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 the sicarios in a church, according to Mexican authorities.
The killings 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 for the Salazar gang.
The reverends 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 he escaped and fled into the Cerocahui church. Two other Cerocahui residents were also kidnapped during Chueco’s crime spree and remain missing, police said.
Witnesses said that the bodies of Campos, Mora, and Palma, were all removed from the church and loaded into pick-up trucks by Chueco’s men. The bodies were found in the desert outside of town two days later.
Pope Francis issued 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 Jesuit 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 aiding the Indigenous Tarahumara people who inhabit 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 had earned respect as priests, they earned everyone’s respect. They were esteemed and their word was 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 famous for going crazy when he’s that way.”
“They are holy men… I am sorry we lost my brothers […] but I am very happy that they ended up defending life. Imagine giving your life for that of another. 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-troubled Mexican state of Guerrero.
In the wake of the killings, state attorney general Javier Fierro told reporters that Chueco’s run of mayhem had been sparked by a loss suffered by the local baseball team he sponsors. But Father Atilano said that the lost game was only part of the story.
“[Chueco] was on high drugs. He’s famous for going crazy when he’s that way,” Altilano said. “He had already been drugged and crazy for two days. He had burned down a house [in Cerocahui] as well.”
In response to a question about the death of Pedro Pallma, Altilano said, “We don’t know why he attacked the tour guide. We do know that he had previously kidnapped a tourist.”
The last is a reference to the case of U.S. hiker Patrick Braxton-Andrew, who Chueco allegedly abducted and killed in 2018, after mistaking him for a DEA agent.
After the recent murders in Cerocahui, Mexican officials have offered a 5-million-peso ($250,000) reward for information leading to Chueco Portillo’s arrest. Nevertheless, local and international press outlets have already begun to question how Chueco was still on the loose after being implicated in the murder of an American citizen.
“In these isolated areas, drug traffickers operate with total impunity, and they threaten violence against authorities who oppose them,” said Mike Vigil, the DEA’s former 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 in Mexico, the cartels have become the ruling bodies of twisted and violent justice.”
According to Vigil, Chueco’s Salazar gang is the Chihuahua-based enforcer wing for 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 are engaged in the 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 U.S. citizens just a few years ago.
“They feel they are the owners [of Mexico], and we can’t continue allowing that.”
“In 2019, three women and six children belonging to a Mormon enclave in Sonora were ambushed and brutally murdered,” Vigil said. “Although never solved, it is believed the Salazar gang was involved in the massacre.”
In the aftermath of the killings and unsolved abductions in Cerocahui, several prominent Mexican Jesuits voiced complaints that in some parts of Mexico the government has ceded control to the cartels.
“When the state doesn’t have control of territory and allows private armed groups to control it, we call that a failed state,” said Father Luis Hernández, a rector and professor at the Ibero-American University in Coahuila state, told Mexico News Daily.
The narcos feel they “can do whatever they want,” Hernández added. “They feel they are the owners [of Mexico], and we can’t continue allowing that.”
The priests’ murder in Cerocahui has also led to renewed questions about the pacifist, cartel-appeasement strategy authored by the administration of Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador.
“Mexico’s non-confrontational policy, referred to as “Abrazos no Balazos” has resulted in a failed state where criminals blatantly kill priests, journalists, and other innocent people,” Vigil said. “The killing of the two Jesuit priests is directly related to this useless strategy.”
Cerocahui’s surviving parish priest agreed with Vigil.
“What we have seen is that the federal government’s strategy is not to attack the cartels,“ Father Altiliano said. “And that is making the cartels stronger.”