Two priests were found dead in eastern Mexico on Monday, one day after they were kidnapped from a parish in Veracruz, bringing the total number of Catholic clergy murdered in the country since 2012 to fourteen.

A spokesman for the local conference of bishops said the two priests were taken by armed men from a church in Poza Rica in the state of Veracruz, one of the epicenters of Mexico’s burgeoning drug and human trafficking gangs.

A layman who served as a sacristan at the church was also abducted, according to Father Jose Alberto Guerrero, representing the bishops’ conference in Teziutlan in Puebla state.

The layman managed to escape and has been placed under police protection, but the priests were found with bullet wounds in an urban area near to where they were originally taken.

The Mexican bishops’ conference identified the slain priests as Alejo Nabor Jimenez Juarez and Jose Alfredo Juarez de la Cruz, expressing “pain and outrage over the violence.”

Jimenez Juarez and Juarez de la Cruz were dragged at gunpoint out of Our Lady of Fatima Parish in Poza Rica, a Gulf Coast oil city consumed by crime in recent years, the Diocese of Papantla confirmed in a statement.

Media reported the men were found Sept. 19, one day after their abduction, along the side of a highway with their hands and feet bound. They were beaten and had gunshot wounds, according to media reports.

State officials said Sept. 20 that five men participated in the abductions and one of the suspect’s identities was known. Robbery of a church building fund was cited as a motive, Veracruz media outlet Plumas Libres reported.

“In these moments of pain and powerlessness in the face of the tragic violence we pray to the heavens for the eternal rest of our brothers and ask Our Lord for the conversion of their killers,” the Mexican bishops’ statement continued.

“From the authorities, we expect an investigation to clear up these acts and that those responsible be brought to justice.”

The Catholic Multimedia Center, which monitors attacks against clergymen, said the deaths mean that 14 priests, one seminarian and one sacristan have been killed since President Enrique Peña Nieto took office in December 2012. Two other priests remain missing.

Criminal gangs and various paramilitary groups exercise essentially unchallenged authority over some neighborhoods in Mexico, and even entire regions of the country. Especially in those combat zones, Christians may be the only voices speaking out in favor of law and order, and such activism often puts Christians in harm’s way.

Omar Sotelo, who works for the Catholic Multimedia Center, said that today’s jump in violence is “significant” and that priests working in Guerrero state are among the most vulnerable.

“The priests who have been killed have been killed in very cruel, violent ways,” he said, blaming the attacks on organized crime groups.

In Guerrero — Mexico’s most violent state, according to official statistics — a group of bishops from the Archdiocese of Acapulco, the coastal seaside resort, issued a plea to the government and public this month to collaborate to combat the violence, which has also resulted in the deaths or disappearances of tens of thousands of Mexican citizens in recent years.

The Catholic News Service also contributed to this report.