Federal court cites ‘The Lorax’ to blast US Forest Service for approving pipeline

A federal appeals court cited Dr. Seuss' The Lorax to slam the U.S. Forest Service for granting a private company a permit to build a natural gas pipeline across two national forests and the Appalachian Trail. The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, VA., said in a ruling on Thursday that the U.S. … Continue reading “Federal court cites ‘The Lorax’ to blast US Forest Service for approving pipeline”

A federal appeals court cited Dr. Seuss' The Lorax to slam the U.S. Forest Service for granting a private company a permit to build a natural gas pipeline across two national forests and the Appalachian Trail.

The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, VA., said in a ruling on Thursday that the U.S. Forest Service “abdicated its responsibility to preserve national forest resources” when it granted the permit for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline to Dominion Energy, the pipeline's lead developer, NPR reported.

“We trust the United States Forest Service to 'speak for the trees, for the trees have no tongues,’” the three-judge panel said in the ruling, quoting the classic story.

"We trust the United States Forest Service to ‘speak for the trees, for the trees have no tongues.’"

— The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals

The court decided that the Forest Service did not have the authority to grant the permits to build a pipeline that would originate in West Virginia and stretch across Virginia and North Carolina.

The pipeline plans caused uproar among environmental groups as parts of it would have to be built through the George Washington and Monongahela National Forests and across the Appalachian Trail, the NPR reported.

“This conclusion is particularly informed by the Forest Service's serious environmental concerns that were suddenly, and mysteriously, assuaged in time to meet a private pipeline company's deadlines,” the judges said.

"This conclusion is particularly informed by the Forest Service’s serious environmental concerns that were suddenly, and mysteriously, assuaged in time to meet a private pipeline company’s deadlines."

— The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals

“Construction would involve clearing trees and other vegetation from a 125-foot right of way (reduced to 75 feet in wetlands) through the national forests, digging a trench to bury the pipeline, and blasting and flattening ridgelines in mountainous terrains,” the ruling read, detailing the damage to the environment.

“Following construction, the project requires maintaining a 50-foot right of way (reduced to 30 feet in wetlands) through the [two national forests] for the life of the pipeline,” the judges added.

A hiker pauses on the Appalachian Trail in Maine. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty, File)

Several environmental groups brought the lawsuit against the private energy company. The Southern Environmental Law Center said that the Forest Service was initially skeptical towards the project, but later changed its mind after the Trump administration came into power.

“I think what happened here is for years the Forest Service was asking tough questions about this project and requesting additional information and it turned on a dime when the Trump administration came into power," Patrick Hunter, a lawyer for the environmental group, told West Virginia Public Broadcasting.

“The pipeline route that Dominion has chosen cannot be approved as of right now, and so if they want to keep working on this thing, they're going to have to go back to the drawing board,” Hunter added.

Dominion Energy said they will appeal the decision in a statement to NPR.

“If allowed to stand, this decision will severely harm consumers and do great damage to our economy and energy security,” said Aaron Ruby, a spokesman for Dominion Energy.

“Public utilities are depending on this infrastructure to meet the basic energy needs of millions of people and businesses in our region.”

Lukas Mikelionis is a reporter for FoxNews.com. Follow him on Twitter @LukasMikelionis.

Federal court blocks Trump administration birth control coverage rules

A divided federal appeals court blocked the Trump administration Thursday from enforcing a series of revised ObamaCare rules that would have enabled more employers to opt out of providing contraception coverage to workers over religious or moral objections.

The 2-1 ruling by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals found that a group of five states were likely to succeed in claiming that the changes to the Affordable Care Act were made without the required notice and period of public comment.

ObamaCare originally required most companies to cover birth control at no additional cost, though it included exemptions for religious organizations. The Trump administration's new policy allowed more categories of employers, including publicly traded companies, to opt out of providing free contraception to women by claiming religious objections. It also allowed any company that is not publicly traded to deny coverage on moral grounds.

California filed a lawsuit to block the changes and was joined by Delaware, Maryland, New York and Virginia. The state argued that the change could result in millions of California women losing free birth control services, leading to unintended pregnancies that would tax the state's health care and other social programs.

The panel's ruling barred enforcement of the rule changes in those states but also vacated part of a preliminary injunction issued last year by a California federal judge that barred the rules from being enforced nationwide.

