Two Mexican Jesuit priests, Fr. Joaquín Mora, 78, and Fr. Javier Campos, 80, were murdered on June 20 by armed men inside the church of the village of Cerocahui, in the Tarahumara Mountains, Chihuahua State, Mexico.
They were providing refuge to Pedro Palma, 60, a tour guide who was fleeing drug traffickers, and who was also murdered. News of the homicides was only made public the following day, for fear of reprisals in the local community.
Another Jesuit priest who was spared by the criminals, begged for them to leave the bodies of the victims behind, but they were loaded onto a truck, taken away, and discovered by the authorities two days later.
The Jesuits in Mexico released a statement decrying the murder of their brothers, condemning yet another violent incident and calling on the local and federal governments to guarantee protection and security for priests, religious, laypeople and the entire community of Cerocahui.
“Every day, men and women are arbitrarily killed, just as our two priests were murdered. The Jesuits in Mexico will continue to speak out against this reality which causes so much harm to society as a whole. We will remain, and continue to work for the mission of justice, reconciliation, and peace through our pastoral, educational and social work,” says the order.
According to the international press, the main suspect for this crime is José Noriel Portillo, known as El Chueco, who is presumed to be the regional leader of the Los Salazar, an armed group linked to the Sinaloa Cartel, which operates in the southern Chihuahua mountains. Police are offering a 250,000-dollar reward for information on his whereabouts.
The Mexican Episcopal Conference also released the following statement: “We are united in prayer with the Society of Jesus, in the midst of so much death and crime that this country is experiencing, and we publicly condemn this tragedy and demand a swift investigation, as well as safety for the community and all priests in the country.”
The local Diocese of Chihuahua says that this crime was particularly painful “since we are speaking of two brother priests who were fulfilling their pastoral duty to protect and defend life. This violence has reached alarming levels that urge us to conversion and change, to be artisans of peace, always in favour of life.”
Speaking at the end of a general audience in Rome, Pope Francis also expressed his sadness over this crime. “So many murders in Mexico! Once again, I repeat that violence never solves problems; it only increases useless suffering.”
Seven priests murdered since 2019
According to Fr. Omar Sotelo, director of the Centro Católico Multimedial (CCM), which tracks these crimes, Mexico continues to be one of the most dangerous countries in the world for priests. The country has seen seven murders of priests since current president Andrés Manuel López Obrador took office in December 2018.
According to CCM, Fr. José Guadalupe Rivas Saldaña was murdered just last month, his body having been found on a farm near the Hacienda Santa Verónica Hotel, in Tecate, Baja California State. On August 30, 2021, Fr. José Guadalupe Popoca Soto, priest of the San Nicolás de Bari church, in Galeana, Morelos, was killed. On June 12, 2021, the Franciscan Juan Antonio Orozco Alvarado found himself in the crossfire of two rival gangs in the community of Mezquital, Durango, and on March 28, 2021, the body of Fr. Gumersindo Cortés González, who worked in the Diocese of Celaya, in Guanajuato State, was found. The first of these seven victims, Fr. José Martín Guzmán Vega, from the parish of Cristo Rey de la Paz, in the Diocese of Matamoros, Tamaulipas State, was murdered on August 23, 2019.
The Pontifical Charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) decries these most recent killings, which once again leave the Catholic community in Mexico to grieve and reaffirms the findings of the Religious Freedom in the World Report 2021, that the worst religious freedom violations in Latin America continue to take place in countries with a history of human rights abuses.