EXPLAINER: What led to priests being killed in Mexico?

MEXICO CITY (AP) — Two Jesuit priests and a tour guide killed this week in Mexico’s Sierra Tarahumara are the latest in a long line of activists, reporters, travelers and local residents who have been threatened or killed by criminal gangs that dominate the region.

The revs. Javier Campos, 79, and Joaquín Mora, 80, had spent much of their lives serving the indigenous people of the region. Authorities said they were shot dead in the small church in the town square of Cerocahui on Monday, along with a tour guide they tried to protect from a local crime boss.

Tourists are drawn to the area’s towering mountains, deep canyons and indomitable Tarahumara indigenous people, who refer to themselves as the Raramuri and are famous for their ability to run tens of miles barefoot or in leather sandals. The mostly roadless region contains such wonders as the Copper Canyon, often called the Grand Canyon of Mexico, and one of the last working passenger trains in the country.

But the mountains are a land of tragedy as well as beauty. The Raramuri are still largely impoverished after centuries in which their ancestral land was taken from them. They have suffered hunger and hunger during the worst years, even in this century.


Drug cartels have long used the remote mountains to grow illicit marijuana and poppy crops. In the 2000s, the cartels expanded into illegal logging on Raramuri land, driving out or killing anyone who opposed them. The Ciudad Juárez-based La Línea gang is fighting the Sinaloa cartel, whose local branch is known as Los Salazar.

Isela González, director of the environmental group Sierra Madre Alliance, said the gangs now compete to control local alcohol sales, extortion and kidnapping. “The Sierra Tarahumara is under a constant climate of violence,” González said. She has just returned from a Rarámuri community, Coloradas de la Virgen, and pointed out: “There is a very violent environment, many shootings between groups, and that is forcing many people to flee.”


At least half a dozen Raramuri environmental activists have been murdered in the Sierra Tarahumara in recent years, including anti-logging activist Isidro Baldenegro, who received the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize and was killed in 2017. The few suspects detained in those murders were probably only The gunmen and their possible links to drug gangs were apparently never fully investigated.

Journalist Miroslava Breach was murdered by gunmen linked to the Los Salazar gang in 2017, apparently in retaliation for reporting on drug gang links to politicians.

Perhaps the case that drew the most attention was that of the American hiker Patrick Braxton-Andrew, 34, killed in 2018 in Urique, near where the Jesuits were killed. Authorities at the time identified the killer as José Noriel Portillo Gil, alias El “Chueco”, or “El Torcido”. Presumed local boss of the Los Salazar gang, he is the same wanted for killing the two priests.


The fact that Portillo Gil could be accused of killing an American tourist and not get caught — and later be accused of killing the two beloved priests — left many stunned.

“I just never understood how the United States didn’t raise holy hell until they captured it,” said Randall Gingrich, an environmental and education activist who has worked in the Sierra for three decades. “Why wasn’t there a massive manhunt until this was resolved? How could it still be there?

The then governor of the state of Chihuahua, Javier Corral, promised to “give an exemplary punishment to this criminal and his gang who, paradoxically, with their cowardice have put an end to the influence and control of the Sinaloa Cartel in this area.” . Nothing will stop us from capturing him.”

None of that happened. Portillo Gil continued to operate so freely that, according to state prosecutors, when the local baseball team he sponsored recently lost a game, “El Chueco” went to the home of two players from the opposing team, shot one, kidnapped the another and sat down. his house on fire the same day the priests were killed.

“This illustrates systematic impunity,” said Mexican security analyst Alejandro Hope.


Most of those who work in the Sierra Tarahumara report intimidation, threats and drug cartel checkpoints even on the main highways in the mountains. That atmosphere led to the cancellation of the 50+ mile Copper Canyon ultramarathon in 2015 after violence near the track.

The annual race was founded by ultramarathon competitor Micah True, who lived among the Rarámuri, was inspired by their running prowess and wanted to benefit them while highlighting their culture. It was successfully carried out in March this year.

“Most people had a very good experience,” Gingrich said. “But hey, there were people on the streets who were, you know, pretty questionable. I mean, there was definitely a heavy narcos presence… The community benefits from (the race), but there’s a chance something could go wrong.”


The Society of Jesus, as the Jesuits are known, has a long history of defending indigenous peoples and long-standing ties to the Sierra Tarahumara. The Jesuits started missions among the Rarámuris in the 17th century, but were expelled from all Spanish territories in 1767, in part because settlers complained that the missions deprived them of indigenous labor. They returned around 1900. The Jesuits carry out educational, health and economic projects and have a seminary there. The two murdered priests enjoyed a good reputation among the Rarámuri and learned their language and customs.


López Obrador has stated that his government is no longer focused on arresting drug cartel leaders and often appears to tolerate the gangs, even praising them at one point for not interfering in elections. The killings and other outbursts of violence come at an uncomfortable time for López Obrador.

Gen. Glen VanHerck, head of the US Northern Command, said last year that “transnational criminal organizations … often operate in ungoverned areas, 30 to 35 percent of Mexico.” Hope calls that number “made up,” but says the government faces “a real problem of territorial control.”

In June, the US Congressional Office of Research released a report saying that López Obrador “has advocated policies that address the root causes of crime, but his administration has not consistently conducted counternarcotics operations… More than halfway through López Obrador’s six-year term, he has arguably achieved some of his anti-corruption and criminal justice goals.”

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