Two Jesuit priests have been 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 and Joaquín César Mora Salazar were killed 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.
“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 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 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 “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 Michoacan, a town which has been on the front lines of cartel turf wars for years. In March, the city’s mayor was shot dead by unknown attackers.
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 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. In 2016, three priests were killed in just one week in Mexico.
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.
In 2019, a priest was stabbed to death in the northern border city of Matamoros, across from Brownsville, Texas.
Chihuahua Gov. Maria Eugenia Campos wrote in her Twitter account that she “laments and condemns” the killings, and said security arrangements had been discussed for priests in the area.
Lamento y condeno los hechos ocurridos en Cerocahui, en el que perdieron la vida los sacerdotes Jesuitas, Javier Campos y Joaquín Mora.
— Maru Campos (@MaruCampos_G) June 21, 2022
It is common for religious leaders in Mexico to act as defenders of their communities and as mediators with criminal gangs operating there.
In states such as Michoacan in the west and Guerrero in the south, some have even entered into dialogue with drug traffickers in a bid for peace in regions that are mostly poor and with little state presence.
Countrywide, more than 340,000 people have been killed in a wave of bloodshed since the government deployed the army to fight drug cartels in 2006.
Undated photo of Cathedral and Jesuit Mission school in Cerocahui, Chihuahua State, Mexico.
DEA / G. COZZI via Getty
AFP contributed to this report.