Two Jesuit priests and man seeking sanctuary killed in Mexican church

Two elderly Jesuit priests have been killed inside a church after a man pursued by gunmen apparently sought refuge in a remote mountainous area of northern Mexico.

Javier Campos Morales, 79, and Joaquín César Mora Salazar, 80, were killed on Monday inside the church in Cerocahui, Chihuahua.

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 them from the church. The Chihuahua state prosecutor’s office had not commented.

“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.”

President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said during his daily news conference on Tuesday that the priests were apparently killed by gunmen pursuing another man who sought refuge in the church. That man was also killed, the president said.

López Obrador said authorities have information about possible suspects in the killings and that the area has a strong organized crime presence.

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 Santibáñez, 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 indignation 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 Michoacán, a town that has been on the frontlines 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 had 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 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.

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, 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.

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