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Mexicans Hope the Pope's Visit Brings Relief from the Cartel Wars

We talked to people in the former "murder capital" of Juarez about Pope Francis's tough talk on cartel violence ahead of his speech there Wednesday.
A poster teasing the Pope's visit in Juarez. Photos by the author

On his trip this week to Mexico, Pope Francis has described the local drug cartels as "dealers of death."

The pontiff isn't exactly holding back in lambasting the corruption and pain drug violence has brought to Mexico. Residents I spoke to in the border city of Juarez, once dubbed the murder capital of the world with more than 10,000 homicides between 2008 and 2012, eagerly anticipated his visit Wednesday, embracing the tough line on the cartels even as they feared a spiritual appeal was doomed to fall short.


"We hope that he offers mercy and peace, which is essential here," said Dr. Pedro Bedolla, a dentist in downtown Juarez. "There are cartels here and cartels there, and we are in the middle. Hopefully the pope's prayers will protect us."

Bedolla says his wife's nephew was killed in the city's violence, and that he knows business owners who have been threatened with extortion. In recent years, the level of violence has dropped in Juarez, but there were more than 430 homicides in the city in 2014, roughly the same number as Chicago last year—which saw the most homicides in the United States.

Of course, Juarez has a population about half the size of Chicago's.

Last spring, city officials launched a campaign to restart tourism called "Juarez is waiting for you" to overhaul the city's image. But some residents said the violence in Juarez has ebbed in recent years only because one of the cartels—El Chapo's Sinaloa—gained the upper hand.

The pope was deliberate in including the state of Michoacán—where he visited Tuesday—and the border city of Juarez in his five-day foray to the country. These are among the places hardest hit by the drug violence. Meanwhile, nearly 40 percent of people in Juarez live in poverty, and thousands work in the maquilas, border factories where workers make an average of around $400 per month.

But after once urging Americans not to travel to Juarez, the US State Department now just advises caution. Thousands of Americans are expected to cross the border to see the pope Wednesday.


In addition to addressing poverty and policing issues, residents like Carmelo Ramirez, 37, a street merchant, think the church has to clean its own house. Some Mexican priests have reportedly taken narco alms—or donations from the drug traffickers.

"The church can't close its eyes," Ramirez told me. He, too, has a nephew who was caught in the crossfire of rival cartels and died five years ago.

Marisela Medellin, 43, who works at an optical shop, thinks the pope can help just by calling attention to the violence. "We need his blessing," she said.

She added that some businesses closed after the violence peaked several years ago, but things are trending in the right direction. "The business district is calm now," she told me.

Medellin commended the pope for speaking plainly when many government officials, including President Enrique Peña Nieto, she believes, don't address the problems head on. Suspicion of government collusion with the cartels only grew after notorious drug lord Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán Loera escaped from prison a second time last July. Actors Sean Penn and Kate del Castillo met with El Chapo before he was recaptured again last month, causing embarrassment to the government. (Guzmán could eventually be extradited to face trial in Brooklyn.)

"The president pretends that all is calm. But it's not. The pope speaks more forcefully," Medellin said.

Pope Francis on Saturday told priests and bishops at the cathedral in Mexico City to go to the peripheries, work with families, and connect with parish communities, schools, and the authorities. Only then "will people finally escape the raging waters that drown so many, either victims of the drug trade or those who stand before God with their hands drenched in blood, though with pockets filled with sordid money and their consciences deadened," he said.


Juarez, Mexico. Photo by the author

30-year-old Adriana Jaquez, who works in a shoe store in downtown Juarez, appreciates that message. "The pope isn't afraid. He says what he feels, and that is how it should be," she told me.

She, too, has seen the violence. Her neighbor was kidnapped, she says, and his wife killed in attempting to deliver the ransom. For her part, Jaquez has an unusual theory as to why the violence has dropped in Juarez: "They killed so many people that there were hardly any of them left to kill," she said.

But the damage from the drug war extends beyond the border region.

The death toll from drug war is more than 100,000 killed nationwide and tens of thousands disappeared. This includes the 43 students who went missing and were presumably killed in Guerrero in 2014. Human rights groups and forensic experts dispute the government's account of what happened to the students; the pope has not yet made a public comment on this case.

He also hasn't yet mentioned the word femicide.

According to the National Citizen Femicide Observatory, six women are killed daily in Mexico. But somehow only 24 percent of the roughly 4,000 femicides the group identified between 2012 and 2013 were actually investigated by authorities, it claims, with just 1.6 percent leading to sentencing.

Meanwhile, 18 journalists have been murdered in Mexico since 2008, and 36 priests have been assassinated since 2005. The day before the pope arrived in Mexico, 49 people were killed in a riot at a prison in the northern city of Monterrey. On Saturday, 13 people were shot dead in the drug cartel–plagued Pacific state of Sinaloa.

In a Saturday mass in Ecatepec outside Mexico City, the pope equated the cartels with evil and the devil. "You don't dialogue with the devil," the pontiff said. Jaquez agrees with the pope but suspects it will be rather difficult to change their souls.

"The narcos don't believe in God," she told me. "They don't fear God,"

Teresa Puente is an associate professor of journalism at Columbia College Chicago and a senior facilitator with The OpEd Project. She also writes the Chicanísima blog. Follow her on Twitter.