MEXICO CITY (AP) — Two Jesuit priests and a tour guide were murdered in Mexico’s Sierra Tarahumara this week, the latest in a long line of activists, journalists, travelers and local residents who have been accused by criminals dominating the region. Has been threatened or killed by gangs.
Rev. Javier Campos, 79, and Joaquín Mora, 80, spent most of their lives serving the region’s indigenous people. He was shot and killed in the small church on Cerrocahui’s town square on Monday, along with a tourist guide he tried to save from a local criminal owner, officials said.
Tourists are drawn to the region’s gorgeous mountains, deep valleys and the untamed Tarahumara indigenous people, who refer to themselves as the Raramuri and are renowned for their ability to run dozens of miles barefoot or in leather sandals. The mostly roadless area contains wonders such as Copper Canyon, often referred to as the Grand Canyon of Mexico, and one of the country’s last working passenger trains.
But mountains are a land of tragedy as well as beauty. Even after centuries, the Raramuri are still largely poor, with their ancestral land being taken from them. Even in this century, they have faced famine and starvation during the worst years.
Why is the Sierra Tarahumara so dangerous?
Drug cartels have long used remote mountains to plant illegal crops of marijuana and opium poppies. In the 2000s, the cartel expanded into illegal logging on Raramuri lands, kicking out or killing those who opposed them. The Ciudad Juárez-based La Linea gang is battling the Sinaloa Cartel, whose local branch is known as Los Salazar.
Isela Gonzalez, director of the Sierra Madre Alliance environmental group, said gangs now compete to control local alcohol sales, extortion and kidnapping. “Sierra Tarahumara is in a climate of constant violence,” Gonzalez said. She has just returned from a Raramuri community, the Coloradas de la Virgen, and said, “There’s a very violent atmosphere, a lot of gunfights between groups, and it’s forcing a lot of people to flee.”
And who has been 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. Some of the suspects detained in those murders were likely only triggermen, and their possible ties to drug gangs were apparently not thoroughly investigated.
Journalist Miroslava Breach was killed in 2017 by gunmen linked to the Los Salazar gang, apparently in retaliation for reporting on ties to drug gangs to politicians.
Perhaps the case that garnered the most attention was that of 34-year-old American hiker Patrick Braxton-Andrew, who was killed in 2018 in Urik, where Jesuits were massacred. Authorities at the time identified the killer as Jose Noriel Portillo Gil, alias El “Chueco,” or “The Crooked One.” An alleged local boss of the Los Salazar gang, he is the same man wanted for the murders of two priests.
What has the government done?
The fact that Portillo Gil could be charged with murdering an American tourist and not caught – and then charged with killing two much-loved priests – stunned many.
“I never understood how it happened that the United States didn’t raise holy hell until they caught it,” said Randall Gingrich, an environmental and educational activist who worked at Sierra for three decades. “Why was there no massive search till this is resolved? How could he still be there?”
The governor of Chihuahua State at the time, Javier Corral, promised “an exemplary punishment to this criminal and his gang who, by acting in this cowardly manner, have ended the Sinaloa Cartel’s influence and control of the region. . . us No one will stop him from catching him.”
Nothing like this happened. Portillo Gil continued to operate so freely that – according to state prosecutors – when the local baseball team he sponsored recently lost a game, “El Chueco” went to the home of two players on the opposing team, shooting one. Killed, kidnapped another and set their house on fire the day the priest was killed.
“It shows a systematic impunity,” Mexican security analyst Alejandro Hope said.
And who has been bullied?
Most people working in the Sierra Tarahumara report threats, threats and drug-cartel outposts on the main roads in the mountains as well. That atmosphere led to the cancellation of the 50-mile-plus Copper Canyon Ultramarathon in 2015 after violence near the course.
The annual race was founded by ultramarathon competitor Micah True, who lived amongst the Raramuri, inspired by his running skills and wanted to benefit from his culture while highlighting it. It was successfully conducted in March this year.
“Most people had a really good experience,” Gingrich said. ..The community benefits from (the race) but something can go wrong there.”
Why were the priests there?
The Society of Jesus, as the Jesuits are known, has a long history of protecting indigenous peoples, and long ties to the Sierra Tarahumara. The Jesuits began missions among the Raramuri in the 1600s, but were expelled from all Spanish territories in 1767 after colonists complained that the missions were depriving them of indigenous labor. They returned around 1900. The Jesuits carry out educational, health and economic projects and there is a seminary. The two priests killed were known among the Raramuri to know their language and customs.
Will it affect President Andrés Manuel Lepez Obrador?
López Obrador has announced that his government is no longer focused on detaining drug cartel leaders, and often appears to tolerate gangs, not even interfering in elections. He also praises him at one point. The killings and other outbursts of violence come at an uncomfortable time for López Obrador.
The head of the US Northern Command, General Glenn VanHerk, said last year that “international criminal organizations … are often operating in 30 to 35% of Mexico’s unincorporated territories.” Hope calls that number “made up” but says the government is facing “a real problem of territorial control”.
In June, the US Congressional Research Office released a report saying that López Obrador has “advocated policies that focus on the root causes of crime, but that his government has not taken consistent drug action.” .. More than half of López Obrador’s six-year term, he has arguably achieved some of his anti-corruption and criminal justice goals.”