A prison chaplain in northern Mexico accused soldiers and police of committing sacrilege as they tore apart his chapel during an early morning raid meant to uncover drugs and weapons.
Father Robert Coogan, an American priest based in Saltillo, Mexico, 190 miles southwest of the Texas border at Laredo, said soldiers and police burst into the Christ the Prisoner Chapel, "broke open the tabernacle and threw the hosts to the ground and walked on them."
"The prison has been searched before, but the soldiers or police never committed sacrilege," Father Coogan said in an email to Catholic News Service.
Bishop Raul Vera Lopez of Saltillo expressed his displeasure with the Jan. 24 raid and sacrilege, saying in a statement issued the same day, "No possible explanation exists that justifies what happened."
"We're deeply outraged by these acts because, in addition to attacking the faith of the majority of the Mexican people, they violate the rights of religious freedom," said the statement distributed by the Diocese of Saltillo.
Bishop Vera has promised to celebrate Mass Jan. 27 outside the prison for those wishing to protest the sacrilege.
For the past decade, Father Coogan has ministered to inmates in the Saltillo lockup, where conditions have deteriorated to the point that Los Zetas, the cartel of soldiers-turned-enforcers, wield authority over the prison population.
The National Human Rights Commission said last year in its most recent prison survey that "self-rule" was present in the facility. The warden was murdered in a hit outside of the prison in December.
Coahuila state officials told reporters the raid was carried out at the request of the administration of Gov. Ruben Moreira Valdez. The governor, along with his brother, former Gov. Humberto Moreira Valdez, have been at odds with Bishop Vera and the Diocese of Saltillo.
The diocese said the more than 450 soldiers and police found "150 grams" (5.25 ounces) of synthetic drugs, cans of beer, hard liquor and more than 100 knives, along with refrigerators, TVs, video game consoles, microwave ovens and approximately $400 in cash.
Father Coogan said prisoners always have had appliances, which are permitted and used to keep and prepare food brought by family members -- who, in Mexico, often end up feeding their imprisoned loved ones.
"The poor families who sacrifice to make the life of their imprisoned members a little easier are the most affected" by the raid, he said.