MORELIA, Mexico — Pope Francis always has had a special place in his heart for youth, and few places these days pose graver temptations and risks for young people than regions of Mexico hardest hit by the drug trade and drug-related violence.
On Tuesday, Francis pleaded with those young Mexicans not to give up, insisting they, and not the profits of the narcotics industry, are the country’s real wealth.
“I did not say the hope of this land,” Francis said. “Its wealth!”
In a hard-hitting address, the pope spoke in a packed stadium in Morelia, Michoacán, arguably one of the most dangerous states in Mexico.
He delivered his address after listening to the testimony of four young people, one of whom told him that in many places in Mexico, young people are “trapped by despair and get carried away by greed, corruption, and promises of an intense and easy life, but at the margins of legality.”
The pontiff, in turn, spoke about the real meaning of wealth.
“The biggest threats to hope are those words which devalue you, which make you feel second-rate,” Francis said. “The biggest threat to hope is when you feel that you do not matter to anybody or that you have been left aside. The biggest threat to hope is when you feel that, either being present or absent, you make no difference.”
He said one’s value does not lie in wearing the latest fashion or having money.
“The biggest threat is when a person feels that they must have money to buy everything, including the love of others,” Francis said. “The biggest threat is to believe that by having a big car, you will be happy.”
The pope acknowledged that many in his audience are “continually exposed to losing friends and relatives at the hands of the drug trade, of drugs themselves, of criminal organizations that sow terror.”
He also said that it’s conceivable to lose hope when it’s impossible to find dignified work or to study, or “when you feel your rights are being trampled on, which then leads you to extreme situations.”
“It is difficult to appreciate the value of a place when, because of your youth, you are used for selfish purposes, seduced by promises that end up being untrue,” Francis said.
Despite an exhausting four days, Pope Francis was at his best, clearly enjoying the colorful show prepared for him, encouraging two girls with Down syndrome to jump security onto the stage to give him a hug, and joking with the crowd, promising he wasn’t trying to “butter them up.”
Although the pontiff didn’t mention it directly, thousands of girls and boys in Mexico are lured into moving, either within the country or to the United States, and then forced to work in slave-like conditions or prostitution.
Francis met several Mexican survivors of human trafficking at the Vatican, and his fight against forced prostitution and modern-day slavery dates back to his years as archbishop of Buenos Aires.
“Nonetheless, despite all this, I will never tire of saying it: You are the wealth of Mexico,” the pope told the youth.
“I say this to you and I am convinced of it,” the pontiff told them. “And do you know why? Because, like you, I believe in Jesus Christ.”
Francis then shared with them that his faith in Jesus renews his hope and outlook, and that “hand in hand with him,” he finds the strength to say “it is a lie” to believe that the “only way to live, or to be young, is to entrust oneself to drug dealers, in poverty and exclusion; in the exclusion of opportunities, in the exclusion of spaces, in the exclusion of training and education, in the exclusion of hope.”
Deviating from his prepared remarks, something he did often throughout his 25-minute speech, Francis asked the young adults to always value “the wealth God has given you, the hope Jesus gives you, and the dignity of not allowing others to butter you up and be goods for the pockets of others.”
Although statistics vary, low estimates hold that in a decade-long drug war, at least 100,000 people have lost their lives and 27,000 have been kidnapped, forming a map of violence that reaches from the jungles of Chiapas in southern Mexico, where Francis visited on Monday, to the US border, where he’ll stop on Wednesday before heading back to Rome.
However, few Mexican states have been harder hit by this violence than Michoacán, where the descent into near-anarchy has given rise to cult-like drug cartels and dubious armies of farmers-turned-vigilantes that have, in time, been infiltrated by criminals.
The pope’s talk built on a long personal history. In 2014, Francis declared those who participate in organized crime excommunicated.
“Those who go down the evil path, as the mafiosi do, are not in communion with God. They are excommunicated,” he said in Calabria, home to the ‘Ndrangheta, an Italy-based global drug trafficking syndicate.
