MEXICO CITY (AP) — Two elderly Jesuit priests were killed inside a church where a man pursued by gunmen apparently sought refuge in a remote mountainous area of northern Mexico, the religious order’s Mexican branch announced Tuesday.
Javier Campos Morales, 79, and Joaquín César Mora Salazar, 80, were slain Monday inside the church in Cerocahui in Chihuahua state.
They were apparently killed after a man fleeing a drug gang took refuge in the church, authorities said. The gang apparently pursued and caught him, and killed all three.
Chihuahua Gov. Maria Eugenia Campos confirmed a third man was killed, without identifying him. But President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said during his daily news conference that the man fleeing the gunmen was also killed.
The state government later identified the third man as a tourist guide, and said he had been kidnapped and taken to the church, apparently by the gunmen.
The governor said the killings caused “deep anger, indignation and pain” and “shook us to our deepest depths."
López Obrador said authorities had information about possible suspects in the killings and noted 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 near a point where Chihuahua state meets Sonora and Sinaloa, a major drug-producing region.
A statement from the Roman Catholic Society of Jesus in Mexico demanded justice and the return of the men’s bodies. It said gunmen had taken both of their bodies from the church.
“Acts like these are not isolated,” the statement said. “The Tarahumara mountains, like many other regions of the country, face conditions of violence and abandonment 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 pleas for them to leave the bodies of his two colleagues, said Narce Santibañez, the press director for the Jesuits in Mexico.
The surviving priest said his two colleagues had been killed with gunshots at close range.
The Tarahumara Diocese said in a statement that “the killers, not content with murdering them, have taken their bodies ... leaving a wake of pain, sadness and indigation among all of us who want to mourn them.”
The killing of priests has been a persistent tragedy in Mexico, at least since the start of the drug war in 2006.
The Rev. Gilberto Guevara serves in the parish of Aguililla in the western state of Michoacan, a town which has been on the front lines of cartel turf wars for years. Three priests have been killed in the area over the last decade.
“The danger is always there,” Guevara said about working in the cartel-dominated region. “As long as we don't get in the way, they respect us, just as the government respects as 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 city 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 as he drove to Mass. Another priest was killed in the central state of Morelos and another in the violence-plagued state of Guanajuato that year.
In 2019, a priest was stabbed to death in the northern border city of Matamoros, across from Brownsville, Texas.
Chihuahua's governor wrote in her Twitter account that she “laments and condemns” the killings and said security arrangements had been discussed for priests in the area.
Campos Morales was ordained as a priest in 1972 and spent almost a half-century working in parishes in the Tarahumara region, known for its grinding poverty and scenic beauty.
Mora Salazar was ordained in 1971 and worked off and on in the Tarahumara in the 1970s and 80s before returning full time in 2000.
The Tarahumara people, who prefer the name Rarámuri, suffered centuries of poverty, exclusion and exploitation, with loggers plundering their forests and drug gangs cultivating marijuana and opium poppies in the mountains.
The Jesuits started missions among the Rarámuri in the 1600s but were expelled by Spain in 1767. They returned around 1900.
The Indigenous community has gained worldwide fame for their skill at running dozens of miles through their mountainous territory, often in leather sandals or barefoot, and have inspired and competed in ultra-long-distance foot races.
Mark Stevenson, The Associated Press