Long before many roads were paved in Mexico’s remote Tarahumara Mountains, Jesuit priest Javier Campos roamed the region on a motorbike. For five decades serving his impoverished communities, his familiar impersonation of a rooster and love of crowing earned him the nickname “Gallo”.
His colleague Joaquín Mora was often at his side over the past 20 years, during which drug cartels have tightened their grip on the region, filling the mountains with opium poppy and marijuana. Together they brought moral authority to balance the outsized influence of drug traffickers, fellow priests said.
The two priests, aged 79 and 80 respectively, were shot dead in the small church in the town square of Cerocahui on Monday, along with a tour guide they tried to protect from a local criminal boss. The killer, whom President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said on Wednesday had been identified, took away their bodies.
Chihuahua Governor Maria Eugenia Campos announced later Wednesday that the three bodies had been found without providing details.
“They were respected. Their word was taken into account,” said Jorge Atilano, another Jesuit priest, during a mass on Tuesday evening in Mexico City.
But the priests had noted changes that made it increasingly difficult to navigate the ever-expanding criminal underworld.
Reverend Pedro Humberto Arriaga, a Jesuit superior at a mission in southern Mexico and a friend of Campos since their student days, said that during their last conversation in May, Campos told him about “the gravity of the situation, the how the drug gangs had advanced in the area, how they were taking over the communities. Things were spiraling out of control with more and more armed criminals moving throughout the region, he said.
Arriaga was unaware of the threats against either priest, but everyone was aware of the risks – there and across the country.
The church’s Catholic Multimedia Center said seven priests, including Campos and Mora, have been murdered under the current administration, which took office in December 2018, and at least two dozen under the former president, who took office. took office in 2012.
The mountains have been the scene of other recent killings of indigenous leaders, environmentalists, human rights defenders and a journalist who covered the area.
Mexico’s consistently high murder rate has been a problem for López Obrador, who entered office making it clear he had no interest in continuing the war on drugs waged by his predecessors, whom he blamed for the drug war. increase in violence. His government succeeded in slowing the rise in murders, but not in reducing them.
Even without prosecuting the cartel leaders and instead focusing on the country’s social ills, the killings continued.
Barely halfway through López Obrador’s six-year term, the number of homicides – nearly 124,000 – has surpassed that of former President Felipe Calderon’s presidency, which has accelerated the frontal conflict with the cartels.
There had been talk of removing Campos and Mora from the area for their safety and because of their age, but they refused. “They died as they lived, defending their ideals,” said Enrique Hernández, a friend of the two men, during a mass in the capital of the state of Chihuahua.
Both men have been integrated into their communities of indigenous Tarahumara, who prefer the Raramuri name, doing social work, championing local culture and advocating for basic services, including education.
Arriaga recalled Campos’ love for basketball and his passion for singing, but said it was his willingness to immerse himself in the local culture that set him apart. Campos spoke two Raramuri dialects and participated in their dances and rituals.
Jesuits are known for their missionary work in colonial-era Latin America, particularly among indigenous peoples, Andrew Chestnut, a professor of religious studies at Virginia Commonwealth University, said in an email.
“In fact, they were expelled from Brazil and Spanish America during the second half of the 18th century for being accused of depriving the colonists of native labor by concentrating them on their missions,” said Chestnut.
Over the past half century, Jesuits have been known as defenders of human rights and promoters of social justice. “The two are the latest casualties in a country that has become one of the most dangerous in the world for Catholic clergy, primarily due to rampant drug violence,” he said.
During Mass in Mexico City on Tuesday evening, Luis Gerardo Moro, Mexico’s top Jesuit, said the killings marked “a breaking point and a point of no return in the path and mission of the Society (of Jesus) in Mexico”. He said the priests of the order will continue to speak out against the neglect and violence that persists in the region and will not remain silent in the face of injustice.
López Obrador lamented the killings on Wednesday and said authorities were looking for a man who had an outstanding warrant from 2018 for the alleged murder of an American tourist.
On Wednesday, authorities released a wanted poster for the accused killer, José Noriel Portillo Gil, aka “El Chueco” or “The Crooked One.” They offered a reward of around $250,000 for information leading to his arrest.
Portillo Gil has also been charged with the 2018 murder of Patrick Braxton-Andrew, a 34-year-old Spanish teacher from North Carolina who was traveling in the Tarahumara Mountains. Portillo Gil’s gang apparently suspected Braxton-Andrew of being an American drug operative and killed him. Despite the crime, the area’s natural beauty continues to attract tourists.
On Tuesday, Javier Ávila, another Jesuit priest who has worked in the area since the 1970s, told local radio that the two priests knew their killer because he was a local crime boss. He said the man was “crazy, drunk” and had threatened locals to shut up.
The man “told them, ‘If you talk and there’s movement, I’ll come get you all and kill you all,'” Ávila said.
Authorities were also looking for three other people abducted Monday in the town of about 1,100 people.
Pope Francis, himself a Jesuit, said via Twitter: “How many murders in Mexico! Violence does not solve problems, but only increases unnecessary suffering.
Ávila said there was impunity for crimes in the Tarahumara Mountains and throughout Mexico. It is increasingly brazen and fueled by “the incompetence of authorities at all levels”, he said. “We’re fed up.”
Associated Press writer Christopher Sherman in Mexico City contributed to this report.