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Two Jesuit priests in Mexico are slain in area torn by drug trade

Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said in a news conference that authorities had information on the identities of the gunmen. (Edgard Garrido/Reuters)
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MEXICO CITY — Gunmen burst into a Catholic church in northern Mexico in pursuit of a tour guide trying to reach safety, killing him and two Jesuit priests, officials said Tuesday. The killings shocked even Mexicans accustomed to high levels of violence.

The incident occurred in the Tarahumara mountains of Chihuahua state, about 350 miles south of the Texas border. The largely Indigenous region has been consumed by violence in recent years involving drug traffickers who cultivate poppies for heroin production and illegally strip the forests of timber.

The Jesuits said in a statement that the Revs. Javier Campos Morales, 79, and Joaquín César Mora Salazar, 80, were killed inside the church in the town of Cerocahui. The religious order demanded justice and the return of the priests’ bodies, which were removed by the armed men.

State officials and media reports identified the tour guide as Pedro Eliodoro Palma Gutiérrez. The remote region is not far from the Copper Canyon, a series of scenic gorges often compared to the Grand Canyon in Arizona. It is popular with visitors who arrive in the area on a famed train known as El Chepe and go hiking or horseback riding.

The slayings were not an isolated event, the Jesuits said. “The Sierra Tarahumara, like many other regions of the country, suffers violence and neglect,” their statement read. “Every day men and women are arbitrarily slain, just like our brothers.”

The killings prompted an outpouring of sorrow and outrage from politicians, officials, human rights groups and priests. The government “has to urgently resolve the grave crisis of insecurity that the country is living through,” tweeted the head of the opposition Institutional Revolutionary Party, Alejandro Moreno.

On Wednesday, Pope Francis expressed “pain and shock” over the killings. “Once more I repeat that violence does not resolve problems but increases episodes of suffering,” said the pontiff, who is also from the Jesuit order.

Violent criminal groups are claiming more territory and eroding the Mexican government's control

President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said at a news conference Tuesday that gunmen rushed into the church Monday evening, chasing someone. “They killed him, then the priests emerged, and it seems they were killed, too,” López Obrador said. He added that authorities had information on the identities of the gunmen, but he didn’t provide further details or elaborate on why they were pursuing Palma Gutiérrez. He noted that there was a significant amount of organized crime in the area.

The government of Chihuahua said the priests appeared to be “victims of circumstance.” The prelates had spent decades ministering to Indigenous communities in the Tarahumara.

Hundreds of Indigenous families have been forced to flee their homes in the region, part of a growing crisis of displacement in Mexico as crime groups expand their territorial control. About 30 Indigenous leaders have been killed in the area in the past two decades, according to Mexican news reports.

The attack Monday night highlighted the dangers facing religious leaders, human rights activists, journalists and others in Mexico who oppose crime groups or threaten their activities. Thirty-four priests have been slain in the country since 2012, including the latest victims, according to the Centro Católico Multimedial. Many of the crimes remain unsolved.

The Jesuits are known for their universities and their programs to help poor and violence-plagued communities. “We will remain present, working on our mission of justice, reconciliation and peace,” their statement said.