WorldWhat triggered the murder of two Jesuit priests in...

What triggered the murder of two Jesuit priests in northern Mexico?


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The two Jesuit priests and the guide allegedly murdered by drug traffickers in the Sierra Tarahumara of Mexico they join a long list of activists, journalists and simple visitors who have been threatened or lost their lives at the hands of the criminal gangs that dominate the region.

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Priests Javier Campos, 79, and Joaquín Mora, 80, spent a good part of their lives serving the indigenous people of the area. Authorities say they were shot dead on Monday, in a small church in the town square of cerocahulalong with a tour guide they tried to protect from a criminal.

Look: Bodies of murdered Jesuits and tour guide recovered in northern Mexico

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It is a tourist area, known for its imposing mountains, its canyons and the indomitable Tarahumara Indians, who call themselves rarámuris and they are famous because they can run tens of kilometers barefoot or wearing leather sandals. There are no roads in the area and it has attractions such as the Copper Canyon and one of the few passenger trains left in Mexico.

The mountains are a land that combines beauty and tragedy, where rarámuris They mostly live in poverty. Over the centuries they were dispossessed of their land and have suffered numerous famines, even in this century.


Drug traffickers have long cultivated marijuana and opium poppies in this region, taking advantage of its isolation. In the 2000s they began to enter Rarámuri lands, expelling or killing anyone who got in their way.

The La Línea gang from Ciudad Juárez is waging war with the Sinaloa cartel, whose local branch calls itself Los Salazar.

Isela González, director of the environmental group Alianza de Sierra Madre, says that these gangs also compete for control of the sale of alcohol and carry out extortion and kidnapping.

“The Sierra Tarahumara lives in a constant climate of violence,” said González, who recently visited the Rarámuri community where he works, Coloradas de la Virgen. “There is an atmosphere of a lot of violence, a lot of shootings between the gangs, which makes people leave.”

A police officer patrols a street in Cerocahui, a town in northern Mexico where two Jesuit priests were recently murdered. (AP Photo/Christian Chavez/)


At least half a dozen environmentalists rarámuris have been killed in the Sierra Tarahumara in recent years, including Isidro Baldenegro, who opposed illegal logging and received the prestigious Goldman Prize. He was assassinated in 2017.

The few suspects arrested in connection with those murders were only the perpetrators. His relationship with drug traffickers was apparently never thoroughly investigated.

Journalist Miroslava Breach was murdered by individuals linked to Los Salazar in 2017, apparently in retaliation for her reporting on ties between drug traffickers and politicians.

The case that made the biggest impact was probably the death of an American mountaineer, Patrick Braxton-Andrew, 34, who was killed in Urique, near the site where the Jesuits were killed. Authorities identified the killer as José Noriel Portillo Gil, alias “El Chueco.” Capo of a local branch of Los Salazar, he is also wanted for the murders of the two priests.

Mexican soldiers arrive in Cerocahui (Mexico) on June 22, 2022.

Mexican soldiers arrive in Cerocahui, Mexico, on June 22, 2022. (AP Photo/Christian Chavez/)


The fact that Portillo Gil was accused of killing an American tourist and not caught — and later accused of killing two much-loved priests — is puzzling.

“I never understood why the United States didn’t push harder for him to be captured,” said Randall Gingrigh, an environmentalist who has worked in the Sierra for three decades. “Why wasn’t there a huge search until this was resolved. How can it be that it is still there?” asked Gingrich, who heads the organization Tierra Nativa.

The governor of Chihuahua at the time, Javier Corral, promised to apply an “exemplary punishment to this criminal and his gang, who, paradoxically, by acting with such cowardice put an end to their influence and control of that area, under the cartel of Sinaloa”.

“Nothing is going to stop us until we capture him,” he added.

Nothing like that happened. Portillo Gil continued to operate freely, according to state prosecutors, to the point that when a local baseball team he sponsored recently lost a game, “El Chueco” went to the home of two rival players, shot one, kidnapped the other and he set fire to the house the same day the priests were killed.

“This reveals systemic impunity,” said Mexican security analyst Alejandro Hope.

A priest blesses photos of Jesuit priests Javier Campos Morales (left) and Joaquín César Mora Salazar during a mass in their honor at a church in Mexico City on June 21, 2022.

A priest blesses photos of Jesuit priests Javier Campos Morales (left) and Joaquín César Mora Salazar during a mass in their honor at a church in Mexico City on June 21, 2022. (AP Photo/Fernando Llano/)


Most of the people who work in Tarahumara say they have suffered intimidation, threats and have had to avoid drug traffickers’ checkpoints on the main roads in the mountains. That atmosphere led to the cancellation of a 50-mile (80-kilometer) ultramarathon in the Copper Canyon in 2015 after violence erupted near the course.

It was an annual race, the initiative of ultramarathon runner Micah True, who lived with the Rarámuri, decided to run when he saw their feats and wanted to benefit them while highlighting their culture. The test was finally run in March of this year.

“Most people had a great time,” Gingrich said. “But there are always people on the street who…you know…quite questionable. There is no doubt that there was a strong presence of drug traffickers.”

“The community benefits (from the race), but there is a possibility that something will go wrong,” he said.


The Society of Jesus, as the Jesuits are known, has a long tradition of defending indigenous peoples and long-standing ties to the Sierra Tarahumara. The Jesuits sent the first missions in the 16th century, but were expelled from all Spanish territories in 1767, in part because the colonizers said the missions deprived them of indigenous labor. They came back around 1900.

The Jesuits carry out educational work, watch over the health of the indigenous people, launch economic projects and hold a seminar. The two murdered Jesuit priests were well liked and took an interest in the language and customs of the natives of the area.


López Obrador has said his government does not make arresting drug lords a priority and often gives the impression that it tolerates these gangs, sometimes even praising them for not interfering with elections. The killings and other outbreaks of violence could not have been more inopportune for López Obrador.

Gen. Glen VanHerck, head of the US military’s Northern Command, said last year that “transnational criminal organizations … often operate in areas where there is no government presence, 30% to 35% Mexican.”

Hope says that figure is “a fabrication”, but admits that the government faces “a real problem in relation to the control of the territory”.

In June, the Legislative Research Office of the US Congress released a report according to which López Obrador “promotes policies focused on the roots of crime, but his government does not carry out sustained anti-narcotics operations.”

“Over halfway through his six-year term,” he added, “he has achieved few of his anti-corruption and criminal justice goals.”


Source: Elcomercio

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