Two schools were destroyed in the western Mexican town of Turicato by a radical religious sect that threatens to "destroy coexistence," Mayor Salvador Barrera said.
According to the top local authority, the New Jerusalem community, which settled some 35 years ago in the Turicato municipality of Michoacan state believing it to be hallowed ground, is mostly made up of people from other states with a "low educational profile."
The "dissident Catholic sect" seeks to save "traditional religious life" by having Mass said in Latin, singing night and day, and being governed by rules that they themselves created and are enforced by so-called "celestial police" who have no legal authorization to do so, and who at times "violate" constitutional rights, Barrera said.
"It's impossible to walk around freely, there are patrols that prevent it. People are detained - not long ago they locked up a man and his girlfriend who had committed no infraction and fined them," he said.
A total of some 2,500 people live in New Jerusalem, but over the past six years some 40 percent of the flock decided to shed traditionalist customs, which, according to the mayor, has created conflicts within the community.
The latest result was the demolition last week of six classrooms, six bathrooms and all the furnishings of two schools, after which the buildings were burned down.
The destruction left the community without any educational centers - one had been a kindergarten and the other a primary school - since they had been considered, according to Barrera, "schools of the devil."
"The idea is ridiculous. To me it's perfectly clear that educational institutions form minds that are analytical, critical and with hopes of a better life," so leaders of the sect "see themselves losing any chance of controlling the inhabitants of New Jerusalem the way they want to if the people become educated," he said.
Heading this religious group, which exacts from its followers one salary a week and venerates Our Lady of the Rosary, is an elder who calls himself "Bishop Martin of Tours," and who replaced the sect's founder, "Pope Nabor," as its spiritual leader five years ago.
Barrera estimates at some 400 million pesos ($29 million) the material losses incurred by the destruction of the schools, which had been attended by approximately 200 students, but says that may not be the worst of the matter since the really big problem will happen if immediate action is not taken.
"The greatest loss would be an outbreak of violence and people being killed if the matter isn't dealt with," the mayor said.
He said that as soon as the incident occurred his office "desperately" called on the Michoacan state police but they didn't show up until 1 1/2 hours later when the damage was already done.
Barrera arranged a meeting Thursday with Gov. Fausto Vallejo and they agreed to join forces to "establish a legal foundation for the community."
He said that state government support will mean "patrols 24 hours a day" to isolate the "celestial corps," as New Jerusalem followers call their community police, and that Michoacan state will take charge of security in the area.
The problems are nothing new, since, according to the mayor, in 1999 several members of the sect were expelled for refusing to obey internal regulations ordering women and young girls to be handed over for the sexual satisfaction of their spiritual leader.
"This administration has done everything to avoid bloodshed. But now the intervention of the state government of Michoacan cannot be delayed if this problem is to be solved in the short term," Barrera said.