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Jesuits: 2 Priests Killed in Northern Mexico

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MEXICO CITY – Two elderly Jesuit priests have been killed at a church where a man pursued by gunmen apparently sought refuge in a remote mountain area in northern Mexico, the Mexican branch of the religious order announced Tuesday.

Javier Campos Morales, 79, and Joaquín César Mora Salazar, 80, were murdered Monday at a church in Cerocahui, Chihuahua state.

They were apparently killed after a man on the run from a drug gang took refuge in the church, authorities said. The gang apparently chased and caught him and killed all three.

Chihuahua Governor Maria Eugenia Campos confirmed that a third man was killed, without identifying him. But President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said during his daily press conference that the man fleeing the gunmen was also killed.

The governor said the killings provoked “profound anger, outrage and pain” and “shocked us to our deepest depths”.

López Obrador said authorities had information about possible suspects in the murders and noted that the area has a strong presence of organized crime.

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 the state of Chihuahua 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 that gunmen had taken both their bodies from the church.

“Acts like this are not isolated,” the statement said. “The Tarahumara Mountains, like many other regions of the country, are facing conditions of violence and desolation that have not been reversed. Every day men and women are randomly killed, just like our murdered brothers today.”

For some reason, the gunmen did not kill a third priest who was at the church, but refused his pleas to leave the bodies of his two colleagues, said Narce Santibañez, the Jesuit press director in Mexico.

The surviving priest said his two colleagues had been killed at close range with gunshots.

The Diocese of Tarahumara said in a statement that “the murderers, dissatisfied with the murder of them, have taken their bodies … leaving a trail of pain, sorrow and indignation on all of us who wish 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.

Reverend Gilberto Guevara serves in the parish of Aguililla in the western state of Michoacan, a city that has been on the front lines of cartel wars for years. Three priests have been murdered in the area in the last ten years.

“The danger is always there,” Guevara said of working in the cartels-dominated region. “As long as we don’t get in the way, they respect us, just like the government respects, as long as we are useful to them.”

The Catholic Church’s Multimedia Center said seven priests have been murdered under the current government, who took office in December 2018, and at least two dozen under the former president, who took office in 2012.

The center said a Franciscan priest died in 2021 when he was caught in the crossfire of a gunfight from a drug gang in the north-central state of Zacatecas while driving to mass. Another priest was killed in the central state of Morelos and another in the violence-ravaged state of Guanajuato that year.

In 2019, a priest was stabbed to death in the northern border town of Matamoros, across from Brownsville, Texas.

The Chihuahua governor wrote on her Twitter account that she “complains and condemns” the killings and said security arrangements had been discussed for priests in the area.

Campos Morales was ordained to the priesthood in 1972 and has worked for nearly half a century in parishes in the Tarahumara region, known for its poignant poverty and scenic beauty.

Mora Salazar was ordained in 1971 and worked occasionally in the Tarahumara in the 1970s and 1980s before returning full-time in 2000.

Preferring the name Rarámuri, the Tarahumara people have suffered poverty, exclusion and exploitation for centuries, with loggers looting their forests and drug gangs growing marijuana and poppies in the mountains.

The Jesuits began missions under the Rarámuri in the 1600s, but were expelled by Spain in 1767. They returned around 1900.

The indigenous community has gained worldwide fame for their skill in running tens of miles through their mountainous terrain, often in leather sandals or barefoot, and has inspired and participated in ultra-long distance races.