealing with such ruthless criminals is dangerous.
But "we were already cured of horror," Rangel said, referring to their experience in conflict zones.
Gonzalez, who once dreamed of being a soldier, survived a brush with death closer to home when he was attacked by drug traffickers in May 2011 on a highway in western Mexico.
The attackers opened fire on his vehicle, mistaking the occupants for rival gang members.
Fortunately, they all escaped unharmed and the gang boss came to seek forgiveness.
Rangel, who took up his Mexico post in 2015 after years in the Holy Land, has staunchly defended dialogue with the cartels -- even after the assassination in February 2018 of two priests in Chilpancingo.
His work earned him criticism from regional authorities and threats from self-defense groups that accused him of siding with drug traffickers.
"The worst thing we could do is remain silent," said Rangel, a supporter of dialogue between the government and organized crime bosses.
In Guerrero, it is considered an open secret that the four cartels operating in the state have political links.
It was in Guerrero that 43 teaching students disappeared a decade ago -- allegedly murdered by drug traffickers colluding with corrupt police -- in a case that prompted international condemnation.
About 30 priests have been murdered in the last 10 years across Mexico, according to the NGO Centro Catolico Multimedial -- three of them in Guerrero.
Even so, Gonzalez believes dialogue must go on, citing the legend in which Saint Francis of Assisi tamed a wolf by feeding the beast to stop it from devouring people.
About 70 percent of Guerrero's 3.5 million inhabitants live in poverty, according to official data.
Criminals "are not there just because they like it. They're also in need," Gonzalez said, vowing to take the path of dialogue "as far as they let us go, because we walk through minefields."