MEXICO CITY (AP) — Well before many roads were paved in Mexico’s remote Tarahumara mountains, Jesuit priest Javier Campos crisscrossed the area on a motorcycle. During five decades ministering to its impoverished communities, his familiar imitation of a rooster and love of singing earned him the nickname “Gallo.”
His colleague Joaquín Mora was often at his side during the past 20 of those years, during which drug cartels tightened their grip on the region, filling the mountains with opium poppy and marijuana. Together they brought a moral authority to balance the outsized influence of drug traffickers, their fellow priests said.
The two priests, age 79 and 80, respectively, were shot to death in the small church on Cerocahui’s town square Monday, along with a tourist guide they tried to protect from a local criminal boss. The killer, who President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said Wednesday had been identified, took their bodies.
Chihuahua Gov. Maria Eugenia Campos announced later Wednesday that all three bodies had been recovered without providing details.
“They were respected. Their word was taken into account,” said Jorge Atilano, another Jesuit priest, during a Mass Tuesday night in Mexico City.
But the priests had noted changes that made it increasingly difficult to navigate the ever-expanding criminal world.
The Rev. Pedro Humberto Arriaga, a Jesuit superior at a mission in southern Mexico and friend of Campos since their student days, said that when they last spoke in May, Campos told him of “the seriousness of the situation, of how the drug gangs had advanced in the region, how they were taking control of the communities.” Things were spinning out of control with more and more armed criminals moving throughout the area, he said.
Arriaga was not aware of threats against either priest, but everyone was conscious of the risks — there and across the country.
The church’s Catholic Multimedia Center said seven priests, including Campos and Mora, have been murdered during the current administration, which took office in December 2018, and at least two dozen under the former president, who took office in 2012.
The mountains have been the scene of other recent killings of Indigenous leaders, environmentalists, human rights defenders and a journalist who covered the area.
Mexico’s persistently high murder rate has been a problem for López Obrador, who entered office making clear he had no interest in pursuing the drug war waged by his predecessors, which he blamed for the increased violence. His government has managed to slow the rise in killings, but not reduce them.