MEXICO CITY – Pope Francis told Mexico’s political leaders on Saturday that they have a duty to provide their people with security, “true justice” and basic services as he plunged head-on into the drug-inspired violence, corruption and social ills that are tormenting the country.
Francis began his first full day in the country with a winding 9-mile (14-kilometre) popemobile ride into the capital’s historic centre to the delight of tens of thousands of Mexicans greeting history’s first Latin American pope. Despite an exhausting Friday that involved a historic embrace with the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Francis obliged their demands and stopped to hand out rosaries to the elderly, sick and disabled who gathered in front of his residence.
Francis met with President Enrique Pena Nieto at the presidential palace and delivered a tough-love speech to authorities aimed at shaking up the privilege that has long characterized Mexican politics. Later, he was to issue a similarly pointed speech to bishops about their duties as pastors before ending the day with a Mass at the Basilica of the Virgin of Guadalupe, the largest shrine dedicated to the Madonna.
WATCH: Mexican President welcomes Pope Francis at National Palace
In his speech, Francis said public officials responsible for the common good must be honest and upright and not be seduced by privilege or corruption.
“Experience teaches us that each time we seek the path of privileges or benefits for a few to the detriment of the good of all, sooner or later the life of society becomes a fertile soil for corruption, drug trade, exclusion of different cultures, violence and also human trafficking, kidnapping and death, bringing suffering and slowing down development,” he said.
Corruption permeates many aspects of Mexican society, from traffic cops and restaurant inspectors who routinely shake down citizens for bribes, to politicians and police commanders who are sometimes on the payroll of drug cartels. Pena Nieto’s administration has been tainted by what critics call fishy real estate dealings by people close to him, including the first lady, with companies that were awarded lucrative state contracts.
Francis said political leaders have a “particular duty” to ensure their people have “indispensable” material and spiritual goods: “adequate housing, dignified employment, food, true justice, effective security, a healthy and peaceful environment.”
Francis’ entire five-day trip is shining an uncomfortable spotlight on the government’s failure to solve entrenched social ills that plague many parts of Mexico – poverty, rampant gangland killings, extortion, disappearances of women, crooked cops and failed public services. Over the coming days, Francis will travel to the crime-ridden Mexico City suburb of Ecatepec, preach to Indians in poverty-stricken Chiapas, offer solidarity to victims of drug violence in Morelia and, finally, pay respects to migrants who have died trying to reach the United States with a cross-border Mass in Ciudad Juarez.
Pena Nieto, who has sought to make economic reform, modernization and bolstering the middle class hallmarks of his administration, is suffering the lowest approval ratings of any Mexican president in a quarter century.
Francis’ visit has been cheered by Mexicans who have been treated to six previous papal trips – five by St. John Paul II and one by Benedict XVI – and are known for their enthusiastic welcomes.
Tens of thousands of people lined Francis’ motorcade route, some watching from balconies, and thousands more gathered in Mexico’s main square, known as the Zocalo, to catch a glimpse as he arrived for his meeting with Pena Nieto. Authorities set up huge TV screens that transmitted the scene inside the National Palace.
“We arrived here at 2 a.m. to get a good spot, and we were able to see him up-close. It was very exciting,” said Natalia Zuniga, a 26-year-old Costa Rican who travelled to Mexico along with six others. “It has all been worthwhile to see him and feel his presence.”
On a broad avenue leading to the Zocalo, hundreds of people waited for hours for the pope to arrive.
“It’s very cold, but it’s worth it to see his holiness,” said Maria Hernandez, 69, who had been there since 6 a.m. “This will be the third pope I’ve seen. Hopefully his visit will help us to be better Mexicans.”
On his first full day in Mexico, Francis didn’t shy from some of the bleakest ills afflicting Mexico: According to government statistics, about 46 per cent of Mexicans live in poverty, including 10 per cent in extreme poverty. In the rural, heavily indigenous state of Chiapas, where Francis travels on Monday, some 76 per cent live in poverty, and 32 per cent in extreme poverty.
Mexico’s homicide rate rose precipitously after then-President Felipe Calderon launched a war on drug cartels shortly after taking office in 2006, with the bloodshed peaking around 2011. Murders declined somewhat for the next three years after that, before ticking up again in 2015.
Federal data released in January counted 17,013 homicides nationwide last year. Women have been particularly targeted: At least 1,554 women have disappeared in Mexico state since 2005, according to the National Observatory on Femicide, and last year the government issued an alert over the killings of women in Ecatepec and 10 other parts of Mexico state.
While some parts of the country remain relatively removed from drug cartel violence – including the capital and the tourist destination of Cancun, notably – in other areas large portions of the population live with killings, kidnappings and extortion as a daily reality.
In his speech, Francis urged Mexicans to rely on their tremendous resources – human and natural – and draw on the experience of their indigenous, mestizo and criollo cultures to confront the problems of today.
“An ancestral culture together with encouraging human resources such as yours should be a stimulus to find new forms of dialogue, negotiation and bridges that can lead us on the way of committed solidarity,” he said.
Associated Press writers Peter Orsi, Carlos Rodriguez, Juan Zamorano and Jacobo Garcia in Mexico City contributed to this report.
© 2016 The Associated Press