Catholic Priest Accused of Murdering Student He Led Funeral Services for

A priest in Mexico City is suspected of murdering a student he then conducted the funeral service for.

Francisco Javier Bautista, parish priest at Cristo Salvador Church in Tlalpan, was arrested Wednesday, according to the official Mexican news agency Notimex. Bautista is implicated in the murder of Hugo Leonardo Avendaño, a church deacon who was killed last week.

Avendaño, 29, was last seen on June 11 leaving his house in Iztapalapa to meet Bautista at Cristo Salvador. The two reportedly left together but Avendaño was never heard from again. On July 13, his body was found near the church in his pickup truck, exhibiting signs of torture and strangulation.

Police believe he was killed within a few hours of his disappearance.

After interviewing Bautista, police noticed inconsistencies in his testimony, Mexico News Daily reports. Reviewing his cell phone records, they discovered the priest had met with the victim the night Avendaño went missing.

Notimex reports Bautista had officiated the religious services at Avendaño's funeral. "We are sad, but at the same time, we have faith, and it gives us strength to know that he is with God," he reportedly said at the service.

Avendaño recently completed his Master's degree in psychoanalysis and planned to return to the seminary.

Detienen a sacerdote ligado al homicidio de Leonardo AvendañoEl 13 de junio, el estudiante Hugo Leonardo Avendaño fue encontrado muerto dentro de su vehículo en la alcaldía de Tlalpan.

Posted by Alicia Salgado on Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Before Bautista's arrest, the Mexican Bishops' Conference (CEM) condemned the murders of Avendaño and another student, 22-year-old Norberto Ronquillo, who was kidnapped and killed earlier this month. In a statement, the CEM called on Catholics "not to be indifferent to the pain of others and to continue building peace."

Violent crime is still a major issue in Mexico—much of it driven by cartels funded by drug trafficking, extortion and, often, kidnapping. Just last year, 43 students were abducted and massacred in Ayotzinapa and three students were kidnapped by a group pretending to be police officers. Ronquillo, who was taken on June 4, was murdered even though his family paid his abductors' ransom.

Prosecutors do not believe Avendaño's death was a kidnapping gone awry, however.

Bautista, who is frequently interviewed in the media, has led the Cristo Salvador parish for 15 years. According to the BBC, he has conducted exorcisms and blames the cult of Santa Muerte for violent crime in Mexico. Security camera footage showed him driving toward the airport before being arrested on June 19. Authorities believe he intended to flee the country.

More than 6,000 people have signed an online petition to Mexico City Mayor Claudia Sheinbaum, expressing support for Bautista. On Friday, supporters protested outside the Attorney General's office, demanding his release.

Avendaño's brother, Josué, rejects rumors that he was accidentally killed death during sex play.

"My brother was tortured, [his injuries] weren't from a game or anything like that," he told El Universal. "It was something that was planned in advance, my brother was tortured and then after that, the cause [of death] was asphyxiation."

Josué claims Bautista called him after his brother went missing, and sounded like a "worried person" when they spoke.

"At the moment I suspect everyone," he added. "Who could it be? I don't have the authority to say yes [it was Bautista]... I'll leave that to justice."

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