Two Jesuit priests heard gunshots coming from their church in the mountains of the Mexican state of Chihuahua.
When they arrived they found a local tourist guide bleeding out at the altar. Standing over him was the local boss of the country’s most powerful organized crime group, the Sinaloa cartel.
One of the priests began giving the last rites to the wounded man, but the gunman shot him before turning and opening fire on the second cleric.
By then, a third priest had arrived. The drug boss, known as “El Chueco” or “The Crooked One”, confessed his sins to him, and then he took the bodies away in a pickup truck.
News of the murders caused outrage across Mexico and the world. Pope Francis weighed in, decrying the high number of homicides in the country. The Catholic dioceses of Mexico demanded the government review its security strategy in light of the murders.
The Mexican government promised swift justice, but three weeks after the murders, El Chueco remains on the loose.
The brazen murders of the Jesuits have highlighted growing violence in rural Mexico and the risks that the country’s Catholic priests face every day as they tend to their communities.
Homicides have surged in rural regions throughout the country as criminal groups wage wars to take over greater swaths of territory. And priests are caught in the crossfire.
They have few security assurances in these regions and often walk a fine line between speaking out in defense of their parish and avoiding the deadly anger of powerful crime groups which operate in open defiance of the authorities.
El Chueco, José Noriel Portillo Gil, too, has long enjoyed such impunity.
In 2018, Portillo shot dead an American tourist, prompting state officials to promise they would spare nothing to capture him. Instead, the narco-trafficker continued to run his cartel, terrorize residents and openly commune with local mayors and police chiefs, according to a source who knows him.
This level of impunity is not new to priests who work in rural regions across Mexico.
Eighty percent of murders, disappearances, and extortions of priests have gone unsolved, according to a December report by the Catholic Multimedia Center.
The report found that extortion, and attacks against churches, have increased over the three years since President Andrés Manuel López Obrador took office. The leader, popularly known as Amlo, came to power promising “hugs not bullets”, which he promised would reduce soaring murder rates in the country. Instead, experts say, the approach has only emboldened criminal groups to become more violent and expand territorial control across the country.