KAVANAUGH CASTS DECIDING VOTE AS SUPREME COURT REJECTS REVIEW OF MEDICAID FUNDING FOR PLANNED PARENTHOOD

"The scope of the [preliminary] injunction is overbroad," Senior Judge J. Clifford Wallace wrote in the majority opinion.

The Department of Justice said in court documents that the revised rules were about protecting a small group of "sincere religious and moral objectors" from having to violate their beliefs. The department had no immediate comment on Thursday's ruling.

NAPOLITANO: THE CHIEF JUSTICE TAKES ON TRUMP

Trump has criticized the 9th Circuit after its judges have dealt him a series of legal setbacks on immigration and other White House policies.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Michael Cohen, former Trump attorney, gets 3 years in prison for tax fraud, campaign finance violations, lying

Michael Cohen, the president’s former fixer who once famously claimed he was willing to "take a bullet" for Donald Trump before later turning against his boss, was sentenced to three years in prison Wednesday by a federal judge in New York after pleading guilty to numerous crimes while cooperating with prosecutors.

Before sentencing, Cohen ripped into his former boss in federal court, telling the judge he felt it was his duty to cover up the president's “dirty deeds.”

Cohen appeared before U.S. District Judge William Pauley III for sentencing after pleading guilty to campaign finance violations, tax evasion and lying to Congress about Trump’s past business dealings in Russia. He was seen entering the Manhattan courthouse Wednesday accompanied by members of his family.

Cohen doesn't have to report to prison until March 6. He also was ordered to pay $1.4 million in restitution and a $50,000 fine, and forfeit $500,000.

Speaking in court before the judge issued the sentence, Cohen said “blind loyalty” to Trump led him “to take a path of darkness instead of light.”

But Rudy Giuliani, an attorney for Trump, argued in a phone interview with Fox News that Cohen wasn’t always loyal – citing Cohen’s secret recordings of Trump that were later leaked to the press. The Cohen case, he said, shows the Mueller probe has turned into a “witch hunt.”

“Tell me what this has to do with Russia collusion?” Giuliani said of Cohen’s admission of guilt.

In court, a contrite Cohen told the judge he takes “full responsibility for each act,” saying the “sooner I am sentenced, the sooner I can return to my family."

Cohen also apologized to the people of the United States, saying, "You deserve to know the truth."

Michael Cohen, President Donald Trump’s former personal attorney and fixer, arrives with his family at federal court for his sentencing hearing on December 12, 2018 in New York City. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

The sentence, while not the maximum, signifies a remarkable fall for the hard-charging lawyer who for years was part of Trump’s inner circle. The charges against Cohen arose from two separate investigations – one by federal prosecutors in New York, and the other by Special Counsel Robert Mueller.

Both cases hold potential implications for Trump. His admission in the former to breaking the law in making hush-money payments during the 2016 campaign to two women who claimed affairs with Trump has raised questions about whether prosecutors may eventually pursue charges against the president. Cohen said he did so at Trump's direction. Sentencing memos filed last week showed Cohen also told investigators about more Russia contacts that could fuel the collusion aspect of Mueller’s probe.

Lawyers for Cohen — who worked as Trump’s counselor before the presidential campaign, advocated for him on television during the presidential race and remained his personal lawyer at the beginning of the administration — had asked for leniency because of his cooperation with both the office of Special Counsel Mueller and prosecutors looking into campaign finance violations in New York.

But on Friday, federal prosecutors recommended a “substantial term of imprisonment” for Cohen, saying his efforts to cooperate with Mueller have been “overstated.” Federal prosecutors said that Cohen was “motivated” by “personal greed” and “repeatedly used his power and influence for deceptive ends.”

Among other charges, Cohen recently pleaded guilty to misleading Congress about his work on a proposal to build a Trump skyscraper in Moscow, hiding the fact that he continued to speak with Russians about the proposal well into the presidential campaign.

In the New York case, prosecutors accused Cohen of a years-long “tax evasion scheme” to avoid paying federal income taxes on more than $4 million made through a number of ventures, including through his ownership of taxi medallions, his selling of real estate in Florida and his consulting work for other clients.

