Two elderly Jesuit priests were killed in a church in southwestern Chihuahua Monday, a crime that the state governor said “shook us to the very core.”
Joaquín César Mora Salazar, 80, and Javier Campos Morales, 79, were shot dead in a church in Cerocahui, a town in the Sierra Tarahumara municipality of Urique, part of a region where opium poppies and marijuana are grown. The life of a third priest at the church was inexplicably spared.
The victims were killed apparently after a man attempting to escape a drug gang took shelter in the church. The gang caught up with the man and killed him and Mora and Campos, both of whom were ordained in the early 1970s and had served communities in the Tarahumara region for decades.
José Noriel Portillo Gil, a presumed member of Los Salazar gang – an affiliate of the Sinaloa Cartel – has been identified as the person responsible for the murders. Portillo, known as “El Chueco,” is also accused of the 2018 murder of United States citizen Patrick Braxton-Andrew.
Javier Ávila, another Jesuit priest who has worked in the Tarahumara region since the ’70s, said that one of the slain priests knew Portillo and approached him to try to calm him down after his colleague was killed. “He killed him too,” Ávila said in a radio interview.
The priest said he had heard that the aggressor was drunk and drugged when he committed the crime. The third priest in the church apparently asked Portillo to leave the bodies of Mora and Campos, but he ignored the request and loaded them into a pickup truck with the help of other presumed members of Los Salazar.
The Mexico branch of the Society of Jesus acknowledged that the bodies of the two priests were removed from the church by armed men. “We demand justice and the recovery of the bodies of our brothers,” Jesuitas México (JM) said in a statement.
“… Events like this are not isolated. The Tarahumara Sierra, like many other regions of the country, faces conditions of violence. … The lives of men and women are arbitrarily taken away every day like our brothers were murdered today,” JM said.
Chihuahua Governor Maru Campos said Tuesday that the investigation into the murders was advancing and pledged to hold those responsible to account. The murders of the priests caused “deep anger, indignation and pain” and “shook us to the very core,” she said
Security forces have been deployed to the region to protect citizens from violence, the National Action Party governor told a press conference.
“We’re not going to allow acts like this,” Campos declared. “To the Jesuits and all Chihuahua residents I say: you have the state government and the federal government [to protect you]. You have the force of the state that will protect you against those who disrupt our peace and take away the most precious thing we have, which is life.”
Both slain priests grew up in Monterrey, Nuevo León, where a Mass was held in their honor Tuesday. “We ask for the violence and impunity in our country, the indifference of authorities and even our own indifference, to stop,” said Óscar Lomelín, the priest who offered the Mass. He described the two priests as martyrs who died while carrying out their religious duties.
President López Obrador on Tuesday pledged that a thorough investigation into the murders will be carried out and noted that the region where they occurred has “a significant organized crime presence.”
Seven priests, including the two most recent victims, have been murdered since López Obrador took office in December 2018, according to Mexico’s Roman Catholic Multimedia Center. At least two dozen were killed during the 2012–18 term of the government led by former president Enrique Peña Nieto.
Adrian LeBaron, an anti-violence activist who lost nine members of his extended family in an armed attack near the Sonora-Chihuahua border in November 2019, also said that the Sierra Tarahumara is overtaken by organized crime.
“The Jesuits are almost the only people who dare to enter the sierra [region] because they’re brave, dedicated people,” he said in an interview.