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Slain Chihuahua priest Javier Campos Morales of Chihuahua Slain Chihuahua priests Javier Campos Morales, seen here, and Joaquín César Mora Salazar dedicated their lives to serving the Tarahumara community.

Dispute over baseball game triggered murder of Jesuit priests

Slayings were last stop in 2-day crime spree by gang member affiliated with Sinaloa Cartel

Two elderly priests were murdered in Chihuahua Monday at the tail end of a one-man rampage precipitated by an argument after a baseball game, the state attorney general said Wednesday.

Roberto Javier Fierro Duarte told a press conference that José Noriel “El Chueco” Portillo Gil, a 30-year-old presumed member of a crime gang affiliated with the Sinaloa Cartel, arrived at an address in the town of Cerocahui on Monday to look for a man identified as Paul Berrelleza Rábago (Paul B.). 

The day before, the attorney general continued, a baseball team sponsored by El Chueco lost a match and was subsequently involved in an argument with the opposing team, which included Paul B. and his brother Armando Berrelleza Rábago (Armando B.).

“According to versions from several witnesses, El Chueco detonated a firearm against Paul B., abducted Armando B. and subsequently set the [men’s] home on fire,” Fierro said, referring to events on Monday.

Paul Osbaldo Berrelleza and Armando Berrelleza
Paul Osbaldo Berrelleza Rabago, left, and Armando Berrelleza Rabago, right, were on the baseball team that allegedly engaged in a dispute with El Chueco’s team.

Paul B. survived the attack and was also kidnapped. Neither he nor his brother have been located.

The attorney general said that hours after the attack and abduction, El Chueco went to a Cerocahui hotel where, according to witnesses, he spoke with and then abducted Pedro Palma, a tourist guide.

According to Fierro, Palma – who was apparently badly beaten by El Chueco – managed to escape and took refuge in a Cerocahui church, where he received assistance from the priests Joaquín César Mora Salazar and Javier Campos Morales.

Portillo is believed to have subsequently arrived at the church and killed Palma as well as Mora and Campos, both of whom were ordained in the early 1970s and had served communities in the Tarahumara region for decades.

Pedro Palma, victim of narco murder in Chihuahua
Pedro Palma, a tour guide in the area, was kidnapped after El Chueco spoke to him at a hotel. Ricardo Palma/Twitter

Fierro said that the victims were all shot and their bodies were removed from the church. El Chueco received help from his criminal associates to load the bodies into a pickup truck, according to another priest who was at the church but not targeted in the attack.

Fierro said that his office, via interviews, had established that El Chueco was responsible for the murders. As a result, the Chihuahua Attorney General’s Office is offering a 5-million-peso (US $250,000) reward for information leading to the capture of Portillo, who is also accused of murdering United States citizen Patrick Braxton-Andrew in 2018.

The attorney general noted that the bodies of all three victims had been found in Pito Real, a locality about 80 kilometers from Cerocahui, which is in the Sierra Tarahumara municipality of Urique.

Governor Maru Campos announced the discovery of the men’s bodies in a video message posted to social media on Wednesday. “Thanks to the extraordinary efforts of the state Attorney General’s Office … we’ve managed to locate and recover … the bodies of the Jesuit priests Javier Campos and Joaquín Mora and the tourist guide Pedro Palma,” she said.

Chihuahua State Attorney General Roberto Javier Fierro Duarte
Roberto Javier Fierro Duarte briefs reporters on the search for the alleged killer of all three men, Jose Noriel “El Chueco” Portillo.

The governor said that forensic experts had confirmed that the bodies belonged to the men killed in the Cerocahui church on Monday.

The murder of the priests led former president Felipe Calderón to ask whether Mexico had plunged to the ultimate depths of depravity. “Have we reached the bottom now?” the 2006-2012 National Action Party president pondered on Twitter before launching an attack on President López Obrador.

“Will this unprecedented event be forgotten in the coming days? Will the indifference of authorities or AMLO’s comical and sardonic smile prevail [even] when massacres occur?”

In a reference to the federal government’s non-confrontational “hugs, not bullets” security approach, Calderón – who as president launched a war on drug cartels that led to a sharp increase in homicides – wrote in another tweet that not confronting organized crime “implies leaving communities abandoned to their own devices, in the hands of criminals without the force of the state to protect them.”

Father Joaquin Cesar Mora Salazar of Chihuahua
Father Joaquín César Mora Salazar was known affectionately in his community as “Morita.” Social media

“In this context, the murder of the Jesuits occurred. He who commits a crime knows that a hug awaits him, not punishment,” he wrote.

López Obrador hit back at the ex-president – whose security minister Genaro García Luna is accused of taking bribes from the Sinaloa Cartel – at his regular news conference on Wednesday, accusing him of hypocrisy. “Even Felipe Calderón dares to blame us. It’s the height of cynicism and hypocrisy,” he said.

The president asserted that crime in the Sierra Tarahumara – where opium poppies and marijuana are grown – has been a problem for years. “Or did … [El Chueco] just begin his criminal career? No – and he was probably tolerated [by previous governments],” López Obrador said.

“The Jesuits know that well, and those who live in Urique, Chínipas, Creel and Batopilas know that well. They know how this whole [criminal] organization was created and the collusion [there was] with authorities,” he said.

With reports from Milenio, Reforma and El Universal 

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