Cohen also pleaded guilty in August to breaking campaign finance laws by helping orchestrate payments to silence former Playboy model Karen McDougal and adult film actress Stormy Daniels, who said they had sexual encounters with Trump while he was married.

READ: MICHAEL COHEN SENTENCING MEMO FILED BY PROSECUTORS

Prosecutors said Cohen orchestrated payments to McDougal and Daniels at Trump's direction.

A contrite Cohen, speaking in court, told the judge he takes “full responsibility for each act,” saying the “sooner I am sentenced, the sooner I can return to my family." (Photo by Eduardo Munoz Alvarez/Getty Images)

The U.S. Attorneys Office also announced Wednesday they have agreed not to prosecute American Media, Inc., which publishes the National Enquirer, for its role in paying $150,000 for the rights to McDougal’s story. By purchasing and then refusing to run the story, the company was doing Trump a favor to keep the story out of the news before the 2016 election, prosecutors said. The U.S. Attorneys Office said AMI has cooperated with prosecutors.

Trump has lashed out at Cohen over his cooperation with prosecutors, recently saying Cohen “lied” and deserves to “serve a full and complete sentence.”

A sentencing memo filed by prosecutors said Cohen “acted in coordination and at the direction of” Trump in making those payments.” But in a tweet this week, Trump denied the payments to Daniels and McDougal were campaign contributions, instead calling them a “simple private transaction.” Trump also said if mistakes were made, the “liability” should be with Cohen, his lawyer, and not him.

“Cohen just trying to get his sentence reduced,” the president tweeted Monday.

Cohen is the latest example of people connected to Trump who have pleaded guilty or been convicted of crimes since Trump has entered the White House, including former national security adviser Michael Flynn, former campaign chairman Paul Manafort, former campaign aide Rick Gates and former campaign adviser George Papadopoulos.

Fox News' Catherine Herridge, John Roberts, Lissa Kaplan, Tara Prindiville and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Alex Pappas is a politics reporter at FoxNews.com. Follow him on Twitter at @AlexPappas.

Manafort judge sets tentative hearing over allegations ex-Trump adviser violated plea deal

A federal judge in the case against former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort has set a tentative hearing date to hear arguments from both sides over whether Manafort breached his plea deal.

U.S. District Court Judge Amy Berman Jackson on Tuesday set a hearing for Jan. 25. Still, that hearing may or may not actually happen depending on possible agreements made between the prosecution and defense.

Manafort has not yet been sentenced.

Last Friday, Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s team wrote in a heavily redacted court filing that Manafort violated his plea agreement by making false statements to federal investigators, including about his contact with Trump administration officials as well as information pertinent to an undisclosed Justice Department investigation.

“The defendant breached his plea agreement in numerous ways by lying to the FBI and Special Counsel’s Office,” the filing said.

Video

During Tuesday’s hearing, Jackson asked prosecutors if they planned to submit actual evidence Manafort lied. Prosecutor Andrew Weismann replied that they plan on submitting the "factual underpinnings" of their allegations before the next hearing. Jackson gave prosecutors until Jan. 14 to submit the evidence.

Mueller’s team accuses Manafort of lying about five issues: Manafort’s contact with administration officials; information “pertinent to another Department of Justice investigation”; his interactions with Russian-Ukrainian political consultant Konstantin Kilimnik; his comments about Kilimnik’s alleged participation in a conspiracy to obstruct justice and a wire transfer to a firm working for Manafort.

MUELLER FILING: MANAFORT LIED ABOUT CONTACTS WITH TRUMP ADMINISTRATION OFFICIALS

Prosecutors said Manafort claimed after signing the plea agreement in September that he had no direct or indirect communications with anyone in the administration. Mueller’s team said the “evidence demonstrates that Manafort lied about his contacts.”

According to the filing, a Manafort colleague said the ex-campaign chairman had claimed to have been in communication with a “senior administration official” through February 2018. It also cited a May text exchange in which Manafort authorized someone to speak with an administration official.

Video

“A review of documents recovered from a search of Manafort’s electronic documents demonstrates additional contacts with administration officials,” it read.

The White House responded to the filing by distancing itself from Manafort.

MARK LEVIN: TIME FOR TRUTH IN CASE AGAINST PRESIDENT TRUMP

“The government’s filing in Mr. Manafort’s case says absolutely nothing about the president," White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders said. "It says even less about collusion and is devoted almost entirely to lobbying-related issues. Once again the media is trying to create a story where there isn’t one.”

