MEXICO CITY – Well before many roads were paved in Mexico’s remote Tarahumara mountains, Jesuit priest Javier Campos crisscrossed the area on a motorcycle. During five decades ministering to its impoverished communities, his familiar imitation of a rooster and love of singing earned him the nickname “Gallo.”
His colleague Joaquín Mora was often at his side during the past 20 of those years, during which drug cartels tightened their grip on the region, filling the mountains with opium poppy and marijuana. Together they brought a moral authority to balance the outsized influence of drug traffickers, their fellow priests said.
The two priests, age 79 and 80, respectively, were shot to death in the small church on Cerocahui’s town square Monday, along with a tourist guide they tried to protect from a local criminal boss. The killer, who President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said Wednesday had been identified, took their bodies.
Chihuahua Gov. Maria Eugenia Campos announced later Wednesday that all three bodies had been recovered without providing details.
“They were respected. Their word was taken into account,” said Jorge Atilano, another Jesuit priest, during a Mass Tuesday night in Mexico City.
But the priests had noted changes that made it increasingly difficult to navigate the ever-expanding criminal world.
The Rev. Pedro Humberto Arriaga, a Jesuit superior at a mission in southern Mexico and friend of Campos since their student days, said that when they last spoke in May, Campos told him of “the seriousness of the situation, of how the drug gangs had advanced in the region, how they were taking control of the communities.” Things were spinning out of control with more and more armed criminals moving throughout the area, he said.
Arriaga was not aware of threats against either priest, but everyone was conscious of the risks — there and across the country.
The church’s Catholic Multimedia Center said seven priests, including Campos and Mora, have been murdered during the current administration, which took office in December 2018, and at least two dozen under the former president, who 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 persistently high murder rate has been a problem for López Obrador, who entered office making clear he had no interest in pursuing the drug war waged by his predecessors, which he blamed for the increased violence. His government has managed to slow the rise in killings, but not reduce them.
Even without pursuing cartel leaders and instead focusing on the country’s social ills, the killings have continued.
Barely halfway into López Obrador’s six-year term, the number of homicides — nearly 124,000 — has surpassed those during the presidency of former President Felipe Calderon, who accelerated the head-on conflict with the cartels.
There had been talk of pulling Campos and Mora out of the area for their safety and due to their age, but they refused. “They died as they lived, defending their ideals,” said Enrique Hernández, a friend of both men, during a Mass in Chihuahua’s state capital.
Both men were integrated into their communities of Indigenous Tarahumara, who prefer the name Raramuri, performing social work, defending the local culture and advocating for basic services, including education.
Arriaga recalled Campos' love of basketball and 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.
The Jesuits have been known for their mission work in Latin America dating to colonial times, especially among Indigenous peoples, Andrew Chesnut, a professor of religious studies at Virginia Commonwealth University, said in an email.
“In fact, they were expelled from both Brazil and Spanish America during the second half of the 18th century for being accused of depriving colonists of Indigenous labor by concentrating them at their missions,” Chesnut said.
During the past half-century, the Jesuits have been known as defenders of human rights and promoters of social justice. “The two are the latest victims in a country that has become one of the most dangerous in the world for Catholic clergy, mostly due to endemic drug violence,” he said.
At the Mass in Mexico City Tuesday night, Luis Gerardo Moro, the top Jesuit in Mexico, 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 order’s priests would continue denouncing the abandonment and violence that persists in the region and would not stay silent in the face of injustice.
López Obrador lamented the killings Wednesday and said that authorities were searching for a man who had a pending arrest order dating to 2018 for the suspected killing of a U.S. tourist.
On Wednesday, authorities put out a wanted poster for the accused killer, José Noriel Portillo Gil, alias “El Chueco,” or “The Crooked One.” They offered a reward of about $250,000 for information leading to his arrest.
Portillo Gil was also accused in the 2018 killing 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 a U.S. drug agent and killed him. Despite the criminality, the area’s natural beauty continues to draw tourists.
On Tuesday, Javier Ávila, another Jesuit priest working in the region 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 “out of his mind, drunk” and had threatened locals to keep their mouths shut.
The man “told them, ‘If you talk and there’s some movement, I come for all of you and kill you all,’” Ávila said.
Authorities were also searching 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 resolve problems, but rather only increases unnecessary suffering.”
Ávila said there was impunity for the crimes in the Tarahumara mountains and in all of Mexico. It is increasingly shameless and is fed by “the ineptitude of authorities at all levels,” he said. “We’re fed up.”
Associated Press writer Christopher Sherman in Mexico City contributed to this report.