Pope Benedict set out for Mexico on Friday promising to “unmask the evil” of drug trafficking in a country that has been wracked by a surge in gang violence over the past five years.
The pope, who starts his three-day visit in the central city of Leon, gave a forceful response when asked on board his plane about drug trafficking in Mexico, which has unleashed violence claiming some 50,000 lives since 2007.
“We must do whatever is possible to combat this destructive evil against humanity and our youth,” he told reporters. “It is the responsibility of the Church to educate consciences, to teach moral responsibility and to unmask the evil, to unmask this idolatry of money which enslaves man, to unmask the false promises, the lies, the fraud that is behind drugs.”
The relentless bloodletting was in the mind of many of those waiting to see Benedict in Leon, a Roman Catholic stronghold that has avoided the worst of the brutal turf wars between drug cartels and clashes with security forces.
“The Church has to address the violence, give us a message that there can be change. We are all fed up, our society has been hurt,” said Ruben Santibanez, a local doctor.
The pope’s strong words on the drug menace should offer comfort to Mexican President Felipe Calderon, who has staked his reputation on beating down the cartels. He will meet the pope.
The government’s inability to stem the violence has eroded support for Calderon’s conservative National Action Party (PAN) – a group with strong Catholic roots that faces an uphill struggle to retain the presidency in elections in July.
In Leon, hundreds of Catholics dressed in white t-shirts and caps – many of them young people let out of school for the day – lined the streets from early Friday morning to secure prime spots to see the pope pass, cheering at passing cars.
Several followers were hanging a large banner that read “Pope, pray that the violence ends, pray that peace returns.”
Others readied campsites to await a massive outdoor mass on Sunday where hundreds of thousands of people are expected.
A survey by polling firm Gabinete de Comunicacion Estrategica (GCE) published in newspaper Milenio on Friday showed 72 percent of respondents wanted the pope to speak out on the security situation in Mexico.
Benedict, who will also travel to Cuba, hopes to rally the faithful in the world’s second most populous Catholic nation as more Mexicans are lured to evangelical Protestant churches.
But the German pope faces a challenge generating the same kind of fervor as his charismatic Polish predecessor, Pope John Paul, who was beloved in Latin America and drew pulsating crowds when he criss-crossed the region in his 27-year papacy.