‘Crime has spread everywhere’: Mexican bishops respond to the killing of two Jesuit priests
The Mexican bishops’ conference called on the country’s president to revise his security strategy as violence continues convulsing Mexico and claiming innocent lives, including clergy.
The bishops’ statement followed the slayings of two Jesuits and a person they were protecting in their parish—a crime attributed to a local crime boss in a part of the country dominated by drug cartels, rife with poverty and long neglected by the state.
“ disrupting the daily life of our entire society, affecting productive activities in cities and the countryside, exerting pressure with extortion against those who work honestly in markets, schools and small businesses, along with medium and large companies. [Criminals] have taken over the streets, neighborhoods and entire towns, as well as roads and highways,” the bishops said in a statement released on June 23.
Mexico bishops: Criminals “have taken over the streets, neighborhoods and entire towns, as well as roads and highways.”
“Most seriously, [criminal groups] have expressed themselves through levels of inhuman cruelty in executions and massacres that have made our country one of the most insecure and violent places in the world.”
Jesuit Fathers Javier Campos Morales and Joaquín César Mora Salazar died defending their parish in Cerocahui, in the Copper Canyon of Chihuahua state, which serves the Indigenous Tarahumara population.
The priests had opened the parish to a person fleeing an attempted kidnapping on June 20, according to Chihuahua investigators, but an armed individual burst inside and killed that person—identified as Pedro Palma, a tour guide.
Javier Ávila, S.J., a prominent human rights defender in Chihuahua state, told multiple Mexican media outlets that one of the priests immediately rushed to provide “spiritual assistance” to the victim and was killed. A second priest approached the gunman, saying, “calm down,” and also was killed. A third priest intervened, but was not attacked, according to Father Ávila’s version of events given to the newspaper Reforma.
The attacker subsequently took the three bodies from the parish.
Father Ávila later told journalist Pascal Beltrán del Río that the gunman had been baptized by Father Campos.
Chihuahua state officials said they found three bodies on June 22. The Jesuits confirmed on June 23 that two of the bodies were those of Fathers Campos and Mora.
Mexican authorities named a local crime boss, 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.
Mr. Portillo’s rampage had begun hours before his alleged killing of the two Jesuits. According to Chihuahua Attorney General Roberto Fierro, he had been in a dispute over a recent baseball game, lost by the team he sponsored. Witnesses said that Mr. Portillo kidnapped two brothers who had played for the opposing team, shooting one of them and setting their house on fire, before he sought out Mr. Palma. Both men are still missing.
Mr. 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. Mr. 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.
The slayings drew outrage from Jesuits and the wider Mexican society as yet another atrocity in the country’s unrelenting violence.
“Acts like these are not isolated,” the Jesuits’ Mexican province said in a June 21 statement. “The Sierra Tarahumara, like many other parts of the country, confronts conditions of violence and neglect which have not been reversed. Every day, men and women are arbitrarily deprived of life, as our brothers [who] were murdered.”
“The Jesuits of Mexico will not remain silent in the face of the reality that lacerates the entire society,” the Jesuits said. “We will continue to be present and working for the mission of justice, reconciliation and peace, through our pastoral, educational and social projects.”
At least seven Mexican priests have been killed since December 2018, when President Andrés Manuel López Obrador took office, according to the Catholic Multimedia Center in Mexico City.
Mr. López Obrador has promoted a poorly understood security policy of “hugs, not bullets,” though violence continues tearing through many regions of Mexico. He also has blamed the policies of his predecessors for provoking the violence.
Mexico’s bishops called for a different approach.
“It’s time to review security strategies that are failing. It is time to listen to citizens, to the voices of the thousands of relatives of victims and of the murdered and disappeared [and] the police officers killed by criminals,” the bishops said.
“We believe it is not useful to deny reality and blame the past for what we have to resolve now. Listening to each other doesn’t make anyone weak; to the contrary, it strengthens us as a nation.”
But the president insisted that he would stay the course on security, saying during a news conference on June 23, “When they say, ‘change security strategy,’ No!” he said, adding, “You cannot confront violence with violence.”
The Rev. Pedro Humberto Arriaga, a Jesuit superior at a mission in southern Mexico and friend of Father Campos since their student days, said that when they last spoke in May, Father 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.
Barely halfway into Mr. 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.
The mountains have been the scene of other recent killings of Indigenous leaders, environmentalists, human rights defenders and a journalist who covered the area. There had been talk of pulling Fathers 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.
At a memorial Mass in Mexico City on June 21, Luis Gerardo Moro, S.J., 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.