Pope Francis arrived Friday night on his first trip as pontiff to the overwhelmingly Roman Catholic country of Mexico, following a historic meeting in Cuba with the leader of the Russian Orthodox Church and looking ahead to a pointed and problematic mission.
Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto and his wife, Angelica Rivera, greeted the pope, surrounded by mariachis and festively dressed dancers singing the Mexican classic "Cielito Lindo."
"Queremos su bendicion!" the crowd shouted: "We want your blessing!"
It is the fourth trip as pope to the Americas for the Argentine native, the first pontiff born in the Americas.
Arriving at Benito Juarez International Airport at 7:30 p.m., the pope confronted an extraordinary Mexican spectacle: a full mariachi band, complete with men decked out in charro outfits and women dancers in white blouses and red skirts.
Many in the delirious audience of about 5,000 displayed the lights of their cellular phones, while also waving handkerchiefs of green, white and red, the colors of the Mexican flag.
Dancers on hand at the airport moved to a number of well-known Mexican songs, including “Jarabe Tapatio,” a traditional dance tune from the northern state of Jalisco. Enjoying the show from the red carpet, the pope applauded the performers.
Also greeting him were four children — two boys and two girls — wearing indigenous clothing from various regions of Mexico; one donned a complete mariachi outfit. Francis seemed to enjoy chatting with the children on the red carpet.
Later, children dressed in white ran toward the pope and embraced him. Mexico’s first lady lifted a child up to him, and he gave the child a kiss on the cheek. Announcers said the approach of the children was unscripted.
Then came the collective shout: “Mexico! Mexico!” and “Bendicion!” The smiling pope, appearing to savor the moment, turned and offered a blessing to the crowd, then walked along the foot of the grandstands set up on the tarmac and repeating his blessing.
Because of the wind, Francis removed the white cap he traditionally wears and held it in his hand.
The pope later greeted the mariachis, and put on one of the musicians’ broad-brimmed, gold-trimmed black charro hats, flashing another broad grin.
The pope, still flanked by the Mexican president and first lady, later welcomed a number of Mexican cardinals and bishops, taking time to chat with several of them. Also in the crowd were members of the Mexican Cabinet.
Finally, Francis and his growing entourage entered the presidential hangar, from where their motorcade set off on the 12-mile ride to the papal nuncio residence in the south of Mexico City. He rode in the papamovil, or "popemobile," with three police motorcycles at the front of the procession.
Ahead of the pope's arrival, Mexicans have beseeched him to address a roster of national troubles, including murderous violence, a raging drug war and government corruption.
On the eve of the pontiff’s visit, another Mexican journalist was killed—one of 16 slain in a state ruled by Peña Nieto's party—and another prison riot left nearly 50 people dead. Dozens of priests and religious workers have also been killed, kidnapped or threatened.
Francis has said he will not shy away from criticizing “the little piece of war” that he said Mexicans were living, and from holding the powerful accountable.
Flanked by Peña Nieto and his wife at the airport reception, the pope smiled and waved as dancers performed and the invited crowd shouted his name and bells pealed.
Throughout the capital, many offices were closed or shut down early on Friday. The city had an expectant feel. Newspapers at the many street-side kiosks featured front-page photos of the pope with the ubiquitous headline: Bienvenido, or "welcome."
Work crews were cordoning off streets along the route from the airport south to the papal nuncio residence—on a street named after the late Pope John Paul II -- where Francis was to spend his evenings. Thousands were expected to be out in the streets, despite the winter evening chill, hoping to catch a glimpse of the pope's motorcade from the airport.
In the Zocalo, the central square in the heart of the Mexican capital and once the hub of the Aztec empire, access was restricted for several blocks in all directions in anticipation of the papal visit, which is expected to draw massive crowds to the city center. Many people were planning to arrive after midnight and sleep on the streets to secure a good viewing spot. Police were installing metal detectors along the cobblestone streets.
On Saturday morning, an official welcoming ceremony is scheduled at the National Palace, on the Zocalo, before a “courtesy visit” with Peña Nieto. Later, Francis was to meet with Mexican bishops, across the Zocalo in the colonial-era Cathedral.
A grandstand and seats were set out in the square for 65,000 people who had tickets to enter and watch the spectacle on huge screens erected for the occasion. Banners welcomed the pontiff to “your home.”
All shops in the Zocalo area were ordered closed on Saturday, a decision that irked many merchants in the busy commercial district. Saturday is normally an important shopping day in the area.
“Of course, we’re upset we are going to close; we are all going to lose money," said Armando Lopez, 54, who stood behind the counter in the Liliana jewelry emporium, facing the Zocalo. “But to make it worse, they didn’t even give us tickets to sit and watch the pope’s visit!”
Across town, barriers were being put up Friday along Calzada de Guadalupe, the route that the pope was scheduled to take on his trip Saturday to the Basilica of Guadalupe, Mexico’s preeminent Roman Catholic shrine. Banners with the Mexican and Vatican flags hung from utility poles up and down the avenues.
As many as 4 million people were expected to descend on the area of the basilica, authorities said, though only 35,000 had tickets for the Mass service inside, over which Francis will preside. Tickets were distributed in local parishes.
Access to the basilica grounds was already blocked off, upsetting some early well-wishers.
“How is it possible I can’t enter the basilica?” protested a Catholic nun who was among many who could not get in. “I came all the way from Tijuana!”
Outside, municipal workers in yellow vests were posted along the pope’s route, preparing for the huge influx of people. An upbeat mood prevailed.
“Of course, we are very proud—this is the kind of event one remembers all of one’s life,” said Blanca Carbajal, one of the workers. “Anyway, he is Latin American. He is one of us, and with us.”
Her boss, the local city councilman, Victor Hugo Lobo, was inspecting the various staffers posted along the avenue. He seemed pleased at the turnout of workers.
“Of course, Mexico has its problems, but it has a lot of good things too,” said the councilman, accompanied by his own press attache. “It’s very special that the pope has chosen to come to our neighborhood and to the basilica, which is so important to all Mexicans.”
McDonnell reported from Mexico City and Wilkinson reported from Washington. Cecilia Sanchez in the Mexico City bureau contributed to this report.