Manafort, in September, pleaded guilty in federal court as part of a deal that involved cooperation with Mueller and allowed him to avoid a second trial. He had been facing seven counts of foreign-lobbying violations and witness tampering in federal court in Washington.

In August, Manafort was convicted on several bank and fraud charges in a separate Virginia federal case overseen by Judge T.S. Ellis III. A sentencing date of Feb. 8 has been set in that case.

Alex Pappas is a politics reporter at FoxNews.com. Follow him on Twitter at @AlexPappas.

Judge throws out most of lawsuit against Trump immigration move

SAN FRANCISCO – The Trump administration provided adequate justification for its decision to end a program that reunited hundreds of immigrants from Central America with family members in the U.S., a federal judge ruled Monday.

Magistrate Judge Laurel Beeler threw out the bulk of a lawsuit that argued the termination of the Obama-era Central American Minors program was arbitrary and violated the U.S. Constitution.

The program allowed parents legally in the U.S. to apply to bring children or other family members living in Honduras, Guatemala or El Salvador to the U.S.

One of the goals was to discourage children from making the dangerous journey from those countries to the U.S. to be with family.

Migrant caravan impacting businesses on southern border

Local officials say the migrant caravan is costing Tijuana businesses millions of dollars. Steve Harrigan reports from Mexico.

More than 1,300 people came to the U.S. under the program between 2014 and the end of 2016, according to figures cited in Beeler's decision.

When it ended the program in August 2017, the Trump administration revoked approval for roughly 2,700 additional immigrants who were set to travel to the U.S.

In her ruling, Beeler said the decision to revoke those approvals was arbitrary and capricious and required more analysis and explanation.

Linda Evarts, an attorney with the International Refugee Assistance Project who is representing plaintiffs, said she welcomed that part of the ruling and called the decision "an important first step."

Beeler in a separate order suggested the plaintiffs might be able to revise their lawsuit to address some of her concerns.

Several migrants breach US-Mexico border

New focus on border security as migrants breach the southern border; border patrol union president Brandon Judd weighs in.

The judge, however, found the administration had sufficient policy and legal arguments for its decision to end the Central American Minors program.

The Obama administration granted refugee or parole status to 99 percent of the people it interviewed for the program, giving them a greenlight to come to the U.S., according to State Department figures in Beeler's decision.

The Trump administration argued that immigration law called for a more sparing, case-by-case approach. It also said granting parole broadly created an incentive for illegal immigration and contributed to security problems along the U.S.-Mexico border.

Beeler said the administration rationally concluded that the program was not consistent with its immigration policy and its view of immigration law. She said she was not authorized to second-guess those conclusions.

She also rejected arguments that the decision to end the program violated due process and equal protection.

Dems have hard time connecting to voters because they know so much: Hirono

Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, on Tuesday told a conference that she heard one of the reasons that her party has a difficult time connecting with voters is because Democrats know so much, and have a tendency of appealing to voters' minds instead of their hearts.

Hirono made the comment at a conference in Washington, D.C. She was asked by the moderator about ways Democrats could drive voter turnout.

"I wish I had the answer to that because one of the things that we, Democrats, have a really hard time is connecting to people’s hearts instead of [their heads]," Hirono said. "We’re really good at shoving out all the information that touch people here [pointing to her head] but not here [pointing to her heart]."

Hirono, 71, said Democrats need to stop speaking in a way that comes off as manipulative or strokes fear and resentment.

“But we have a really hard time doing that and one of the reasons– it was told to me at one of our retreats– was that we Democrats know so much, that is true. And we have kind of have to tell everyone how smart we are and so we have a tendency to be very left brain," she continued.

The left-hand side of the brain is often associated with analytical thought.

Video

The first-term senator gained widespread notoriety as a leading Democratic voice for the women who accused against Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh of sexual misconduct. She urged men to "shut up and step up" when the Senate was confirming Kavanaugh to the court.

Court cites free speech in striking down part of federal law over statements on illegal immigration

A federal appeals court has tossed out parts of a law that would punish those who would knowingly encourage immigrants to come to, or remain, in the U.S. illegally.

A three-judge panel of the San Francisco-based 9th Circuit concluded the federal law unconstitutionally bans a range of protected speech.

