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Pope Francis Touches Down in Mexico Today, But John Paul II Still Gets All the Love

In his first visit to the world's second most Catholic nation, the Pope will visit many troubled parts of the country.
February 12, 2016, 5:55pm
Photo by Alessandro Di Meo/EPA

"Ecatepec is a disaster," said Javier Paz Hermosillo, a taxi driver from the sprawling city that blends into the country's capital and, in recent years, has become emblematic of the violence that ravages many poor urban areas in Mexico. "It's very very very complicated here. There are a lot of thugs."

The city — a dust-filled cluster of breeze block homes rising up hillsides stripped of the trees they once had — is a hotbed of activity for factions of several drug cartels in conflict, as well as a particular hotspot for violence against women. The infamous freight train known as La Bestia, on top of which Central American migrants used to head to the United States, runs through the area. There are many undocumented homeless migrants still stranded there today.

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Related: Murdered in Mexico State: The Silent Epidemic of Women Killings in Mexico

In short, Ecatepec embodies many of the problems that Pope Francis has promised to address during his six-day visit to Mexico that begins Friday evening, when he arrives in Mexico City from Havana.

He is due to visit Ecatepec on Sunday, after spending his first day in formal welcomes that will culminate in a mass at the Basilica of Guadalupe. On Monday he will be in the southern state of Chiapas, where he is expected to focus his message on indigenous people. On Tuesday he goes to the western state of Michoacan that has suffered particularly harshly from the country's drug wars. The visit rounds off with a mass in Ciudad Juárez on Wednesday, a stone's throw from Texas.

In the lead-up to the visit, Pope Francis released a video calling out Mexico for its rampant corruption and crime, saying the country was experiencing its own type of "war."

"The Mexico of violence, of corruption, of drug trafficking and cartels, isn't the Mexico that our Mother (the Madonna) wants," the Pope said.

This type of language has reaffirmed Francis' reputation as a progressive leader unafraid of ruffling a few feathers. It struck a chord with left-leaning Mexican commentators who have filled the newspapers with enthusiastic columns fuelling expectations that once inside the country the Pope will add his voice to their critiques.

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The primarily conservative Catholic hierarchy within Mexico, which has tended to be notably quiet on all these issues, has publicly embraced the agenda.

"The Pope chose these places personally, places that are emblematic and signify the reality that we live with here in Mexico," Hugo Valdemar Romero, spokesman for the Mexico City diocese, said. "Mexico City for the Virgin Guadalupe, the heart of our country's Catholic faith. Michoacan, for the violence and drug trafficking. Chiapas for the indigenous. And Ciudad Juarez for the migrants' trauma."

But can Francis connect with everyday Mexican Catholics, many of whom still feel a very personal allegiance to the dead pontiff John Paul II?

Related: A Narco-Sant, a Death Cult, and a Lost-Cause Apostle Await the Pope in Mexico

In Ecatepec, the visit of the Pope was unexpected by local residents. He'll be holding mass in a field outside a small University campus, with only one building, in a residential area of the city.

"He [Pope Francis] seems like a good person, seems chill, like we say here in Mexico, someone you could shoot the shit with," said Wilber Sánchez, an Ecatepec resident who owns a small shop a few blocks from where the Pope will be speaking.

Sánchez spoke of Ecatepec fondly, saying that despite its problems it didn't deserve its negative reputation. He said that area, nearby to where the mass will be held was relatively calm compared to other parts of the city.

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When it came to the visit of the Pope, he was excited — sort of.

"A little yes, a little no. As a believer, well yeah. But as a resident, no. There's going to be a lot of restrictions," he said, referring to primary roads being blocked off to traffic and the forced closure of local businesses in the area.

Pope Francis will arrive in Ecatepec via helicopter in a parking lot roughly seven and a half miles from where he'll be speaking. He'll travel in a popemobile along the Central Avenue which runs parallel to the Bestia train track, before heading down another prominent street to the site of the mass.

The streetlights, medians, and traffic lights have been fixed and repainted all along the route he'll travel. It's also been suggested in the Mexican press that vagrants and stranded migrants have been removed, although no locals confirmed that they saw this happen. Paz Hermosillo, the taxi driver, had said he'd seen "fewer" — and on the day VICE News visited, no vagrants were witnessed.

