Drug-driven cartel push ends with two dead priests dumped in a Mexican desert

A capo from a notorious Mexican crime group went on a rampage last week in the state of Chihuahua, eventually killing two elderly priests and a tour guide who had sought refuge from sicarios in a church, according to Mexican authorities.

The killings took place in the small desert town of Cerocahui, about 480 km from the Arizona border. According to Mexican police, the crime was orchestrated by Noriel “El Chueco” Portillo, who is said to be a regional leader of the Salazar gang.

The venerable Javier Campos, 79, and Joaquín Mora, 80, apparently died while trying to protect local guide Pedro Palma, who had allegedly been kidnapped and beaten by Chueco and his men before escaping and fleeing Cerocahui Church. Two other residents of Cerocahui were also kidnapped during Chueco’s crime and are still missing, police said.

Witnesses said the bodies of Campos, Mora and Palma were all removed from the church and loaded into trucks by Chueco’s men. The bodies were found in the desert outside the city two days later.

Pope Francis made a statement on Twitter about the violence, saying: “I express my pain and dismay at the murder in Mexico, the day before yesterday, of two Jesuits who are religious and a layman. How many murders in Mexico! Violence does not solve problems, but only increases unnecessary suffering. “

Father Jorge Atilano, who served in the same parish with Campos and Mora, told The Daily Beast that both of his fellow priests had dedicated their lives to helping the indigenous people of Tarahumara, who live in the rugged mountains of the Sierra Madre in Chihuahua.

“The Sierra is controlled by organized crime,” Atilano said, but explained that Campos and Mora had learned to make peace with armed groups.

“They knew how to have implicit coexistence agreements [with the narcos]. They deserved respect as priests, they deserved everyone’s respect. They were respected and their words were heard by all. “

Mexican bishop José González – a close personal friend of priests Campos and Mora – called the two men “martyrs” in an interview with The Daily Beast.

[Chueco] was on high drugs. He’s known for going crazy when he’s that way.

“They are holy men … I’m sorry we lost my brothers […] but I’m very glad they ended up defending life. Imagine giving your life for someone else. This is evangelical, right? Thus, the Lord tells us that there is no greater friend than the one who gives his life for others, said González, who oversees a diocese in the cartel-plagued Mexican state of Guerrero.

In the wake of the killings, Attorney General Javier Fierro told reporters that Chueco’s chaos had been triggered by a loss inflicted by the local baseball team he sponsors. But Father Atilano said the lost game was only part of the story.

“[Chueco] was on high drugs. He’s known for going crazy when he’s that way, Altilano said. “He had already been drugged and mad for two days. He had burned down a house [in Cerocahui] also.”

In response to a question about the death of Pedro Pallma, Altilano said: “We do not know why he attacked the tour guide. We know that he had previously kidnapped a tourist.”

The latest is a reference to the case of the American hiker Patrick Braxton-Andrew, who Chueco allegedly abducted and killed in 2018, after confusing him with a DEA agent.

A police officer stands by during the funeral procession for the two Jesuit priests Javier Campo Morales and Joaquin Mora.

HERIKA MARTINEZ / AFP via Getty Images

Following the recent killings in Cerocahui, Mexican officials have offered a reward of 5 million pesos ($ 250,000) for information leading to the arrest of Chueco Portillo. Nevertheless, local and international press media have already begun to question how Chueco was still at large after being involved in the murder of a US citizen.

“In these isolated areas, drug traffickers operate with impunity, and they threaten violence against the authorities who oppose them,” said Mike Vigil, the DEA’s former head of international operations.

“El Chueco was never arrested for killing an American hiker because it would have been an automatic death sentence for anyone who accused him of that crime,” Vigil said. “In many states in Mexico, cartels have become the governing bodies of perverted and violent justice.”

According to Vigil, Chueco’s Salazar gang is the Chihuahua – based enforcement wing of the internationally powerful Sinaloa cartel, formerly run by Chapo Guzmán and now controlled by a loose coalition of his family and supporters.

“El Salazar operates in the Mexican states of Sonora and Chihuahua,” said the DEA’s Vigil. “They are engaged in large-scale cultivation of marijuana and opium poppies.”

Vigil added that the Salazar outfit is also alleged to be responsible for the deaths of several American citizens just a few years ago.

They feel like they are the owners [of Mexico]and we can not continue to allow it.

“In 2019, three women and six children belonging to a Mormon clave in Sonora were assaulted and brutally murdered,” Vigil said. “Although it was never resolved, it is believed that the Salazar gang was involved in the massacre.”

In the wake of the killings and unsolved abductions in Cerocahui, several prominent Mexican Jesuits have complained that the government in some parts of Mexico has handed over control to the cartels.

“When the state has no control over the territory and allows private armed groups to control it, we call it a failed state,” said Father Luis Hernández, rector and professor at the Ibero-American University in the state of Coahuila. Mexico News Daily.

The anesthetists feel that they “can do what they want,” Hernández added. “They feel like they are the owners [of Mexico]and we can not continue to allow it. “

The assassination of priests in Cerocahui has also led to renewed questions about the pacifist cartel settlement strategy written by the administration of Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador.

“Mexico’s non-confrontational policies, referred to as ‘Abrazos no Balazos’, have resulted in a failed state in which criminals openly kill priests, journalists and other innocent people,” Vigil said. “The killing of the two Jesuit priests is directly related to this useless strategy. “

Cerocahuis’ surviving parish priest agreed with Vigil.

“What we have seen is that the federal government’s strategy is not to attack the cartels,” said Father Altiliano. “And that makes the cartels stronger.”