Avoid despair and 'resignation' in the face of drug violence, pope urges in Michoacan

Avoid despair and 'resignation' in the face of drug violence, pope urges in Michoacan
Women pray along the Pope's route near the cathedral in Morelia, Michoacan. (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

Alma Martinez got a call last year that made her whole body go cold. Her mom's voice sounded shaky and harsh: "They have him," she said, referring to Martinez's uncle.

"But who has him?" Martinez asked. "Los narcos," her mother said. The narco traffickers.


Martinez, 17, traveled miles Tuesday to see and hear Pope Francis, hoping his message would bring comfort to the thousands of victims of drug-gang violence like her and her family.

"Something like that really hits you, you know?" she said, speaking of her uncle's kidnapping and eventual freedom, after the family paid a ransom. "And it's not just us — it happens to a lot of families here in Michoacan."

The pope chose Michoacan for precisely that reason, to speak to victims of the violence that has claimed tens of thousands of lives in Mexico in recent years.

After urging Mexico's political and religious leaders to take stronger stands against organized crime, Francis came to this front line of the drug war, the western state of Michoacan, where many, like Martinez, were looking to the head of the Roman Catholic Church to keep up the pressure.

Large crowds staked out spots near the cathedral to greet the pope in a festive atmosphere, as members of the state police force, wearing bulletproof vests and helmets, stood stick straight against a wall, seemingly ready to rush at any sign of violence. Soldiers with guns drawn stood guard from atop a truck painted in camouflage. Several security cameras kept watch from above the plaza.

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.

Francis did not specifically mention the dozens of priests who have been killed, kidnapped or threatened by drug traffickers and other criminal gangs in Michoacan. But he did allude to the larger panorama of victims, urging Mexicans to resist the despair and "resignation" that so much violence creates.

"A resignation which paralyzes us and prevents us not only from walking, but also from making the journey," the pope said as he presided over Mass before thousands of faithful in this picturesque state capital.

"A resignation which not only terrifies us ... but also thwarts our desire to take risks and to change."

The pope returned to a common theme since his arrival in Mexico.

"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?" the pope said.

"What temptation might we suffer over and over again when faced with this reality which seems to have become a permanent system?"

In Michoacan, it is a reality that is worryingly familiar.

It struck the home of Agustina Santillan a year ago when she picked up the phone and heard a voice that sounded like her daughter's. "Mamita, Mamita. They've kidnapped me. They're going to kill me," the voice said.


A man got on the line. "We want everything you have," he said.

Santillan, a homemaker and wife of a retired bus driver, figured it was no idle threat. Another family she knew had suffered a kidnapping for ransom. Their child had ended up dead. She headed to the bank to empty the funds from her account.

Just then, she heard from her daughter. She was OK. It had all been a ruse by organized crime groups taking advantage of a population perpetually on edge.

"There's so much violence here, we live it every day," Santillan said as she waited for the pope's appearance at Morelia's central plaza. "If I could talk to him, I would tell him that we live a life of fear."

The plaza, the scene of a bloody grenade attack in 2008, was heavily guarded by thousands of state and federal police officers. Throngs lined the streets, cheering and snapping pictures as the popemobile drove through the heart of the state capital.

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."

After Mass, the pope made a 30-minute stop at Morelia's historic cathedral, where he met with disabled and abused children, and received the key to the city from the mayor. Many had hoped the pope would meet with child victims of drug violence, but he did not.

A running question during the pope's trip has been whether the pontiff will meet privately at all with victims of violence, including the families of 43 college students kidnapped and presumably killed by corrupt authorities. The massacre has been a steady cause of outrage in Mexico.

Leticia and Nuvia Lopez, sisters who traveled two hours by bus from Cheran 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 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 sell 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.

Luz Adriana Lujan, 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."

In any case, Tuesday was a day of celebration, not mourning.

"A pope in Michoacan?" said Raquel Arias, who came early to the cathedral for a glimpse of the pontiff. "This is history!"

Outside the cathedral's plaza — only a few feet from the plaque commemorating the victims of the 2008 grenade attack — someone had set up a huge set of capital letters.

"AMOR," it read. Love.

Times staff writer Wilkinson reported from Washington. Special correspondent Cecilia Sanchez in Mexico City contributed to this report.