Who were Fr. Javier and Fr. Joaquín?
Fr. Javier “Gallo” and Fr. Joaquín were beloved priests in the Rarámuri community, an Indigenous group in the Tarahumara region of Mexico. Both dedicated their lives to serving Native peoples and defending human rights in an area beset by organized crime and violence.
On June 20, 2022, an armed group led by local crime boss José Noriel Portillo Gil brought a tour guide named Pedro Palma into the church of San Francisco to be executed next to the altar. Fathers Javier and Joaquín attempted to defend him. All three were killed.
The murders were witnessed by two other members of the Jesuit community. Disregarding their pleas, Gil removed the bodies of the murdered men from the church. The bodies were found by authorities two days later—81 kilometers away from San Francisco Javier Parish.
On March 22, 2023, Portillo Gil was shot to death in nearby Sinoloa. Mexican Jesuits responded, saying Portillo Gil’s death “can in no way be considered a triumph of justice or as a solution to the structural problem of violence in the Sierra Tarahumara. On the contrary, the absence of a legal process in accordance with the law in relation to the homicides would imply a failure of the Mexican State in the face of its basic duties and would confirm that the authorities do not have territorial control in the region.”
Ongoing violence in Mexico
The killing of Fr. Javier, Fr. Joaquín, and Pedro Palma is not an isolated incident. It is emblematic of a persistent human rights crisis in Mexico and the failure of the nation’s militarized security model, according to the Jesuit human rights organization, Centro Prodh. Since the beginning of the so-called “war on drugs” in 2006, this crisis has generated horrific results: 35,000 homicides are reported each year; fewer than 1 in 10 homicides are solved; and more than 100,000 people have been disappeared.
Tarahumara is particularly affected by this violence given the strong presence of organized criminal groups—involved in drug trafficking, logging, mining and other activities—who engage in constant disputes for control of the area. In this context, several human rights defenders have been threatened, attacked and even killed.
Portillo Gil was a member of the Sinaloa Cartel, the largest and most powerful narcotrafficking organization in the Western Hemisphere. In addition to these three killings, he was responsible for the murder of an American teacher in 2018 and an activist in 2019, and there has been an active warrant for his arrest since 2018. Despite his notoriety, he remained at large until his death, evading prosecution by buying off and infiltrating the local authorities. Though Portillo Gil is dead, the systems of organized crime and corruption that upheld his power still persist in Tarahumara.
What are the Jesuits doing in response?
The Jesuits now fear retribution and continued violence at the hands of the Sinaloa cartel. In response, Mexican and U.S. Jesuits are calling on Mexican authorities to address cartel violence and achieve justice for Fr. Javier, Fr. Joaquín, and Pedro Palma. They have also asked for the protection of the Jesuit community in the area.
Mourners gather at the funeral service for Fr. Javier and Fr. Fr. Joaquín.