The Justice Department prosecuted a San Jose woman who ran an immigration consulting firm, for allegedly helping arrange green cards for those working in the country illegally.

The judges concluded the law’s reach was overbroad.

“We do not think that any reasonable reading of the statute can exclude speech. To conclude otherwise, we would have to say that ‘encourage’ does not mean encourage, and that a person cannot ‘induce’ another with words. At the very least, it is clear that the statute potentially criminalizes the simple words – spoken to a son, a wife, a parent, a friend, a neighbor, a coworker, a student, a client – ‘I encourage you to stay here,'” the opinion said. “The statute thus criminalizes a substantial amount of constitutionally-protected expression. The burden on First Amendment rights is intolerable when compared to the statute’s legitimate sweep.”

The law would make it punishable if someone “encourages or induces an alien to come to, enter, or reside in the United States” if the encourager knew, or recklessly disregarded “the fact that such coming to, entry, or residence is or will be in violation of law.”

There was no immediate response to the decision from the Justice Department.

Appeals court dismisses suit over Capitol’s removal of student painting showing cops as pigs

A federal appeals court has dismissed a lawsuit over the removal of a controversial painting from a U.S. Capitol art competition in 2016 — a work that depicted police officers as pigs victimizing an African-American neighborhood.

David Pulphus, the high school student artist, and Rep. William Clay, D-Missouri, whose district sponsored the particular artwork,  had brought the suit, saying their First Amendment rights were violated when the painting was permanently removed from public view.

The controversy sparked an unusually bitter partisan fight over whether the painting should be publicly displayed, along with other works in the exhibition. Clay had rehung the painting after Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., removed it on his own initiative.

The annual Congressional Arts Competition has been held since 1982 and nearly 700,000 students have participated over the years. The architect of the U.S. Capitol eventually had Pulphus’ “Untitled #1” removed permanently.

In its ruling, the Washington-based federal appeals court said since the competition is over, “no other concrete, redressable injury is alleged that was caused by the architect’s removal decision," and so "we grant the architect’s motion to dismiss the appeal as moot.”

The unanimous three-judge panel said competition rules have been revised.

“It is clear that the controversy between Pulphus and the architect will never repeat itself. Pulphus has graduated from high school, so he is no longer eligible to enter the Congressional Art Competition. Although Congressman Clay continues to be eligible to participate as a member of Congress, the controversy will not reoccur between the exact same parties: although the suitability requirements for student submissions remain the same, the HOBC (House Office Building Commission) revised the rules for the 2017 Congressional Art Competition to make itself the final decisionmaker in suitability reviews requested by a member of Congress.”

16 Atlanta postal employees convicted of taking bribes to deliver cocaine

Sixteen postal workers in Atlanta have been sentenced to between three and nine years in prison after being convicted of accepting bribes as low as $250 to deliver cocaine on their mail routes, officials said Tuesday.

Federal agents learned of the deliveries in 2015 while investigating a drug trafficking ring in the city, the U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Georgia said in a news release. The mail employees were targeted by traffickers because they believed the workers were less likely to draw attention from law enforcement, the release said.

“Postal employees are paid to deliver mail, not drugs,” said Imari R. Niles, Special Agent in Charge, U.S. Postal Service Office of Inspector General, Capital Metro Area Field Office.  “The vast majority of the Postal Service’s 600,000 employees are hard-working, trustworthy individuals."

Agents used a confidential source to pose as a drug trafficker looking for postal workers willing to deliver cocaine and marijuana, and recorded the interactions. The workers chose to deliver cocaine instead of marijuana, believing they could charge a higher bribe to make the deliveries, the release said.

"When the confidential source asked if they knew any other postal workers who did the same thing, some of the defendants introduced the confidential source to coworkers who also wanted to deliver packages (with the defendant claiming an additional bribe for every package their recruit delivered), the release states.

The workers range in age from 26 to 64 and all must pay $1,450 to $10,500 in forfeiture or restitution.

Has Bible-carrying El Chapo really found God? Skeptics aren’t buying it

Accused Sinaloa Cartel drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman is apparently playing the God card and is exercising his Catholic faith during his trial - though not everyone is buying it.

