Pope expected to expand his message on drug trafficking's threat to Mexico's youth

By RICHARD MAROSI | Los Angeles Times | Published: February 16, 2016

After urging Mexico’s political and religious leaders to take stronger stands against organized crime, Pope Francis on Tuesday is taking his message to a front line of the drug war, the western state of Michoacan, where many hope he will keep up the pressure.

The pope’s strongly worded speech Saturday has been widely embraced here in a region that has reached states of near-anarchy from years of drug cartel domination and government corruption.

Thousands of state, federal and military forces will provide some of the tightest security on the pope’s one-day trip to the state capital of Morelia as he says Mass in the morning and addresses tens of thousands of youngsters at an afternoon stadium event.

The pope’s visit will also take him to the Baroque-style cathedral, which sits in Morelia’s historic central plaza, where a grenade attack in 2008 killed eight people and came to symbolize the deadly reach of organized crime into everyday life.

A plaque marks the spot of the blast, which haunts many to this day.

“What I saw was so ugly, so, so ugly," said Gerardo Padilla, who worked at Hotel Los Juaninos, which overlooks the plaza.

He can still see the images in his mind: people bleeding onto the stone plaza, a woman collapsing from shock, debris everywhere. An oppressive bleakness settled across the state, said Padilla, 33.

"Such a sadness, such a fear to leave the house," he said. "It lasted for months."

Local media have reported that the pope will meet with victims of drug violence at the cathedral, which would be the first time on his trip that he has done so. Demands from victims’ groups to be recognized by the pope have increased in recent days.

Many expect the pope to expand his message on drug trafficking, focusing on the threat it poses to youngsters. In Michoacan, a poor state with high unemployment rates, youngsters are often seduced by the money associated with a criminal lifestyle.

“It’s the pope’s chance to present the counter-message, that there’s another way. ‘You may not get quick money, but more happiness and satisfaction in life,'” said Timothy Matovina, a professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame.

People began staking out spots near the cathedral Monday evening – they unfurled blankets, cordoned off areas with rope and taped "RESERVED!" signs to the sidewalk.

Children slept on chairs, yoga mats, cardboard. A group of women did jumping jacks and Zumba to stay warm. Others in the crowd sang worship songs through the night, eagerly awaiting Pope Francis.

Before dawn Tuesday outside the cathedral's plaza -- only a few feet from the plaque commemorating the victims of the 2008 grenade attack in the plaza -- someone had set up a huge set of capital letters.

"AMOR," it read. Love.

A woman nearby pulled out her rosary and began shouting the Lord's Prayer. The crowd lining the barricaded popemobile route echoed her petition. A woman kneeled, clasped her hands in prayer and wept.

Volunteers carried boxes full of charales, tiny, fried fish, and served them for free with hot sauce.

Members of the state police force, seemingly ready to rush at any sign of violence, stood stick straight against a wall, wearing bulletproof vests and helmets. Soldiers with guns drawn stood guard from atop a truck painted in camouflage. Several security cameras kept watch from above the plaza.

Still, a festive atmosphere prevailed. "A pope in Michoacan?" said Raquel Arias, who arrived at the cathedral at 4 a.m. "This is history!"

Arias, 39, who emigrated from Michoacan to Michigan 20 years ago but returned for the visit, said she expects the pope to bring a message of strength to the children and teenagers of Michoacan -- an encouragement to resist the temptation to join the narco groups that plague the region.

"I think it's important to put a light on this issue," Arias said. "The pope has come to Mexico with strong messages and I hope he will bring that here."

Leticia and Nuvia Lopez, sisters who traveled two hours by bus from Cherán to see the pope, said the pontiff's stop in their state no doubt has to do with its reputation for narco violence.

"It's a serious problem," said Nuvia, 16. "We're accustomed to it here, sadly."

In their municipality west of the the capital, she said, the narcos create chaos of all varieties. A few years ago, she said they went on a tree-chopping spree, cutting down most of the town's trees before trying to resell them.

Then, in April 2012 -- not long before the pueblo's annual fiesta -- there was a massacre.

The narcos wanted control of a chunk of land, Leticia said. In the end, she heard, 19 people died.

"We felt so unsafe and scared," she said. "And we felt so impotent. But then the people rose up."

A group of self-styled vigilantes fed up with the violence stood up to the narcos, she said. Convinced the authorities work with the traffickers, citizens created their own form of governance -- a 12-person citizen panel that shares control of the zone.

"I feel much safer now," Leticia said. "There's less crime."

Hundreds of vigilantes credited by many with reducing crime rates remain in prison on weapons charges and there’s hope that the pope will recognize their cause and perhaps pressure the government to free them.

If history is a guide, the pope may lash out directly at drug traffickers, as he did in Rome in 2014 when he met with crime victims of the Italian mafia.

Luz Adriana Luján, who traveled from Tijuana to attend Tuesday's youth event with the pope, said the pontiff has already delivered a strong blow to Mexico's politicians during his trip. In Michoacan, she said, she hopes he speaks directly to narco traffickers.

"That way these bad people -- people who like to think that they are God -- will hear the message: "Only God can take away life,'" she said. "The pope will wake these people up."


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