The Bestia train track traverses Ecatepec's Central Avenue. Photo by Nathaniel Janowitz.

A couple blocks from where the mass is to be held, José Domingo Ramos sat smoking a cigarette in his roadside automotive shop, which doubles as his house. He said he was glad the Pope was visiting and happy to have the roads' lines freshly painted and the pot holes finally filled, but annoyed about the money he'd lose from being told to shut his shop for a couple of days.

"It's a long time to be closed to see him for a few seconds."

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In the small room that he uses for his business an altar was set up on the wall behind him. There were images of Jesus, the Virgin Guadalupe, and John Paul II, along with several of his favorite cartoon characters. There were no photos of Pope Francis.

"Well, since he started, He's… I don't know, I don't know him yet," Ramos said of Pope Francis. "For me, the best was Pope John Paul II."

The Argentine Pope has yet to endear himself to Mexicans the way that John Paul II did. The Polish pontiff visited Mexico fives times during his more than 26 years of papacy, and many Mexicans believed nowhere else in the world had captured his affection to the same degree.

Now religious stores and roadside stands all over the country still sell coffee mugs, t-shirts, and any other kind of paraphernalia imaginable with images of the dead pontiff. The dour and intellectual Pope Benedict XVI, who took over the job when John Paul II died in 2005 and then resigned in 2013, manifestly failed to enthuse Mexicans when he visited the country four years ago.

Francis, however, has a more personable style and is the first Pope from Latin America, which could allow him a way into Mexican hearts. (That's not a minor detail: Almost one in ten Catholics in the world is Mexican.)

It is no accident that his first major public event will be a mass in the Basilica of Guadalupe on Saturday. The dark-skinned Virgin is the heart and soul of Mexican Catholicism — at least that's what she is supposed to be.

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Every year roughly six million pilgrims go to visit her shrine in the Basilica located in northern Mexico City on December 12. Some make the final approach on their knees and others get crushed in the crowds on the way. Mexico's biggest TV network, Televisa, broadcasts the event live, and sends her Mariachis. There are even dedicated Mexican agnostics who pronounce themselves to be Guadalupana.

The Basilica is also a nerve center for Mexico's near-cult of John Paul II. His shadow still looms in the form of a large statue in a prime location outside the church.

A statue of Pope John Paul II at the Basilica. Photo by Nathaniel Janowitz.

Teresa González, along with her two sisters and daughter, had just left the Basilica where mass was held for the Presentation of Jesus at the Temple — a yearly event held 40 days after Christmas when the faithful bring elaborately dressed-up baby Jesus dolls to church.

When John Paul was mentioned the three middle-aged sisters let out a simultaneous longing sigh, "Ahhhhhh," while holding their baby statues.

They explained how they had several images of the deceased Pope, who was canonized in 2014, in their house. They said they'd yet to hang any of Pope Francis.

"Pope Francis, we're getting to know him little by little, we're watching. The truth is he's surprised us a lot," Gónzalez said, hinting that the surprise is because of his political statements.

An awkward silence befell the group until Gónzalez finally made an attempt, "How can I explain, hmmmm. We can't say anything. I prefer not to comment." She began laughing with her sisters.

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But while some might be suspicious of Francis because of his relatively liberal views and his reputation for seeking political influence, others seem potentially drawn to the idea of a Pope who seeks improvements on Earth.

Diego Vázquez and his mother María had also travelled to the Basilica with a small statue of the baby Jesus. They were excited for the visit of the Pope, but even though they lived nearby, they planned to watch it on TV in their house where it would be more relaxing.

"The Pope is very different," Vázquez said, choosing his words carefully as he stood next to his elderly mother, an avowed John Paul enthusiast.

"The visit could be a bit political, and that could affect us, benefit and make things better for us," he added. "Mexico needs peacefulness and, because of that, we await the arrival of the Pope."

Related: The Pope Is Planning to Visit Very Troubled Parts of Mexico

Follow Nathaniel Janowitz on Twitter: @ngjanowitz