A chapel where Roman Catholic priests celebrate Mass every Sunday bears a plaque thanking the donor who built it — the leader of one of Mexico's most violent drug cartels.
The revelation has the church distancing itself from the property in central Mexico, while admitting it knows of other donations from drug traffickers.
"We know that the narcos ... look for a way to redeem themselves in religious terms, by doing some good work. Obviously, sins cannot be washed away by a donation or a collection," said the Rev. Hugo Valdemar, spokesman for the Archdiocese of Mexico, the country's largest.
"We have examples of five or six cases of projects, generally in rural communities, where they don't just build churches, they build roads and bridges and clinics," he said.
On a wall of the brightly painted chapel in the village of Tezontle, a plaque says it was donated by the leader of the violent Zetas cartel.
"Donated by Heriberto Lazcano Lazcano, Lord, hear my prayer," reads the bronze-colored marker, which says the chapel was built in honor of Pope John Paul II.
Lazcano, who is wanted in both Mexico and the U.S., has more than $7 million in reward money on his head.
The Rev. Juan Aguilar, spokesman for the Tulancingo archdiocese, where the chapel is located, said it was built last year as a community project and the money did not go through the church, which was unaware of who funded it.
"We did not know the name, we did not know who it referred to," Aguilar said, even though Lazcano — also known as "El Lazca" — has appeared on wanted posters and in countless news stories.
The 35-year-old drug lord was born in a poor farming town about 30 miles from Tezontle, an area now dotted with opulent homes, at least one of which belongs to a relative of Lazcano, residents say.
Lazcano deserted the army special forces in the late 1990s to join the enforcers for the Zetas cartel, which takes its name from a police radio code in which "Z'' means "commander." He is now considered its leader.
The gang's break with a former ally has ramped up the violence this year in parts of Mexico, where the Zetas have been blamed for slaughtering police, elected officials, migrants and the family of a fallen marine in retaliation for his involvement in bringing down a drug lord.
The federal Attorney General's Office is investigating the funding of the Tezontle chapel for possible criminal charges, including money laundering or "use of illicit funds."
The Rev. Humberto Franco Carrasco, whose parish includes the chapel, said he doesn't know Lazcano and has never seen anyone who looked like a drug lord in the chapel.
"They are all simple people ... farming people from the communal farms," he said.
The church has distanced itself from the chapel, ordering Franco Carrasco's predecessor, who was parish priest when it was built, into semi-retirement, according to Valdemar.
He said the archdiocese supports prosecuting priests who take drug money.
"If there is evidence, we would be totally in agreement with applying the law to a priest," Valdemar said. "This would do the church good, by freeing us from a priest who might have fallen into this kind of ties or links."
After a photograph of the plaque appeared in a Mexican newspaper, the Archdiocese of Mexico published an editorial on its website Sunday stressing that it prohibits donations from drug lords.
"To the shame of some Catholic communities, there are suspicions that donors connected to drug trafficking have helped with money from the dirtiest and bloodiest business, in the construction of some chapels," it said. "This is immoral and doubly offensive, and nothing justifies it."
Valdemar said "under no circumstances" are priests allowed to accept drug money.
"Here we cannot accept the saying that the end justifies the means," he said. "No, because behind that good work ... there is extortion, there is the blood of all the people who die in this battle."
More than 28,000 Mexicans have been killed in drug-related violence since President Felipe Calderon launched a national assault on organized crime in late 2006.
The Rev. Manuel Corral, spokesman for the Mexican Bishops Council, said that priests have not benefited widely from drug traffickers' largesse, and some have been victims of extortion, including being forced to hand over collection plates.
Valdemar said the diocese will decide whether to continue using the chapel, depending on the results of the federal investigation — a position that dismays Franco Carrasco.
"It was donated by the people, and it provides the services they need," the priest said.
That's a sentiment shared by many of Mexico's faithful.
Connie Rivas, who was attending Mass at Mexico City's Basilica de Guadalupe, said she saw nothing wrong with donations of drug money if they are used to build churches.
"The money can come from wherever ... In fact, let more of it come," she said.