No Sanctuary Here

June 22, 2022

Many years ago I spent a long afternoon with a Jesuit priest on an isolated road in the mountains of the state of Chihuahua in Mexico. We had been traveling from one mission to another when we came upon a battered pickup truck pulled off to the side of the road. A man and a woman of the Tarahumara nation were disconsolately leaning up against the truck, the rear tire shredded to pieces.

The priest, Javier Campos, spoke with the man, and learned that the truck’s spare tire was flat and that he did not have a pump.

Fr. Campos reached into the cab of his own truck and pulled out a bicycle pump. This pump however, turned out to be broken. Undeterred, cheerfully, the priest pulled the pump apart, laying out the pieces on his pickup’s tailgate. After figuring out that the pump’s gaskets were no good, he managed to fashion together a fix, using some rubber bands, and, I think, a good bit of spit.

He put the pump back together, and then invited the Tarahumara fellow to use it to fill up the spare tire. The spare was pumped up, and the couple slowly drove off.

Fr. Campos waved goodbye as they left, and then remarked to me, “That was a very good deed. If they were still here after dark, they would have been at the mercy of the local cartel. And those guys have no mercy.”

We continued on our own way; he had Queen playing in the truck’s CD, whose tunes he accompanied with a pretty good voice.

This past Monday, a member of the local Sinaloa cartel shot to death Fr. Campos, and his Jesuit companion, Father Joaquín César Mora Salazar. A man attempting to escape an assassination attempt had sought refuge in the Jesuits’ parish church in the small town of Cerocauhi in the mountains of Chihuahua. The two priests confronted the murderer, and then died on the floor of their church.

Both of the priests had worked for nearly thirty years in the high sierra. They served the Tarahumara humbly, well aware that the church had nearly destroyed the tribe in the years following the Spanish conquest of Mexico.

When Fr. Campos first came to the region, it was simply hard work: the Tarahumara are amongst the poorest and most isolated of Mexicans. The villagers followed the seasons—moving up the high ridges in the hot summers and down to deep valleys during the winter cold. The church leaders had to cover a lot of territory just to keep up with the parishioners.  In the rugged terrain there was not much margin for mistakes. A broken bicycle pump, for instance, could be a big deal.

But they managed in their own way, setting up medical clinics and schools, offering the social services that a proper government would provide and modeling a church along the perspectives provided by a Latin American Liberation Theology.

Javier and his companions learned to speak Tarahumara and worked to appreciate and respect the Tarahumara ways. To their credit, they always felt that they fell short in that regard. “There is too much beauty in these people for our poor culture to appreciate,” remarked Javier once upon a time.

Over time, as Americans’ appetites for cocaine and opiates grew, and as more and more guns arrived from the United States, drug cartels expanded their operations in the region, its isolation ideal for growing poppies, for producing opioids, for processing and setting up cocaine to be shipped across a border that was just a day’s journey a way.

There was and is no mercy. The brutality, the bloodshed, and the lawlessness have gone unaddressed by governments with no particular political interest in indigenous peoples.

The Jesuits, in commenting on the deaths of their colleagues, noted that the priests were just two more of many, many innocents who have suffered death as part of the price of this version of North American free trade, “…sin que su sufrimiento suscite empatía y atención pública,” (“their suffering failing to arouse either empathy or attention from the public”).

“Que descansen en paz” (“may they rest in peace”) will be the prayer of the many people who loved and respected these men.

For my part, I imagine God’s long sigh travelling the length and the breadth of those canyons, a sigh perhaps of exasperation but certainly not the one of peace.