MEXICO CITY — The murder of two Jesuit priests at a church in Mexico this week stunned a country that had been growing frustration for years over the government’s failure to stop a deluge of killings.
But this time, the government faces sharp criticism from one of the country’s most powerful institutions, the Roman Catholic Church, which has fueled public outcry.
The Mexican bishops’ conference on Thursday urged the government to review “security strategies that are failing.” Rectors of Jesuit universities took issue with the government’s inability to take control of criminals, with one calling Mexico “a failed state” where “the law of the jungle” reigns.
Even Pope Francis, a Jesuit from Argentina, said in his weekly audience from the Vatican that he was “stunned” by the attack. “How many murders are there in Mexico!” he posted on Twitter.
The homicide rate in Mexico is near its highest level in decades. Nearly 100 people are killed every day. Beach holidaymakers have been killed in resorts, mourners at funerals and women in bars.
Still, the murder of two priests known for serving the rural poor in the northern state of Chihuahua shocked a deeply Catholic society where religious leaders generally took the brunt of the brutality.
The attack, which also killed a tour guide, may be remembered as an important moment in Mexico’s long struggle with violence, or simply as yet another unspeakable horror.
But the protest of the Catholic Church, a moral authority, has for the time being placed President Andrés Manuel López Obrador with a challenge he is not used to: a critic he cannot easily dismiss.
“When tourists are killed in Cancun or women are murdered in Monterrey, the Pope doesn’t count,” said Alejandro Hope, a security analyst in Mexico City. “Now the frustration is being led by a sophisticated and socially anchored institution, with powerful international connections.”
López Obrador called the killings “unacceptable” and promised a thorough investigation into the matter, sending soldiers to Chihuahua to search for the perpetrator allegedly responsible.
Yet the president, who has a tendency to lash out at his perceived opponents, has been careful not to denigrate Catholic leaders. He also has not claimed, as he has in the past, that the violence in this case was caused by criminals killing each other.
“This is a case where it is utterly impossible to blame the victims,” said Mr Hope.
Asked whether his security strategy should change, Mr López Obrador insisted during a news conference on Thursday that his government was on the right track and accused his predecessors of the bloodshed in Mexico.
“All this is the rotten fruit of a policy of corruption, of impunity, which has been pursued since the time of Felipe Calderón,” said Mexico’s president from 2006 to 2012.
Hours later, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference released a stark statement on Twitter that said, “There’s no point denying reality, nor blaming the past for what we need to fix now.”
The murder rate in Mexico tripled in the 12 years before López Obrador took office in 2018, and he was determined to break with endless wars against drug cartels, instead offering young people economic alternatives to organized crime. “Hugs, not bullets,” his slogan promised.
But that plan has failed, and just over halfway through his tenure, Mr. López Obrador has already presided over more than 120,000 murders.
The priests, Javier Campos, 79, and Joaquín Mora, 80, were shot Monday while trying to help a local guide who had taken refuge at their church in Cerocahui, a small town in the mountains of Chihuahua, according to local authorities. The guide, Pedro Palma, was chased by a local criminal who shot all three men in the church and took their bodies; they were found two days later.
It was the latest in a series of murders in which the victims were well-known figures in their communities, including social activists and especially journalists.
“For most criminal organizations in the past, there was a general golden rule that you need the community by your side,” said Falko Ernst, senior analyst at the International Crisis Group. “You want to tell the state and local government that it’s not quite burning in your area.”
But criminal groups in Mexico have increasingly adopted a business model based on controlling certain areas and extorting the people who live there. “There is mounting evidence that many criminal actors are testing the waters to see what they can get away with,” Mr Ernst said.
Impunity is the rule in Mexico, and with little consequence for taking a life, criminals have become increasingly emboldened about who they are being targeted.
“They feel they are exercising de facto sovereignty,” Mr Ernst said.
Chihuahua’s prosecutor’s office said the suspected killer of the priests is José Noriel Portillo Gil, known as “El Chueco,” who has ties to organized crime and, according to Mr López Obrador, is wanted for the 2018 murder of an American tourist. .
According to local media, Mr Portillo was also involved in the 2019 murder of a human rights activist in Chihuahua.
“He’s a very bloodthirsty man,” said Isela González, an environmentalist in Chihuahua.
Local authorities say Mr Portillo had been violent at the church in the hours leading up to the murder. Earlier that day, they said, he was involved in a dispute over a recent baseball game in which a team he sponsored had lost. According to witness statements, Mr. Portillo kidnapped two brothers who were playing for the opposing team after he shot one of them and set their house on fire. Both men are still missing.
The prosecutor’s office has offered a reward of approximately $250,000 for any information leading to Mr. portillo.
Luis Arriaga Valenzuela, rector of the Jesuit Ibero-American University in Mexico City, said in an interview that the attack was “a paradigmatic case” that “examples the grave flaws of a failed security system.”
Mr. Arriaga knew the two priests: the reserved Mr. Mora, who practiced yoga, and the witty Mr. Campos, who always wore cowboy boots.
“They have devoted their entire lives to serving the poorest communities,” he said. “They were men of unbreakable faith.”