Since he began his trip in through Mexico last Friday, Pope Francis has been trying to galvanize support from the Catholic hierarchy, the government, and civil authorities to protect the millions of Mexicans who struggle daily against cartels.
He did so again on Tuesday morning, when he celebrated Mass for the religious community. He told the thousands of cheering priests, nuns, and seminarians to not resign themselves to a country dominated by drug-fueled violence and corruption.
In his homily, the pontiff told them not to be paralyzed by “resignation,” which he described as the devil’s “favorite weapon.”
“A resignation which not only hinders our looking to the future, but also thwarts our desire to take risks and to change,” Francis said. “And so, ‘Our Father, lead us not into temptation’.”
Since 2006, Michoacán’s mist-covered mountains valleys have been at the center of Mexico’s drug war, and much of the state remains under control of two organized crime groups, La Familia and its spinoff, the Evangelical-inspired Knights Templar cartel.
Given the federal government’s failure to restore order, these cartels have managed to bring city halls, police stations, and media under their control, and in 2013 gave rise to a fierce anti-cartel vigilante movement.
Michoacán has sent more migrants to the United States that any other state, and Morelia alone has seen 1 million people flee to Mexico’s northern neighbor. These migrants have, in turn, sent money back to their families to help fund this vigilante movement.
In many cases, parish priests have been on the front lines, led by Morelia Archbishop Alberto Suárez Inda, made a cardinal by Pope Francis in 2015. According to Mexico’s Catholic Multimedia Center, 40 priests have been murdered by drug gangs in the last decade, and Michoacán is among the hardest-hit states.
Much of Michoacán, well-connected with the rest of the country because it is the geographic center of Mexico, is part of a region known as the Hot Land (Tierra Caliente in Spanish), a name that comes both from the high temperatures and the brutal tactics of drug lords who control its fertile, and therefore lucrative, territory.
The Rev. Ruben Lopez Lopez, a judge of the local Church tribunal, told Crux that Pope Francis wanted to come to Morelia because no pope has ever been here, but also because he wanted encourage the priests and bishops “not to be indifferent in the fight against drug dealing.”
Although the vast majority of Mexicans describe themselves as Catholic, Morelia has an unusually high rate, with 93 percent of the residents describing themselves as members of the Church.
The Rev. Armando Flores Navarro, director of the Mexican seminary in Rome, told Crux that that this dichotomy between religiosity and violence requires demands for the Church to recognize that “something has failed” in the moral formation of Catholics.
However, he said, endemic poverty (45 percent of the country lives below the poverty line), and the unequal distribution of wealth also explain the phenomenon. In many states, small farm owners rent their land to drug-dealers, because it’s more lucrative than growing other crops.
He believes that the mass media is complicit.
“If Forbes magazine says a Mexican drug-dealer is among the wealthiest persons in the world,” Flores argued, “the news implicitly proposes a model of life that is extremely attractive for a people that doesn’t have a guaranteed access to education and with high levels of unemployment.”
There are kids and young men and women in Mexico who, when asked what they want to be when they grow up, answer “a drug dealer.”
“It gives them money,” Flores explained. “They know the dangers, that they could get killed in three or four years, but facing a future in which the only certainty is poverty, they rather live intensely and in abundance even if for a short period of time.”
Yet no matter how dim the situation might seem, Francis didn’t want to leave the youth on Tuesday without encouraging them, telling them that walking next to Jesus they can be “leaven, salt, and light among friends, neighbors, your community.”
Following Christ, the pontiff told them, means they won’t have the latest model car, or pockets full of money, but instead will own something “that no one can take away from you: the experience of being loved, embraced, and accompanied.”
“Jesus who gives us hope, would never ask us to be hitmen,” Francis said. “Rather, he calls us to be disciples, friends. He would never send us out to death, but rather everything in him speaks of life.”