LEON, Mexico, (Reuters) – Pope Benedict landed in Mexico yesterday promising to send out a strong message against drug cartels in a country convulsed by a surge in gang violence over the past five years.
The 84-year-old pontiff touched down in the central city of Leon, starting a three-day visit to the world’s second most populous Roman Catholic country. En route to Mexico he pledged to “unmask the evil” of drug trafficking.
The wave of killings loomed large in the minds of many 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.
Followers have urged Benedict, who on this trip is using a cane to walk in public for the first time, to speak out against the shootings, executions and kidnappings that have overshadowed President Felipe Calderon’s government.Calderon and his conservative National Action Party (PAN), a group with strong Catholic roots, have invested huge political capital in trying to crack down on the gangs.
But the spiraling death toll of more than 50,000 has eroded support for the PAN ahead of a July 1 presidential election, putting the main opposition Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, in pole position to take the reins in Mexico.
The pontiff will meet Calderon and host mass for hundreds of thousands of followers in Mexico.