(Photo: The Christian Post/Brendan Giusti)
The drug-related violence that has plagued Mexico since 2006 has claimed another victim – this time a pastor.
Church of God pastor Neftali Leiva was allegedly gunned down south of the Mexican border by drug traffickers associated with the Zetas, one of Mexico's most notorious drug cartels. It remains unclear what prompted the killing.
Leiva was shot as he was en route to a meeting with other ministers in an area of Guatemala near the Mexican border, according to an account by Bishop Jose Clara Vela.
An eye witness account alleges a man directly walked up to the pastor and shot him at point-blank range. The witness, an elderly pastor, was standing down the block. The shooter fired several shots at him before fleeing. The elderly pastor was unharmed.
While a pastor becoming a victim of drug-related violence is rare, the dangers along the 30-mile border are widespread.
"When we travel in the area, we go with the car windows down so people will see who we are and not confuse us with their enemies," Vela said.
The area is rich, both in number of churches and number of drug traffickers, according to reports. There are 73 Church of God congregations along the border, up from roughly 50 just two years ago.
Drug-related violence has surged in recent years in Mexico, particularly in areas along international borders.
Typically the violence strikes directly at those involved in the drug trade and often innocent bystanders that witness events, report activity to law enforcement, or happen to be caught in the crossfire.
Killing clergy as a direct result of the drug trade is rare. Though, cartels have recently begun targeting historically neutral groups, such as journalists.
More than 80 journalists have been killed in Mexico since 2000, largely for their role in reporting on drug-related and cartel stories, according to Reporters Without Borders, an international press freedom organization.
Recently, however, the cartels are being blamed for the violent deaths of several bloggers, who wrote about the violence on social media sites like Twitter.
Several bloggers were found in November in the border city of Nuevo Laredo – beheaded, with a note attached to the corpse.
"This happened to me for not understanding that I shouldn't report on the social networks," one note read.
Mexico ranks among the worst nations in the world for press safety and freedom, according to Reporters Without Borders.
The drug-related violence is responsible for more than 40,000 deaths since 2006 when Mexican President Felipe Calderón unofficially declared war on the drug gangs.
It still remains unclear if Leiva's murder is an isolated incident or the beginning of increased violence directed at members of the clergy.