EXPLAINER: What led to priests being killed in Mexico?

Jun 23, 2022, 8:25 AM | Updated: 10:11 pm
A Mexican soldier patrols outside the Church in Cerocahui, Mexico, Wednesday, June 22, 2022. Two el...

A Mexican soldier patrols outside the Church in Cerocahui, Mexico, Wednesday, June 22, 2022. Two elderly Jesuit priests were killed inside the church where a man pursued by gunmen apparently sought refuge, the religious order´s Mexican branch announced Tuesday. (AP Photo/Christian Chavez)

(AP Photo/Christian Chavez)

MEXICO CITY (AP) — Two Jesuit priests and a tour guide murdered in Mexico’s Sierra Tarahumara this week 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 Indigenous peoples of the region. Authorities said they 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.

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

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 famine and starvation during the worst years, even in this century.


Drug cartels have long used the remote mountains to plant illicit crops of marijuana and opium poppies. In the 2000s, the cartels expanded into illegal logging on Raramuri lands, driving out or killing anyone who opposed them. The Ciudad Juarez-based La Linea gang is battling the Sinaloa cartel, whose local branch is known as Los Salazar.

Isela Gonzalez, director of the Sierra Madre Alliance environmental group, said the gangs now compete to control local alcohol sales, extortion and kidnapping. “The Sierra Tarahumara is under a constant climate of violence,” Gonzalez said. She just returned from a Raramuri community, Coloradas de la Virgen, and noted, “There is a very violent atmosphere, a lot of shootouts between groups, and that is forcing a lot of people to flee.”


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

Journalist Miroslava Breach was killed by gunmen linked to the Los Salazar gang in 2017, apparently in retaliation for reporting on drug gangs’ ties to politicians.

Perhaps the case that drew the most attention was that of 34-year-old American hiker Patrick Braxton-Andrew, who was killed in 2018 in Urique, near where the Jesuits were murdered. Officials at the time identified the killer as José Noriel Portillo Gil, alias El “Chueco,”or “The Crooked One.” An alleged local boss for the Los Salazar gang, he is the same man wanted for killing the two priests.


The fact that Portillo Gil could be accused of killing a U.S. tourist and not be caught –and then be accused of slaying the two much-loved priests — left many people stunned.

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

The Chihuahua state governor at the time, Javier Corral, pledged to “mete out an exemplary punishment to this criminal and his gang who, paradoxically, by acting in this cowardly way, have put an end to the Sinaloa cartel’s influence and control of 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 lost a game recently, “El Chueco” went to the home of two players on the opposing team, shot one, kidnapped the other and set their house on fire the same day the priests were killed.

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


Most who work in the Sierra Tarahumara report intimidation, threats and drug-cartel checkpoints even on main roads in the mountains. That atmosphere led in 2015 to the cancelation of the 50-mile-plus Copper Canyon ultramarathon after violence near the course.

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

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


The Society of Jesus, as the Jesuits are known, has a long history of defending Indigenous peoples, and longstanding ties to the Sierra Tarahumara. The Jesuits started missions among the Raramuri in the 1600s but were expelled from all Spanish territories in 1767, in part because colonists complained the missions were depriving 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 were well-regarded among the Raramuri, learning their language and customs.


López Obrador has declared his government is no longer focused on detaining drug cartel leaders, and has often appeared 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 U.S. Northern Command, said last year that “transnational criminal organizations … are operating oftentimes in ungoverned areas, 30 to 35% of Mexico.” Hope calls that number “made up,” but says the government faces “a real problem of territorial control.”

In June, the U.S. Congressional Research Office released a report saying that López Obrador “has advocated policies that focus on the root causes of crime, but his government has not carried out counternarcotics operations consistently… More than halfway through López Obrador’s six-year term, he arguably has achieved few of his anticorruption and criminal justice aims.”

On Thursday, the Roman Catholic Mexican Council of Bishops issued an open letter telling the government “It is time to revise the security policies that are failing.”

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


FILE - Abortion-rights activists protest outside the Supreme Court in Washington, Saturday, June 25...
Associated Press

Clinics scramble to divert patients as states ban abortion

They call her, desperate, scared and often broke. Some are rape and domestic violence victims. Others are new mothers, still breastfeeding infants. Another pregnancy so soon, they say, is something they just can’t handle. “Heart wrenching,” said Angela Huntington, an abortion navigator for Planned Parenthood in Missouri, who is helping callers reschedule canceled abortion appointments […]
22 hours ago
A man pays his respects at the site where officials found dozens of people dead in a semitrailer co...
Associated Press

San Antonio migrant deaths lead to slow effort to ID victims

SAN ANTONIO (AP) — Victims have been found with no identification documents at all and in one case a stolen ID. Remote villages lack phone service to reach family members and determine the whereabouts of missing migrants. Fingerprint data has to be shared and matched by different governments. More than a day after the discovery […]
22 hours ago
Associated Press

Today in History: June 29, first trans-Pacific flight

Today in History Today is Wednesday, June 29, the 180th day of 2022. There are 185 days left in the year. Today’s Highlight in History: On June 29, 1613, London’s original Globe Theatre, where many of Shakespeare’s plays were performed, was destroyed by a fire sparked by a cannon shot during a performance of “Henry […]
22 hours ago
Joe O'Dea, Republican nominee for the U.S. Senate seat held by Democrat Michael Bennet, speaks duri...
Associated Press

Takeaways from first primaries since Roe v. Wade overturned

NEW YORK (AP) — A rare Republican who supports abortion rights found success in Colorado in the first primary elections held since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, while New York’s first female governor positioned herself to become a major voice in the post-Roe landscape. In Illinois, Democrats helped boost a Republican gubernatorial candidate […]
22 hours ago
A technician monitors the self-driving taxi developed by tech giant Baidu Inc. on June 14, 2022, in...
Associated Press

China’s Baidu races Waymo, GM to develop self-driving cars

BEIJING (AP) — With no one at the wheel, a self-driving taxi developed by tech giant Baidu Inc. is rolling down a Beijing street when its sensors spot the corner of a delivery cart jutting into its lane. The taxi stops a half-car-length away. “So sorry,” a recorded voice tells passengers. The steering wheel turns […]
22 hours ago
Cassidy Hutchinson, former aide to Trump White House chief of staff Mark Meadows, testifies as the ...
Associated Press

1/6 Takeaways: Angry Trump, dire legal warnings and ketchup

WASHINGTON (AP) — The House Jan. 6 committee held a surprise hearing Tuesday delivering alarming new testimony about Donald Trump’s angry, defiant and vulgar actions as he ignored repeated warnings against summoning the mob to the Capitol and then refused to intervene to stop the deadly violence as rioters laid siege. Witness Cassidy Hutchinson, a […]
22 hours ago

Sponsored Articles


Best retirement savings rates hit 4.30%

Maximize your retirement savings with guaranteed fixed rates up to 4.30%. Did you know there is a financial product that can give you great interest rates as you build your retirement savings and provide you with a paycheck for life once you retire? It might sound too good to be true but it is not; this product is called an annuity.
Carla Berg, MHS, Deputy Director, Public Health Services, Arizona Department of Health Services

Update your child’s vaccines before kindergarten

So, your little one starts kindergarten soon. How exciting! You still have a few months before the school year starts, so now’s the time to make sure students-to-be have the vaccines needed to stay safe as they head into a new chapter of life.
Day & Night Air

Tips to lower your energy bill in the Arizona heat

Does your summer electric bill make you groan? Are you looking for effective ways to reduce your bill?
EXPLAINER: What led to priests being killed in Mexico?