The cowardly murder of two priests and a tour guide in northern Mexico has made headlines for the last week, but for the country's crime-ridden border states, it's just another example of everyday criminality.
For the last nine days, Mexican authorities have led a vast manhunt for José Noriel Portillo Gil, alias "El Chueco," a powerful member of the Salazar, a Sinaloa Cartel cell operating in the northern state of Chihuahua. His relatives have been arrested, local political leaders are under investigation for alleged connections to him and a reward of five million Mexican pesos (around $250,000) has been offered for information leading to his arrest.
The offensive from authorities comes after El Chueco allegedly gunned down two Jesuit priests and a man they were sheltering inside a church on June 20, according to a statement from Mexican migration officials.
The priests were attempting to protect a local tour guide, Pedro Palma, who had run into the church after escaping a gang who had kidnapped him earlier, when all three were shot. The bodies were later removed by unknown armed men. Another four people, including a minor, were kidnapped after witnessing the killings, El País reported.
Three days later, the case rose to international attention after Pope Francis spoke about the murders and expressed his dismay at Mexico’s shocking murder rate.
El Universal reported that Palma’s kidnapping may have been linked to a recent baseball game that the team El Chueco sponsors had lost.
According to that report, El Chueco went on a murderous rampage following the game. Before committing the murders at the church, El Chueco had gone to the residence of two brothers who played for the opposing baseball team, shooting one brother before abducting both.
President Andrés Manuel López Obrador told the press that police have had an arrest warrant out for El Chueco since 2018 for the murder of Patrick Braxton-Andrew, an American tourist he mistook for a US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) official, El Heraldo de Chihuahua reported. The president added that the wife of Pedro Palma had been kidnapped before the murders and is still missing, according to the BBC.
InSight Crime Analysis
Pushed into the public eye following Pope Francis’ comments, El Chueco is representative of the many local crime bosses that underpin Mexico’s criminal economy, enacting extreme violence while enjoying near-total impunity.
A 30-year old Chihuahua local, El Chueco rose to become the leader in Chihuahua of the Salazar, a Sinaloa Cartel cell that originated in the state and now also maintains a presence in Sonora, a border state to the west. The group maintains control of key drug and migrant trafficking routes into the United States and is also involved in other illicit activities, including poppy production, for which it forcibly displace farmers from their land.
According to El Universal, El Chueco is responsible for the 2019 disappearance and murder of Cruz Soto Caraveo, an activist and representative for forcibly displaced families in the Chihuahua’s Sierra Tarahumara mountain range, who spoke to InSight Crime for a past investigation about booming criminal economies in the region.
In 2020, Caraveo told InSight Crime that criminal organizations the Sierra Tarahumara were “involved in everything — illegal logging, mining, ranching." He was disappeared after receiving death threats. Nobody has yet been held responsible.
But El Chueco's alleged criminal endeavors didn't stop there. He was also involved in an attack on Chihuahua’s investigation agency in 2017, and was fingered by El Universal for the disappearance of three men in October 2019.
An InSight Crime investigation last year revealed that El Chueco controls a monopoly on the sale of alcohol in Chihuahua, and uses threats of violence to threaten stores, including national chains, if they sell alcohol without being “authorized” by the group.
Though El Chueco has been on the radar of Mexican authorities for years, he has continued to carry out violence regardless.