What you need to know: Jesuit priests killed in Sierra Tarahumara, Mexico

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

Revs. Javier Campos, 79, and Joaquín Mora, 80, had spent much of their lives serving the indigenous peoples 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 were trying to protect from a local criminal boss.

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

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

2 JESUIT PRIESTS KILLED IN NORTHERN MEXICO

WHY IS THE SIERRA TARAHUMARA SO DANGEROUS?

Drug cartels have long used the remote mountains to plant illicit crops of marijuana and opium poppy. In the 2000s, the cartels expanded into illegal logging on Raramuri land, hunting or killing anyone who opposed it. The La Linea gang, based in Ciudad Juarez, fights against the Sinaloa cartel, whose local branch is known as Los Salazar.

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

A Mexican soldier patrols outside the church in Cerocahui, Mexico, after the murder of 2 priests and a tour guide.
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A Mexican soldier patrols outside the church in Cerocahui, Mexico, after the murder of 2 priests and a tour guide.

WHO ELSE WAS KILLED?

At least half a 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 killed in 2017. The few suspects detained in these killings were likely just the triggers, and their possible ties to drug gangs have apparently never been 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’ links to politicians.

Perhaps the case that has drawn the most attention is 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, aka El “Chueco”, or “The Crooked One”. The alleged local leader of the Los Salazar gang, this is the same man wanted for killing the two priests.

WHAT HAS THE GOVERNMENT DONE?

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

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

The governor of the state of Chihuahua at the time, Javier Corral, pledged to “inflict exemplary punishment on this criminal and his gang who, paradoxically, by acting in this cowardly manner, have put an end to the influence and control of the Sinaloa Cartel over this area”. . Nothing will stop us from capturing him.”

None of this happened. Portillo Gil continued to operate so freely that – according to state prosecutors – when the local baseball team he was sponsoring recently lost a game, “El Chueco” visited the homes of two players in the opposing team, shot one, kidnapped the other and set their house on fire the same day the priests were killed.

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

A priest blesses the photos of the two Jesuit priests who were killed by the crime boss.

A priest blesses the photos of the two Jesuit priests who were killed by the crime boss.

WHO ELSE HAS BEEN THREATENED?

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

POPE SHOCKED BY MURDER OF JESUIT PRIESTS IN MEXICO

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 showcasing their culture. It took place successfully in March of this year.

“Most people had a really good experience,” Gingrich said. (the race) but there is potential there for something to go wrong.”

WHY WERE THE PRIESTS THERE?

The Society of Jesus, as the Jesuits are known, has a long history of advocacy for indigenous peoples and longstanding ties to the Sierra Tarahumara. Jesuits began missions among the Raramuri in the 1600s, but were expelled from all Spanish territories in 1767, in part because settlers complained that the missions deprived them of native labor. They returned around 1900. The Jesuits carried out educational, health and economic projects there and had a seminary there. The two murdered priests were well regarded among the Raramuri, learning their language and customs.

WILL THIS REFLECT PRESIDENT ANDRÉS MANUEL LÓPEZ OBRADOR?

López Obrador said his government no longer focused on detaining drug cartel leaders and often seemed to tolerate 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.

Mexican army vehicles arrive in Cerocahui, Mexico, after the killings.

Mexican army vehicles arrive in Cerocahui, Mexico, after the killings.

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

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In June, the US Congressional Research Office released a report stating that López Obrador “has advocated policies that focus on the root causes of crime, but his government has failed to conduct counter-narcotics operations. consistently… More than halfway through López Obrador’s six-year term, he has arguably achieved few of his anti-corruption and criminal justice goals.”

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