Photo via La Gaceta

Father Juan Viroche, a priest from Tucumán province who was known for criticizing drug trafficking, was found dead as a result of a hanging in the parish of La Florida, located 70 kilometers away from the provincial capital San Miguel de Tucumán. Viroche was allegedly set on leaving the area due to multiple death threats and the autopsy revealed the hanging was a suicide.

The priest was found in a room generally used by the parish choir.

Initially there was a lot of talk that the hanging could have been a murder because several pews at the church had been knocked over and a figure of Christ had been completely destroyed. Plus, there was blood on the floor. But the doors had not been forced open and a bag with jewelry and money had been left behind, ruling out a robbery.

“The place where he died showed no signs of violence. The door was locked and blocked from the inside with a piece of furniture. The other points of entry were closed from the inside,” Diego López Ávila, the prosecutor in charge of investigating the case. The body also apparently didn’t have any signs that it had been on the receiving end of any physical violence.

Viroche had been continually harassed over the past year, allegedly as a direct result of his activism against drug trafficking, with incidents including robbery in the parish and death threats. He had repeatedly asked to be transferred in the past. The local residents of La Florida, with a population of 8,000, were reportedly shocked at the news of Viroche’s death and congregated outside the church.

Before the preliminary autopsy report was released, Tucuman’s attorney general, Gustavo Gómez, told cable news channel TN that he ruled out suicide because “the priest’s personality did not coincide with something like that. He’s a man who fought for life and was committed to life.” He also stated that Viroche had in fact suffered violent contusions to his ribs prior to being hanged: if that is the case, there is always the possibility of an induced suicide. But more information is needed before that can be determined.

Viroche had led several marches protesting against drug trafficking and crime in different cities across the province: he continually denounced how gangs “corrupted” young people from low income families and dragged them into illegal activity.

“I don’t know what could be in the heart of a person who is poisoning a friend’s or a neighbor’s child. We know the consequences that brings and we’re talking to kids from the age of 13. It’s terrible to dominate someone like that and take away their freedom,” said Viroche last year.

In November 2015, Viroche held an open air mass in the rural commune of Delfín Gallo and directly tackled the issue, asking for “a town with no drugs or robberies”: this was allegedly a recurring theme in all of his sermons. In June, he accompanied rural communal workers to present charges. He also left a message on Facebook last month reiterating his stance:

The curia, for its part, said in a press release that “We hope that the incident is cleared up soon and we trust in the judicial system.”

Gómez condemned the alleged collusion between drug traffickers, the police force, the judicial system and politicians in Tucumán: “Of 400 cases related to drugs, less than 10 percent make it to trial.”

Prior to the autopsy, concerns had been raised after the case showed contextual similarities to the high number of priests that have been murdered in Mexico, with 31 killed since 2006 and three found dead in one week this year.