A capo from a notorious Mexican crime group rampaged through Chihuahua state last week, eventually killing two elderly priests and a tour guide who Mexican authorities said had taken refuge from the sicarios in a church.
The murders occurred in the small desert town of Cerocahui, about 480 miles 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.
Reverends Javier Campos, 79, and Joaquín Mora, 80, apparently died trying to protect local leader Pedro Palma, who was allegedly kidnapped and beaten by Chueco and his men before escaping and entering the Cerocahui Church escaped. Two other Cerocahui residents were also kidnapped during the Chueco crime spree and remain missing, police said.
Witnesses said the bodies of Campos, Mora and Palma were all removed from the church by Chueco’s men and loaded into vans. The bodies were found two days later in the desert outside of town.
Pope Francis issued a statement on Twitter regarding the violence, saying: “I express my pain and dismay at the murder of two Jesuits and a layman the day before yesterday in Mexico. How many murders in Mexico! Violence does not solve problems, it only increases unnecessary suffering.”
Father Jorge Atilano, who ministered in the same parish as Campos and Mora, told The Daily Beast that his two fellow priests dedicated their lives to helping the indigenous Tarahumara people who live in the rugged mountains of Chihuahua’s Sierra Madre.
“The Sierra is controlled by organized crime,” Atilano said, but explained that Campos and Mora have learned to make peace with armed groups.
“They knew how to make implicit coexistence agreements [with the narcos]. They had earned respect as priests, they had earned everyone’s respect. They were valued and their word was heard by all.”
Mexico’s 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 high on drugs. He’s famous for going insane when he’s like this.”
“They are holy men… I’m sorry we lost my brothers […] but I am very happy that in the end they defended life. Imagine giving your life for someone else’s. That’s evangelical, right? So the Lord tells us that there is no greater friend than he who lays down his life for others,” said González, who heads a diocese in the cartel-ridden state of Guerrero, Mexico.
After the killings, Attorney General Javier Fierro told reporters that Chueco’s mayhem streak was sparked by a loss of the local baseball team he sponsored. But Father Atilano said that the lost game was only part of the story.
“[Chueco] was high on drugs. He’s famous for going crazy when he’s like this,” Altilano said. “He had already been drugged and insane for two days. He had burned down a house [in Cerocahui] also.”
When asked about Pedro Pallma’s death, Altilano replied: “We don’t know why he attacked the tour guide. We know that he previously kidnapped a tourist.”
The last relates to the case of US hiker Patrick Braxton-Andrew, whom Chueco allegedly kidnapped and killed in 2018 after mistaking him for a DEA agent.
Following the recent killings in Cerocahui, Mexican officials have offered a 5 million pesos ($250,000) reward for information leading to Chueco Portillo’s arrest. Nonetheless, local and international press outlets have already begun to question why Chueco was still at large after being implicated in the murder of an American citizen.
“In these remote areas, drug traffickers operate with complete impunity, threatening authorities who oppose them with violence,” said Mike Vigil, former DEA chief 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 charged him with that crime,” Vigil said. “In many states of Mexico, the cartels have become the governing organs of a twisted and violent judiciary.”
According to Vigil, Chueco’s Salazar gang is the Chihuahua-based enforcer wing of the internationally powerful Sinaloa Cartel, formerly run by Chapo Guzmán and now controlled by a loose coalition of his family and followers.
“El Salazar operates in the Mexican states of Sonora and Chihuahua,” said the DEA’s Vigil. “They’re into the large-scale cultivation of marijuana and opium poppies.”
Vigil added that the Salazar squad is also believed to be responsible for the deaths of several US citizens a few years ago.
“You feel like an owner [of Mexico]and we can no longer allow that.”
“In 2019, three women and six children belonging to a Mormon enclave in Sonora were ambushed and brutally murdered,” Vigil said. “Although it has never been solved, it is believed that the Salazar gang were involved in the massacre.”
After the murders and unsolved kidnappings in Cerocahui, several prominent Mexican Jesuits complained that the government had ceded control to the cartels in some parts of Mexico.
“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 Iberoamerican University in Coahuila state Mexico News Daily.
The narcos feel they can “do whatever they want,” Hernández added. “You feel like you own it [of Mexico]and we can no longer allow that to happen.”
The murder of the priests in Cerocahui has also prompted renewed questions about the pacifist cartel appeasement strategy being devised by the government of Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador.
“Mexico’s non-confrontational policy, dubbed ‘Abrazos no Balazos,’ has resulted in a failed state where criminals are blatantly killing priests, journalists and other innocent people,” Vigil said. “The murder of the two Jesuit priests is directly related to this useless strategy.”
Cerocahui’s surviving vicar 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.”