Watch CBS News

"The Crooked One," drug gang leader accused of killing priests in Mexico, is found shot to death, his sister says

Mexico villages arm kids to fight cartels
Armed kids shine light on Mexico's drug cartel violence 06:40

The sister of a drug gang leader accused of murdering two Jesuit priests last year has identified a body found shot to death in northern Mexico as her brother, prosecutors said Wednesday.

The murder of the two beloved Jesuit priests in June 2022 had shocked Mexico, and Jesuits said the suspect's death, if confirmed, would only prove that the Mexican government can't catch criminals and has lost control of parts of the country.

The body is believed to be that of accused killer José Noriel Portillo Gil, alias "El Chueco," or "The Crooked One." Despite nine months of supposed searches for Portillo Gil, the circumstances of his death suggest he was executed by his own or a rival drug gang. Portillo Gil's gang was also implicated in the 2018 killing of an American travelling in the area.

César Jáuregui, the chief prosecutor of the northern state of Sinaloa, said police received a report about a dead body Tuesday in the town of Choix, an area dominated by the Sinaloa drug cartel.

Jáuregui said Diana Carolina Portillo, the suspect's sister, identified the body of the man, who was believed to have been shot to death some time Monday.

Jáuregui said "we cannot conclusively determine this case is closed until we have scientific proof," he told a news conference.

But the corpse was relatively fresh, found in a field only a day after the man was killed, and the face was intact, making the sister's identification very plausible.

The Society of Jesus, as the Jesuits are known, said Wednesday that the mere fact that Portillo Gil had been shot to death didn't mean justice had been done.

"If it is confirmed that this is the person implicated in the murder of the two Jesuit priests, his turning up dead can in no way be considered a triumph for justice, or a solution to the structural problem of violence" in the mountainous Sierra Tarahumara region, the Jesuits said in a statement.

LOCALIZAN SIN VIDA A PROBABLE ASESINO DE LOS JESUITAS DE CEROCAHI El presunto responsable del delito, “El Chueco”,...

Posted by Centro Católico Multimedial on Wednesday, March 22, 2023

"On the contrary, the lack of an adequate legal process in the murder case would only imply the Mexican government has failed in its basic duties and confirm that the authorities do not have control of the territory," according to the Society of Jesus.

President Andrés Manuel López Obrador and the Defense Department had vowed to find Portillo Gil and bring him to justice.

Last June, the state prosecutor's office announced a reward of $250,000 for information leading to the capture of the alleged murderer. The office said at the time it was the highest reward offered in the history of the state.

It is not uncommon in Mexico for cartels to kill one of their own members, if their misdeeds have resulted in increased police or military pressure that affects the gang's business.

López Obrador stressed earlier Wednesday that the body's identity had not yet been proven by tests.

On June 20, Portillo Gil allegedly killed the two Jesuit priests and a tour guide, after the guide ran into a church in the neighboring state of Chihuahua to seek refuge, and the priests tried to protect the guide.

The Jesuits have vowed to remain in the Tarahumara mountains, where the order has ministered to the Rarámuri Indigenous community for centuries.

The murdered priests, the Rev. Javier Campos, 79, and the Rev. Joaquín Mora, 80, had spent much of their lives serving the Rarámuri community in the Chihuahua town of Cerocahui, despite fierce violence by drug gangs and illegal loggers in the area.

Mexican authorities search for bodies of priests along with others who were kidnapped in Mexico City
Jesuit priests hold a mass next to the photos of two priests Javier Campos and Joaquin Mora who were murdered, after Mexican authorities said that they are searching for their bodies along with others who were kidnapped in a violent stretch of northern Mexico, at San Ignacio de Loyola church in Mexico City, Mexico June 21, 2022. EDGARD GARRIDO / REUTERS

After the killings, the church's Catholic Multimedia Center said seven priests had been murdered under the current administration, which took office in December 2018, and at least two dozen under the former president, who took office in 2012. In 2016, three priests were killed in just one week in Mexico.

Portillo Gil was also accused in the 2018 killing of Patrick Braxton-Andrew, a 34-year-old Spanish teacher from North Carolina who was traveling in the Tarahumara mountains.

Portillo Gil's gang apparently suspected Braxton-Andrew of being a U.S. drug agent and killed him.

Despite the criminality, the area's natural beauty continues to draw tourists. The Tarahumara mountains are known for their dramatic scenery, and the long endurance runs that the Rarámuri people have long practiced.

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.