PASO BLANCO, Mexico (AP) — Mourners packed a church Wednesday for a funeral Mass in memory of a Roman Catholic priest who was murdered along with another cleric in the troubled Gulf coast state of Veracruz.
Parishioners filled all the standing room inside the church in the community of Paso Blanco while others outside listened through the windows, huddling under the eaves as a steady rain fell.
A large banner on the front of the church bore a photo of the young Rev. Jose Alfredo Suarez de la Cruz, who was ordained only a few years ago and arrived at his post in the city of Poza Rica just a month before he was murdered.
"You are a priest for always," the banner read.
Suarez and Rev. Alejo Nabor Jimenez were last seen Sunday in Poza Rica, and their bullet-ridden bodies were discovered the following day on a roadside miles away. One had been shot nine times.
State prosecutors say they believe the clerics knew their attackers and had been drinking with them before the get-together "turned violent."
But some parishioners are skeptical of that theory and say organized crime has plagued Poza Rica with killings and disappearances.
"Unfortunately, Poza Rica is a very severe place in (terms of) security," a priest said during Wednesday's service, calling on authorities to ensure justice in the killings.
Suarez's casket was on display during the Mass. People broke open the floor of the church to construct the vault that will be his final resting place.
Pope Francis sent a letter of condolences calling the slain clerics "victims of inexcusable violence." The letter was signed by Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican secretary of state, and posted online by the Mexican Conference of Bishops.
"Yet again we confirm that violence and insecurity have taken root in our society," Bishop Jose Trinidad Zapata Ortiz of the city of Papantla, near Poza Rica, said in a statement released by the Conference. "We hope that authorities clear up the crime and that such a regrettable loss of our brothers serves for the arrival of the peace we all desire so much."
The Catholic Media Center says 28 priests have been killed in Mexico since 2006, not counting this week's slayings. It says Veracruz, Guerrero and Mexico state are the most dangerous in the country.
The U.S. State Department wrote in its 2015 International Religious Freedom report that priests in Mexico are "victims of extortion attempts, death threats, and intimidation by organized criminal groups."
Associated Press writer Peter Orsi in Mexico City contributed to this report.