Authorities have found the bodies of two Jesuit priests fatally shot in Mexico in violence condemned by Pope Francis.
The Jesuit order had previously said the two priests, Javier Campos, 79, and Joaquin Mora, 81, had been fatally shot in the town of Cerocahui in the northern state of Chihuahua on Monday “while trying to defend a man who was seeking refuge” from a pursuer. The fleeing man, identified as tour guide Pedro Palma, was also killed.
Authorities said the bodies had been moved from the scene of the attack but were recovered on Wednesday.
“We’ve found and recovered … the bodies of the Jesuit priests Javier Campos, Joaquin Mora and the tour guide Pedro Palma,” Chihuahua Governor Maria Eugenia Campos said in a video posted to social media.
The identity of the victims was confirmed by forensic experts, while the state prosecutor’s office announced a reward of $250,000 for information leading to the capture of the alleged murderer. Authorities have identified as a suspect a 30-year-old man already wanted over the murder of an American tourist in 2018.
Speaking at the end of his weekly audience at the Vatican on Wednesday, Pope Francis, who is also a Jesuit, called the priests his “brothers”.
“So many murders in Mexico. I am close, in affection and prayer, to the Catholic community affected by this tragedy,” he said.
The prosecutor’s office said on Wednesday that before the murders, the suspect had assaulted two other people after a disagreement over a baseball game. He later kidnapped Palma, who managed to escape and ran into the church seeking help.
On Tuesday, Javier Avila, another Jesuit priest working in the region since the 1970s, told local radio that the two priests knew their killer because he was a local crime boss.
He said the man was “out of his mind, drunk” and had threatened residents to keep their mouths shut.
Violence is common in Chihuahua, an important transit route for illegal drugs bound for the US that is violently contested between rival trafficking gangs. It is also common for religious leaders in Mexico to act as defenders of their communities and as mediators with criminal gangs operating there.
Speaking on the killings, President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador said the mountainous state “has for some time been infiltrated, penetrated, dominated by crime”.
The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights in Mexico also condemned the killings, saying the priests had carried out “important social and pastoral work” among the Raramuri, or Tarahumara, Indigenous people.
“The murder of these two well-known priests reminds us of the situation of extreme violence and vulnerability faced by the communities of the Sierra Tarahumara in Chihuahua,” said UN human rights representative Guillermo Fernandez-Maldonado.
About 30 priests have been killed in Mexico in the past decade, according to the Centro Catolico Multimedial, a Catholic organisation.