Jesuit priest Javier Campos Morales, 78 years old, and Joaquín Mora, 80, were murdered this Monday in the church of the parish of Cerocahui, in the Sierra Tarahumara (Chihuahua), while giving shelter to a persecuted man, tour guide Pedro Palma, 60 years old. Some gunmen broke into the temple with bullets and killed the three, authorities confirmed. Despite pleas from the only priest saved from the fire, the criminals dumped the bodies into a van and they are missing. In addition to the priests and the leader, four other people were abducted Monday morning in this small community of just over 1,000 people. Two men, a woman and a minor, according to prosecutors.
The authorities, who from the beginning have only focused on the Jesuits’ crime, have confirmed that there were two attacks. The first in the morning, according to calls to 911, included kidnapping Paul Osvaldo B. and Armando B., as well as a woman and a minor, who no details were given. The second around 1:00 p.m. in the church. According to prosecutors, Pedro Palma was taken to the temple where he was shot dead along with the priests who tried to help him. The bodies of all are unaccounted for.
The prime suspect is a crime leader in the area, aka José Noriel Portillo the crook, according to the local press. The region is besieged by organized crime control over the land and forests with thousands displaced at gunpoint and the absolute impunity suffered not only by this marginal and poor area of northern Mexico but many others around the world.
Chihuahua Gov. Maru Campos condemned the massacre of the priests during a news conference Tuesday, but made no mention of the other crimes that are under investigation, prosecutors said in a statement. It was the complaint of Palma’s son, Ricardo, who warned that the Cerocahui crime was a major massacre that killed seven people in all. What happened to the four hostages is not yet known.
Today they tell me that after the murder of the two priests in the city of Cerocahui, Chihuahua, gunmen broke into the Hotel Misión Cerocahui owned by Balderrama Hotels and took away tourists, including MY DAD. pic.twitter.com/2haKby6uyp
— Ricardo Palma (@Ricardo_PalmaC) June 21, 2022
Ricardo Palma, son of the tour guide, told EL PAÍS that on Monday he received a call from a colleague of his father’s who informed him of the incident. “While they were having dinner at the Balderrama Hotels’ Misión Cerocahui Hotel, an armed group broke in and took him and a group of tourists away. We don’t know how many or who,” he explained on WhatsApp as he’s on a plane bound for Mexico. He was in Barcelona when he got the news about his father, he is a doctor doing a specialization in a Spanish hospital. “The tourist van he was driving was parked abandoned in front of the hotel,” he warned.
Palma was a tour guide with more than 40 years of experience in the Sierra Tarahumara. “He was born in the Teporachi community and immigrated to the United States at the age of 12 to support his mother and siblings,” says his son. He later returned and founded a tourism company with his wife. And he came to work for international agencies such as Grand Circle Travel, Caravan Tours, American Orient Express. “He has always supported both the children’s home in Chihuahua and the Tarahumara schools in the mountains,” says his son.
One of the main leaders of the Jesuit community that has been working in the Sierra Tarahumara for decades, Javier Ávila, tells this newspaper how the horror experienced by the Mexican people knocked on the doors of the Church. “We live constantly threatened and harassed. But we’ve never been that extreme,” explains Ávila at the other end of the line. This Tuesday morning, accompanied by an escort, he is on his way to Cerocahui to meet again with the community they were trying to protect from the moment of events: “It happened yesterday at noon [el lunes], but we wanted to be very discreet because we feared that they would act against the population. It was only when the news spread that our superiors in the capital decided to make a statement,” he explains. “With this double murder, God allows us to become one people and feel his pain,” says the priest.
Ávila tells what happened, according to the statements of the witnesses of the massacre. There was another priest who managed to save himself from the crime and asked the criminals not to take the corpses away. “The man who shot was completely upset,” he says. And when he tries to explain the crime, he can’t contain his anger: “You’ll never understand that because there’s no logic. It is the result of an official closure in the face of a very tragic reality. The country, not just the Tarahumara area, is blanketed in a gross, alarming impunity. It hurts a lot, but it’s reality. Never in a six-year tenure has anyone said: “Enough is enough,” Ávila denounces.
According to the testimonies he collected, a man ran into the church on Monday when the sun was still high in the sky. It was Pedro Palma, he was being followed by guys who wanted to kill him. The priests Campos and Mora ran away when they heard the shots. One of them went to help the leader, and a hitman did not hesitate to shoot him with bullets as well, ending his life. Another priest tried to approach the criminal, “to calm him down,” explains Ávila. And he was mercilessly riddled with bullets. Following the massacre, they searched for a way to dispose of the bodies, following the same pattern as the Narco. This is how the numbers of the more than 100,000 people who have disappeared in the country swell. They didn’t even allow the clergy to offer them a proper burial.
The Diocese of Tarahuamara has issued a statement demanding that the authorities do everything they can to save the bodies and end the violence of recent years: “Anyone could say they were in the wrong place at the wrong time; This was not the case, however, since both priests were fulfilling their duty to help a person who was losing his life and to support him physically and spiritually”.
The Mexican province of the Society of Jesus has asked that its clergy be protected from the violence they have endured in the country in the past. “We demand that all protective measures be taken immediately to protect the lives of our Jesuit brothers, sisters, lay people and the entire Cerocahui community. Facts like these are not isolated cases. The Sierra Tarahumara, like many other regions of the country, has faced irreversible violence and neglect. Every day men and women are arbitrarily deprived of their lives just as our brothers were murdered today,” they say.
President Andrés Manuel López Obrador confirmed the events at his press conference on Tuesday, acknowledging the violence the state of Chihuahua has suffered due to the organized crime onslaught. “We’re taking care of this matter now. It seems that there is already information about the possible perpetrators of these crimes,” the President reported.
According to the organization Centro Católico Multimedial, around 30 priests have been murdered in Mexico in the last ten years. The wave of violence has also reached churches and temples, which are often a haven for the citizens themselves.
Javier Campos Morales, with 50 years mission in the Tarahumara, according to Ávila, he was the superior of the Jesuits in the region. Born on February 13, 1943 in Mexico City, he grew up in the state capital of Nuevo León and later entered the Institute of Sciences in Guadalajara, Jalisco. He entered the Society of Jesus in 1959 at the age of 16, to be ordained a priest in 1972. A year later he began his mission as local superior, pastoral and episcopal vicar in the Sierra Tarahumara. He was pastor in the parishes of Norogachi, Guachochi, Chinatú and in Cerocahui. “He was a very pastoral guy. He knew the Tarahumara like the back of his hand, he went through everything. He was very close to the people,” Ávila recalls.
Joaquín César Mora Salazar was born on August 28, 1941 in Monterrey, Nuevo León. He joined the Society of Jesus in 1958, also at the age of 16. In 1971 he was ordained a priest. From 2000 he worked as a parish vicar in the parish of Chínipas until 2006. Since 2007 he worked as a collaborating vicar in Cerocahui. Ávila says he spoke to him a lot and asked his advice about the repeated threats, abuse, enforced disappearances and displaced people from their country. “I was very concerned about the organized crime invasion. For so much impunity,” says the priest.
Multiple crime has put the Sierra Tarahumara at the center of drug violence terror. And it has reminded a country suffering the bloodiest numbers in its history, between 90 and 100 murders a day, that no corner of Mexico is safe. Since his presidency, López Obrador has boasted about “curbing” the number of murders. Impunity, which borders on 95% of cases, and massacres like Monday’s send a strong message: Whether more people are killed or not will depend on the will of the criminals. “People are not listened to,” Ávila concludes.
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