According to an official source connected to the case, the drug kingpin has perhaps conveniently “found Jesus” in the almost two years since he was extradited from Mexico to the United States.

The source said Chapo requested a Spanish-language Bible when he was brought to the U.S., after informing authorities of his faith and filling out the appropriate legal paperwork with the U.S Marshals. He is said to carry the Bible everywhere – including every time he leaves his cell. And it apparently “sits in his suit pocket during court,” a source said.

“It is small like the size of an iPhone or wallet. It’s like a travel edition,” said the law enforcement source, who was not authorized to speak on the record. “I don’t think he’s reading any of it. He carries it like it’s a symbolic peacemaker. I haven’t seen him pray at all.”

Beyond his Bible, Guzman’s only reading material is in the form of legal paperwork. He is allowed absolutely no computer access, and up until the trial which began earlier this month, spend around 23 hours a day in solitary confinement.

“It seems like Chapo is trying to find religion as he sits in solitary confinement in prison,” said Derek Maltz, former Special Agent in Charge of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) Special Operations Division in New York.

Maltz and others have pointed out Guzman and his Sinaloa cartel were not particularly known to be as faith-driven as other rival cartels in Mexico. But in a region that is overwhelmingly Catholic, church-cartels relationships have a somewhat complicated history.

On the one hand, professing faith has been a popular tack with drug runners. A few years before being killed in 2014 shootout, Guzman’s competing drug gang chief – Nazario Moreno Gonzalez, who first headed the La Familia drug syndicate before leading the Knights Templar Cartel – self-published his own 104-page booklet “Thoughts.”

The faith-driven publication, brimming with crosses and images of Jesus, offered impassioned passage of “Christian living” advice – which included love and respect for others Cartel underlings were reportedly made to take up Bible study and pray the rosary – even if the next orders were to slaughter civilians or manufacture methamphetamine for the black market.

And while there is no evidence the Vatican in any way condoned or enabled suspicious dealings with the cartels, critics have accused the Catholic Church of speaking out harshly against the cartels in public, while quietly accepting “narco alms” – otherwise characterized as dirty money allegedly donated by cartel leaders to finance a variety of reconstruction and charity projects.

In 2009, a church in a poor neighborhood of the Mexican city of Pachuca unveiled a 65-foot-high metal cross. While celebrated by some, an accompanying plaque expressed gratitude to the since-killed top brass of the Zetas Cartel, Heriberto “The Executioner” Lazcano, as the sole benefactor for the project.

A tomb that was allegedly built by Heriberto Lazcano Lazcano, leader of the Zetas, stands at a cemetery in the neighborhood of Tezontle in Pachuca, Mexico, Tuesday, Oct. 9, 2012. The tomb is a small scale copy of a church in Tezontle, which at one point had a plaque naming Lazcano as the donor. (AP Photo/Alexandre Meneghini)

One U.S law enforcement official explained that devout cartel leaders have since taken to funneling money to the church through “middlemen” – leaving the church unaware of the real source of the donations.

“Religiosity is often employed in the service of deeper, more unconscious motivations. Some cartel members may speak in the name of religion in an effort to assuage a sense of personal guilt for their criminal actions,” explained New York clinical psychologist, Dr. Norman Fried. “Psychiatric events such as mania or hypomania are often correlated with strong religious statements. The connection to religion is often intense, unwavering and all-consuming. Then the religiosity wanes, and the individual seems less interested in God.”

CHAPO'S BEAUTY QUEEN WIFE LIVING LAVISHLY – AWAY FROM THE COURTROOM

MANIPULATION, FEAR, SNITCHES, AND A NEW CELL: BEHIND THE SCENES AS EL CHAPO GOES TO TRIAL

But concerns are also growing for the safety of church leaders in the face of intimidation and warnings by those very same cartels.

“Christian leaders are under threat from drug cartels in Mexico. Cartels target those who speak out against the scourge of drugs on their communities, which puts priests and pastors in their bullseye,” said David Curry, President and CEO of Open Doors USA, a Christian watchdog group.

Curry noted the Vatican has indeed recognized the violence of persecution of Christians in Mexico but insisted the Mexican government can still “do more to protect easy targets like churches and priests in communities where the cartels are working and threatening the clergy.”

