Chihuahua Governor Maru Campos announced this Wednesday afternoon that the bodies of two Jesuit priests and a tourist guide, riddled with bullets on Monday, were found in Serocauyi Church, in the heart of the Sierra Tarahumara. According to official information, a group of criminals led by José Noriel Portillo Gil, also known as El Chueco, broke into the temple on Monday afternoon and first killed 60-year-old Pedro Palma, a well-known guide in the area, and then the priests who ran to him to the rescue, Javier Campos, 79, and Joaquin Mora, 80. The criminals dragged their bodies into a truck and fled. Three men are missing as of Wednesday.
The national and international outrage of the Jesuit community, including even the condemnation of Pope Francis this Wednesday, forced the State Attorney’s Office to find the bodies of two priests who have worked almost all their lives in one of the poorest and marginalized areas of Mexico. “Thanks to the extraordinary efforts of the State Attorney General’s Office, under the guidance of teacher Roberto Fierro, we were able to find and return – and this was confirmed by forensic science – the bodies of Jesuit priests Javier Campos, Joaquin Mora and tourist guide Pedro. Palma,” Campos said in a statement posted on his social media.
Tour guide Pedro Palma’s son, Ricardo, told EL PAÍS on Tuesday that he received a phone call from a colleague of his father’s on Monday informing him of what had happened. “While they were having dinner at the Misión Cerocahui of the Balderrama hotels, an armed group broke in and took him and a group of tourists. We don’t know how many or who,” he explained via WhatsApp on his way to Mexico. He was in Barcelona when he received the notification about his father. The son is a doctor and undergoes a specialty in a Spanish hospital. “The tour van he was driving was left abandoned near the hotel,” Palma added. Despite these allegations, prosecutors do not link the kidnapping of four people, believed to be tourists, to the murder of the tour guide and two priests.
Pedro Palma was a guide with over 40 years of experience in the Sierra Tarahumara. “He was born in the Teporachi community and emigrated to the United States at the age of 12 to be able to support his mother and siblings,” his son says. He later returned and set up a tourism business with his wife. And he came to work in such international agencies as Grand Circle Travel, Caravan Tours and American Orient Express. “He has always supported both the orphanage in Chihuahua and the Tarahumara schools in the mountains,” his son told the newspaper.
Jesuit priests Javier Campos and Joaquin Mora knew the mountains like the back of their hand. Campos, aged 79, was born in Mexico City and was the head of order in the region, where he had been since the age of 30. He was about to complete 50 years of work in this region of the Sierra Tarahumara, plagued by organized crime, which, however, he did not want to give up. He used to wear cowboy boots to walk comfortably on dirt roads and was seen even in the most remote communities. Mora, 81, who was born in Monterrey, had lived in the area for 23 years and wore blue jeans and a plaid shirt. He was calmer than Campos and spoke less Raramuri, but he is also remembered as a great missionary.
In the footsteps of El Chueco
The announcement comes shortly after the State Attorney’s Office offered a historic Chihuahua reward of five million pesos (about US$250,000) to anyone who gives a clue to the whereabouts of the triple-crime’s main suspect: José Noriel Portillo Gil, also known as El Chueco. However, no authority has explained how it was possible to find the bodies that the criminals were dragging on a truck and who wanted to add to the tragedy of more than 100,000 missing people in the country. No where or how were the bodies found. And none of the detainees after this discovery.
According to information provided on Tuesday by the prosecutor’s office, on June 20, in addition to the murder of three men, four more people were kidnapped and disappeared. Two men, a woman and a minor, for whom the authorities have not reported any progress in the investigation. They also did not indicate whether these disappearances were related to the triple crime of the Serokahui church.
The government of Andrés Manuel López Obrador said this Wednesday that it has sent army soldiers to participate in the search for the bodies and the capture of El Chueco, whom they believe is a local drug dealer accused of murder and organized crime. “An investigation is underway, there are already elements of the Ministry of National Defense who acted immediately, a search is underway. The culprit, the killer, has already been identified, and we are going to continue the investigation, ”the president said.
According to official reports, El Chueco is a local drug trafficker leader who has been strong in the Tarahumara mountains for many years, and the authorities did not limit his power, and, according to official reports, he is associated with the Sinaloa cartel. In October 2018, he was the prime suspect in the murder of American professor Patrick Braxton-Andrews, who was reportedly shot dead after being mistaken for a US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agent. And his name then became famous in each of the isolated municipalities of the mountains. Nobody knew that he was the owner of the heart of the Tarahumara: in San Rafael, Cienega de Trejo, Guadalupe Coronado, Mesa de Arturo, Serocauí and Bauichivo.
The people of Portillo control the installation and transfer of drugs in the region, whose impossible and isolated terrain makes it difficult for the authorities to check them without being identified as criminals. They also oppressed the indigenous population, taking their land, which led to the displacement of hundreds of people.
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