Bodies of priests, tourist guide found 2 days after being killed inside the church; Mexican authorities offer record $250,000 reward

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Two days after two priests and a tourist guide were shot dead in a church in Mexico and their bodies taken away, their bodies have been located and recovered, officials said Wednesday.

Priests Javier Campos, 79, and Joaquin Mora, 81, were slaughtered in the city of Cerocahui on Monday “as he attempted to defend a man seeking refuge,” according to the order, also known as the Society of Jesus.

The pursued man, identified as the tourist guide Pedro Palma, was also killed and his body taken away with those of the two priests.

Chihuahua State Governor Maru Campos later confirmed that the bodies of the three men had been found.

“We managed to locate and recover (…) the bodies of Jesuit priests Javier Campos and Joaquin Mora, and tourist guide Pedro Palma,” Maru Campos said in a video posted on social media.

The identity of the victims has been confirmed by forensic experts, while the prosecution announced a $250,000 reward for information leading to the alleged murderer’s capture. The bureau said it was the highest award offered in state history.

The authorities have identified as suspect José Noriel Portillo Gil, alias “El Chueco”, who is already wanted for the murder of an American tourist in 2018.

The prosecutor’s office said Wednesday that before the murders, the suspect assaulted two other people after a disagreement over a baseball game.

Later he kidnapped Palma, who managed to escape and ran into the church for help.

Mexico Priests killed
Mexican soldiers arrive at the church in Cerocahui, Mexico, Wednesday, June 22, 2022.

Christian Chávez / AP


That of the church 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 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 on his way to mass. . Another priest was killed in the central state of Morelos and another in the violence-ridden state of Guanajuato that year.

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

More than 340,000 people have been killed in a wave of bloodshed in Mexico since the government deployed the army to fight drug cartels in 2006.

Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador said Wednesday a manhunt was underway to find the suspected killer.

The suspect was identified by another priest present in the church, he told reporters.

“This mountain area has been infiltrated, penetrated, dominated by crime for some time,” said Lopez Obrador.

The three bodies were placed in the back of a van by armed men, covered in plastic and taken away, according to Father Luis Gerardo Moro Madrid, leader of the Jesuits in Mexico.

“We demand justice,” the order said.

Experts say Chihuahua is a major transit route for illegal drugs bound for the United States and hotly contested between rival drug gangs.

Father Jorge Atilano Gonzalez, also a Jesuit, told a local television station that the priests killed on Monday tried to intervene because they knew the attacker, who was from the area.

“He wanted to confess” after the shooting, he said, citing the testimony of the third priest present.

“What we believe is that he was in a state of alcoholism or addiction because of the reaction he had,” he added.

2 priests killed devoted decades to a remote region

Long before many roads were paved in Mexico’s remote Tarahumara Mountains, Jesuit priest Javier Campos roamed the region on a motorbike. For five decades serving his impoverished communities, his familiar impersonation of a rooster and love of crowing earned him the nickname “Gallo”.

His colleague Joaquín Mora was often at his side over the past 20 years, during which drug cartels have tightened their grip on the region, filling the mountains with opium poppy and marijuana. Together they brought moral authority to balance the outsized influence of drug traffickers, fellow priests said.

The two priests were gunned down Monday in the small church in the town square of Cerocahui, along with a tour guide they tried to protect from a local criminal boss.

“They were respected. Their word was taken into account,” said Jorge Atilano, another Jesuit priest, during a mass on Tuesday evening in Mexico City.

Mexican authorities are searching for the bodies of priests and others who were abducted in Mexico City
Jesuit priests hold a mass next to photos of two priests Javier Campos and Joaquin Mora who were murdered, after Mexican authorities said they were searching for their bodies along with others who were abducted in a violent part of the north of Mexico, at San Ignacio de Loyola Church in Mexico City, Mexico on June 21, 2022.

EDGARD GARRIDO / REUTERS


But the priests had noted changes that made it increasingly difficult to navigate the ever-expanding criminal underworld.

Reverend Pedro Humberto Arriaga, a Jesuit superior at a mission in southern Mexico and a friend of Campos since their student years, said that during their last conversation in May, Campos told him about “the gravity of the situation, the the way the drug gangs had advanced through the area, how they were taking over the communities.’ Things were spiraling out of control with more and more armed criminals moving throughout the area, he said.

Arriaga was unaware of the threats against either priest, but everyone was aware of the risks – there and across the country.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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