In an official visit to Mexico in early 2016, Pope Francis – the first to hail from Latin America – encouraged Mexicans to thwart the lure of illicit drugs and cash. Yet despite an initial sense of hope, observers said, standing up to the violence remains very dangerous.

A statue of Pope John Paul II stands outside the Basilica of Guadalupe during heavy rain in Mexico City, Friday, July 5, 2013. (AP Photo/Ivan Pierre Aguirre) (AP2013)

Some religious leaders have been forced to take desperate measures for their survival. Catholic priest Gregorio “Father Goyo” Lopez has taken to wearing a bulletproof vest from his pulpit in the southwestern state of Michoacán, after repeated death threats.

“I saw how they were killing my friends, my brothers, my sheep, as the pastor I have an obligation for speaking out,” Lopez told TIME. “If a dog bites your children, and you do nothing, then you are worse than the dog.”

Last year, reports surfaced that Mexican cartels had taken up forcibly “taxing” churches in their areas. While the practice was deemed to be “very common,” most cases are believed to go unreported.

Jan. 16, 2014 – Apatzingan, MICHOACAN, MEX – Father Gregorio Lopez Geronimo models the bulletproof vest that he now uses when he celebrates Mass at the Cathedral in Apatzingan, a small city in Mexico’s Michoacan state, Jan. 16, 2014. (Credit Image: © Tim Johnson/TNS/ZUMAPRESS.com)

More than 30 church leaders have been slain in Mexico in the past decade, as documented by the Centro Catolico Multimedial – directly or indirectly caught in the crossfire. In 1993, the Church’s top official, Cardinal Juan Posadas Ocampo, was shot dead at the airport in Guadalajara, Mexico.

“The Roman Catholic Church has expressed concern that violence and corruption have diminished the number of parishioners in the past decades, although Mexican drug cartels have also been increasing their donations to various Mexican Catholic dioceses,” explained J.T. Patten, a former government intelligence operative. “In hearts and minds campaigns for the power to rule people, it is less about religion and more about who can control the message to the masses.”

Pope Francis receives a cross made by an inmate at the CeReSo n. 3 prison in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, Wednesday, Feb. 17, 2016. The pontiff is wrapping up his trip to Mexico on Wednesday with a visit in the prison, just days after a riot in another lockup killed 49 inmates, and a stop at the Texas border when immigration is a hot issue for the U.S. presidential campaign. (Gabriel Bouys/Pool photo via AP)

As for Chapo, he "always saw himself as some kind of Robin Hood,” observed one Mexican law enforcement source. “It is part of the branding.”

That might explain the presence of a six-inch figurine of Mexico's "narco-saint" Jesus Malverde, a popular figure with those in the drug trade, in the conference rooms for Guzman's defense team at the Brooklyn courthouse. The “generous bandit” hailed from Sinaloa in the 19th Century, and was said to have stolen from the rich to give to the poor.

"Most cartel leaders don't believe that what they are doing is wrong. Many can feel like they are just doing what they need to in order to feed their families or make a living; considering themselves ‘family men’,” added Kati Morton, a California-based licensed therapist. “In a way, they compartmentalize their life, and therefore still believe that religion and God are important and necessary. If they ever do feel guilty or like they have done wrong, if they ask God for forgiveness, they can let go of their guilt and be okay.”

The Vatican and Guzman’s lawyers did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

In this Jan. 8, 2016 file photo, a handcuffed Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman is made to face the press as he is escorted to a helicopter by Mexican soldiers and marines at a federal hangar in Mexico City. (AP Photo/Eduardo Verdugo)

But for many U.S. law enforcement professionals, such proclamations of faith when facing the fate of the judicial system is a tried and true hat trick pulled by everyone from mobsters to gangsters to serial killers to drug lords.

“I wouldn't know what's in anyone's heart – only they and God know that. But I highly doubt that the likes of Chapo and any money they gave to the Church was not achieved by killing a few hundred people and running drugs,” added Craig Caine, retired Inspector United States Marshal's Service, Eastern District of New York and the New York and New Jersey Regional Fugitive Task Force.

“In other words, they are full of sh*t. This is part of the business. That’s it.”

Hollie McKay has a been a Fox News Digital staff reporter since 2007. She has extensively reported from war zones including Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Burma and investigates global conflicts, war crimes and terrorism around the world. Follow her on twitter and Instagram @holliesmckay