Pope Francis urged Mexico's young people to resist the lure of easy money from dealing drugs and instead value themselves during a visit Tuesday to the heartland of the nation's narcotics trade. "Jesus, who gives us hope, would never ask us to be hit men," he said.
Francis brought a message of hope to Mexico's next generation during a youth pep rally in Morelia, capital of Michoacan state, a major methamphetamine production hub and drug-trafficking route.
It was by far the most colorful event of his visit, featuring butterfly-winged dancers and mariachi bands — and a crowd so enthusiastic that Francis got pulled over by people grabbing at him.
Improvising at times from his text, Francis told the crowd that he understood that for young Mexicans it was difficult to feel their worth "when you are continually exposed to the loss of friends or relatives at the hands of the drug trade, of drugs themselves, of criminal organizations that sow terror."
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But, he insisted, by following Christ they would find the strength to say "it is a lie to believe that the only way to live, or to be young, is to entrust yourselves to drug dealers or others who do nothing but sow destruction and death."
Francis offered a similar appeal to Mexican priests and nuns during a Mass earlier in the day in a Morelia stadium. There, he told the country's clerics that they must fight injustice and not resign themselves to the drug-fueled violence and corruption around them.
"What temptation can come to us from places often dominated by violence, corruption, drug trafficking, disregard for human dignity and indifference in the face of suffering and vulnerability? What temptation might we suffer over and over again when faced with this reality, which seems to have become a permanent system?" Francis asked.
"I think we can sum it up in one word: resignation."
It was a clear reference to the situation in Michoacan as well as the nation at large, where gangs and drug lords have thrived thanks in part to the complicity of police and other public authorities. That corruption came to light most recently in the case of drug lord Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, who escaped for a second time from a maximum security prison in July, and was recaptured after an October meeting with actor Sean Penn.
While Francis gave a message of hope to residents of Morelia, his visit was also a symbolic vote of confidence for the city's archbishop, Alberto Suarez Inda.
Like Francis, Suarez Inda has called for Mexican bishops to be closer to their people and not act like bureaucrats or princes. Last year Francis made him a cardinal — an unambiguous sign that Francis wants "peripheral" pastors like Suarez Inda at the helm of the church hierarchy.
Since beginning his Mexico trip Friday night, Francis has repeatedly taken to task the Mexican church leadership, many of whom are closely linked to Mexico's political and financial elite and are loath to speak out on behalf of the poor and victims of social injustice.
"Sometimes the violence has made us give up, either out of discouragement, habit or fear," said Fausto Mendez, a 23-year-old seminarian who attended Tuesday's Mass. "That's why the pope comes to tell us not to be afraid to do the right thing."
"Although he spoke strongly to the bishops, it was also directed at us," said Uriel Perez, 20-year-old seminarian at Tuesday's Mass. "Because the pope is demanding and he wants us to be prepared and on the streets shoulder to shoulder with our flock."
Priests have also been victims of the violence. Since 1988, 38 priests have been killed and two more are missing, according to the Catholic Multimedia Center, which tracks violence against religious people in Mexico. Twenty-eight were killed since 2006, half of them in regions plagued by drug violence, including Michoacan , Guerrero and Veracruz, including some who suffered signs of torture.
Much of Michoacan is part of a region called Tierra Caliente, or the Hot Lands, known for both its blistering temperatures and brutal tactics by gangsters eager to control lucrative drug-production territory and smuggling routes.
By 2013, the pseudo-religious Knights Templar cartel was widely kidnapping and extorting money and dominating the state's economic and political scene, so much so that local farmers took up arms against them. But the uprising by the vigilante-style "self-defense" forces brought little peace to the state, with the groups fighting among themselves even as new criminal gangs sprang up.
"I'm excited about the pope's visit, but the reality is that people are afraid. Right now there is a festive atmosphere and a lot of police, but in the day-to-day it's not that calm. Crime has risen," said Yulisa Duran, an 18-year-old nursing student sitting with her boyfriend in Morelia's main square.
As Francis entered the final stretch of his five-day trip to Mexico, his motivations for coming became clear. For starters, it's likely the trip might not have taken place at all, at least now, had Francis not needed to be in the region for his historic encounter Friday with the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, a meeting months' in the making.
It's also clear that Francis has some serious issues with the Mexican church hierarchy, which, for its part, also has some issues with him. In coming to Mexico, the pope did it on his own terms: Praying at the shrine of the Virgin of Guadalupe and visiting the most impoverished and crime-ridden areas, rewarding "his" bishops with his presence and sending a message to others with carefully chosen words and deeds.
He scolded church leaders for being too tied to their own privilege and power while staying quiet as their people suffer. He urged seminarians to be pastors of God and not "clerics of the state." He prayed at the tomb of Samuel Ruiz, a bishop who was a thorn in the side of the Mexican hierarchy for his defense of the indigenous.
What Francis didn't do is also significant: He did not hold any public event in Mexico City, domain of the conservative Cardinal Norberto Rivera Carrera, and cancelled a scheduled cultural encounter. It seems the frosty sentiment is mutual: When he came to the historic center for his meeting with the Mexican president and bishops, the central Zocalo square was oddly empty.
Francis wraps up his five-day visit on Wednesday by traveling to Ciudad Juarez, across from El Paso, Texas, for a cross-border Mass expected to focus heavily on the plight of migrants.
Associated Press writer Jacobo Garcia reported this story in Morelia and AP writer Nicole Winfield reported from Mexico City. AP writers Peter Orsi and Mark Stevenson in Mexico City contributed to this report.