Jesuits: 2 priests killed in northern Mexico

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MEXICO CITY – Two elderly Jesuit priests have been killed in a church where a man persecuted by gunmen has apparently sought refuge in a remote mountainous area in northern Mexico, the Mexican branch of the religious order said on Tuesday.

Javier Campos Morales, 79, and Joaquin Cesar Mora Salazar, 80, were killed Monday at a church in Serocahua, Chihuahua.

Violence has plagued the Tarahumara Mountains for years. The rough, pine-covered region is home to a group of indigenous people of the same name. Cerocahui is close to the point where Chihuahua meets Sonora and Sinaloa, a major drug-producing region.

A statement from the Roman Catholic Society of Jesus in Mexico called for justice and the return of male bodies. It said that armed men had taken them away from the church.

“Such actions 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 their lives, as our slain brothers were today.

President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador told a daily news conference Tuesday that priests had apparently been killed by gunmen chasing another man who had sought refuge in the church. This man was also killed, the president said.

Lopez Obrador said authorities had information on possible murder suspects and that there was a strong presence of organized crime in the area.

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

The surviving priest said his two colleagues were shot at close range.

The Tarahumara diocese said in a statement that “the killers who are not happy to kill them have taken their bodies … leaving a trail of pain, sadness and resentment among all of us who want to grieve them.”

The killing of priests is a constant tragedy in Mexico, at least since the start of the drug war in 2006.

Prep. Gilberto Guevara serves in the parish of Aguila in the western state of Michoacan, a city that has been on the front lines of cartel wars for years. Three priests have been killed in the area over the past decade.

“The danger is always there,” Guevara said of his work in the cartel-dominated region. “As long as we do not interfere, they respect us, as well as the government, as long as we are useful to them.

The Catholic Multimedia Center of the church announced that seven priests were killed in the current administration, which took office in December 2018, and at least two dozen in 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 drug gang shooting in the north-central state of Zacatecas while driving for a liturgy. That same year, another priest was killed in the central state of Morelos and another in the violent state of Guanajuato.

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

Chihuahua Governor Maria Eugenia Campos wrote on her Twitter account that she “regrets and condemns” the killings and said security measures for priests in the area had been discussed.

Campos Morales was ordained a priest in 1972 and spent almost half a century working in parishes in the Tarahumara area, known for its sad poverty and picturesque beauty.

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

Tarahumara, who prefer the name Raramuri, suffer from centuries of poverty, exclusion and exploitation, with loggers looting their forests and drug gangs growing marijuana and opium poppies in the mountains.

The Jesuits began missions among the Raramuri in 1600, but were expelled from Spain in 1767. They returned around 1900.

The indigenous community has gained worldwide fame for its ability to run tens of miles through mountainous territory, often in leather sandals or barefoot, and has inspired and competed in ultra-long-distance races.

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