FOX 5 San Diego

Slain priest shared concerns about poverty, drugs in mountains of Chihuahua

JUAREZ, Mexico (Border Report) – Mario Manrriquez remembers the elderly priest his peers referred to as “El Padre Gallo” (the Rev. Rooster).

“He was a good man, a man of God, and an elderly man who didn’t harm anyone. On the contrary, he was a very patient man, willing to listen, eager to have a dialogue with you,” said Manrriquez, vicar of pastoral services for the Catholic Diocese of Juarez.

Father Gallo, also known as Javier Campos Morales, 79, was one of two Jesuit priests killed by gunmen inside a Catholic church late Monday in Cerocahui, Mexico. The other was Joaquin Cesar Mora Salazar, 80. Their diocese said they were shot dead “while they were exercising their duty of physically and spiritually aiding a person who was dying.”

Official information remained sketchy on Tuesday. The Chihuahua Attorney General’s Office late in the day linked the slayings to the kidnapping of two men and two women – one of them a minor – earlier on Monday. The AG’s Office described the man killed in the church with the two priests as a tour guide named Pedro Eliodoro P.G.

The agency said the Mexican Army, the National Guard and other police agencies were looking for the culprits, but no arrests were reported.

The Diocese of the Tarahumara Mountains of Western Chihuahua said the priests’ bodies were missing. “Not satisfied with killing them, the assassins took their bodies, which share the fate of so many disappeared ones that leave behind pain, sadness and outrage among those who loved them,” the diocese said in a statement.

Local news reports attributed the murders to a local drug trafficker, but Chihuahua police declined to comment on those reports on Tuesday.

‘I would have done the same thing’

Campos, a Mexico City native, and Mora, born in Monterrey, committed to the Church when they were 16, according to the Mexican Jesuit Society. “Father Gallo” was ordained in 1972 and spent most of his career in the Tarahumara mountains of Chihuahua; Mora, known by his friends as “Morita,” became a priest in 1971 and has been in Chihuahua since 2007, according to the society.

In their private conversations, Father Gallo would tell Vicar Manrriquez that he was concerned about the poverty, drug trafficking and growing drug addiction rates in the mountains of Western Chihuahua, which include several Indigenous communities.

“He was always looking for ways to help the people. He spoke about hunger and the lack of medicines. That’s what worried him the most,” Manrriquez told Border Report. Despite all that, “he never asked to be reassigned and he never wanted to leave the mountains.”

The vicar said the church is concerned not only about individual acts of violence but also about a growing erosion of family and social values. That environment is ripe for criminal groups to prosper.

“Everywhere you look there is impunity, every (act of violence) is muddled. They (the authorities) just blame organized crime and that seems to be a visa for operating with impunity,” Manrriquez said. “We don’t know exactly what happened (in Cerocahui), but people frequently come into the church seeking the priest’s help and we don’t ask for ID, we don’t ask where they come from. All kinds of human beings come to us and they are all people we need to hear out, to help, to serve.”

“There’s no respect for life, not even for women or children,” he said, reflecting on recent mass shootings in Juarez, including one last week inside a Denny’s Restaurant on the city’s main commercial avenue. Two women and two men were shot dead while sitting at a table celebrating one of the women’s birthdays. A patron who tried to run away also was shot, but survived, according to the state police.

The Rev. Alfredo Roana blames the violence on everything from family breakups to children being desensitized by violent video games.

The rector of San Lorenzo Sanctuary in Juarez regrets the murder of his peers, but he hopes it will help people realize that most men of the cloth are good people who dedicate their lives to helping others.

Roana doesn’t know if the killers were aware the men they were gunning down were priests, or if they were locals who should’ve known or hired guns from elsewhere. But when asked if he would have done the same thing – stand up for a wounded man being pursued by assassins – he said he would.

“At that moment, you don’t weigh the consequences. Our formation, our training is to stand up for others. If that person comes in, you protect him. Maybe you don’t expect to get shot, but the possibility does not stop you,” Roana said.