- BRAND STEVENSON
Updated: 3 p.m. (AEST)
Mexico City, Mexico
Two elderly Jesuit priests were killed inside a church where a man pursued by gunmen allegedly sought refuge in a remote mountainous region of northern Mexico, the religious order’s Mexican branch said on Tuesday.
Javier Campos Morales, 79, and Joaquín César Mora Salazar, 80, were killed Monday inside the church in Cerocahui, Chihuahua state.
A priest blesses the pictures of Jesuit priests Javier Campos Morales, left, and Joaquin Cesar Mora Salazar during a mass to mourn them, at a church in Mexico City, Tuesday, June 21 The two elderly priests were killed inside of a church where a man pursued by gunmen apparently sought refuge in a remote mountainous region in northern Mexico, the religious order’s Mexican branch said on Tuesday. PHOTO: AP Photo/Fernando Llano.
They were believed to have been killed after a man fleeing a drug gang took refuge in the church, authorities said. The gang apparently chased and grabbed him, and killed all three of them.
The governor of Chihuahua, Maria Eugenia Campos, confirmed that a third man had been killed, without identifying him. But President Andrés Manuel López Obrador told his daily press conference that the man fleeing the gunmen had also been killed.
The state government later identified the third man as a tour guide and said he was abducted and taken to the church, apparently by the gunmen.
The governor said the killings caused “deep anger, outrage and pain” and “shook us to our core”.
López Obrador said authorities have information on possible suspects in the killings and noted that the area has a strong organized crime presence.
Violence has plagued the Tarahumara Mountains for years. The rugged, pine-clad region is home to the indigenous group of the same name. Cerocahui is close to a point where the state of Chihuahua meets Sonora and Sinaloa, a major drug-producing region.
A statement from the Roman Catholic Society of Jesus in Mexico called for justice and the return of the men’s bodies. He said gunmen took both of their bodies from the church.
“Acts like these are not isolated,” the statement said. “The Tarahumara Mountains, like many other parts of the country, face conditions of violence and neglect that have not been reversed. Every day, men and women are arbitrarily deprived of life, as our murdered brothers were today.
For some reason, the gunmen did not kill a third priest who was at the church, but refused his calls to leave the bodies of his two colleagues, said Narce Santibañez, press director of the Jesuits in Mexico.
The surviving priest said his two colleagues were shot at close range.
Faithful mourners in front of the photos of Jesuit priests Javier Campos Morales and Joaquin Cesar Mora Salazar during a mass in a church in Mexico City on June 21. PHOTO: AP Photo/Fernando Llano.
The Diocese of Tarahumara said in a statement that “the killers, not content with murdering them, took their bodies…leaving a wake of pain, sadness and indignation among all of us who want to mourn them.”
The killing of priests has been an ongoing tragedy in Mexico, at least since the war on drugs began in 2006.
Reverend Gilberto Guevara serves in Aguililla Parish in the western state of Michoacan, a town that has been on the front lines of cartel turf wars for years. Three priests have been killed in the area over the past decade.
“The danger is still there,” Guevara said of working in the cartel-dominated region. “As long as we don’t get in their way, they respect us, just like the government respects as long as we are useful to them.”
The church’s Catholic Multimedia Center said seven priests 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 in 2012.
The center said that on May 15, a priest who ran a migrant shelter in the northern border town of Tecate was found dead on a ranch.
In 2021, a Franciscan priest died when he was caught in the crossfire of a drug gang shootout in the north-central state of Zacatecas on his way to mass. Another priest was killed in the central state of Morelos and another in the beleaguered violence. State of Guanajuato that year.
In 2019, a priest was stabbed to death in the northern border town of Matamoros, across from Brownsville, Texas.
The governor of Chihuahua wrote on her Twitter account that she “deplores and condemns” the killings and said security measures were discussed for priests in the area.
Campos Morales was ordained a priest in 1972 and has spent almost half a century working in the parishes of the Tarahumara region, known for its great poverty and the beauty of its landscapes.
Mora Salazar was ordained in 1971 and worked intermittently in Tarahumara in the 1970s and 80s before returning full-time in 2000.
The Tarahumara people, who prefer the name Rarámuri, have endured centuries of poverty, exclusion and exploitation, with loggers plundering their forests and drug gangs growing marijuana and opium poppy in the mountains.
Jesuits began missions among the Rarámuri in the 1600s but were expelled by Spain in 1767. They returned around 1900.
The indigenous community has become world famous for their ability to cover dozens of kilometers through their mountainous territory, often in leather sandals or bare feet, and have inspired and participated in very long distance foot races.