Dozens of citizens marched through the Mexican city of Ecatepec on Sunday to highlight the violence plaguing their communities ahead of a historic visit to the municipality by Pope Francis on Valentine’s Day.
The protesters held crosses, placards, and pictures of missing relatives in honor of over 2,000 women and girls murdered in surrounding Mexico State – currently Mexico’s worst state for femicides – in the past nine years.
“The message we’re sending is that Mexico is a country in pain, and we hope that Pope Francis will acknowledge the impunity suffered by the victims,” Sandra Cárdenas, one of the marchers, whose 16-year-old daughter Linda was murdered in 2009, told Latin Correspondent.
The Pontiff arrives in Mexico for a five-day visit on Feb. 12 and has publicly stated that social justice will be high on the agenda.
Whereas previous Popes have mingled with political and business elites, Pope Francis will head to regions of the country notorious for drug violence and poverty, and activists are keen that he speak out against corruption and human rights abuses.
“The Catholic Church has been viewed as ineffective in the face of many of Mexico’s problems,” David Velasco, a professor at the Jesuit University of Guadalajara, said in an interview. “The Vatican is aware of this and the visit by Pope Francis will try to revitalize passion for the Church in a country that faces many difficulties right now.”
Focusing on Social Justice
Following a Mass in Ecatepec on February 14, Francis will visit the impoverished, largely indigenous state of Chiapas where tensions between Catholics and Evangelical Protestant groups in recent years have led to violent displacement.
Chiapas is also a transit point for Central American migrants who are frequently subject to kidnapping, extortion, and sexual assault as they make their way through Mexico towards the U.S.
The following day, Pope Francis heads to Michoacán, another poverty hotspot where, in 2014, drug cartels and heavily-armed civilian self-defense groups did battle.
Finally, he will visit Ciudad Juárez, the notorious northern border town that in 2009 was dubbed the deadliest city in the world on account of endemic drug violence. Francis will visit a prison in the city and also hold a prayer service with migrants at the Mexico-U.S. border.
Mexico has a strictly secular constitution and religious discourse is forbidden in public education and politics, yet some 84 percent of the country’s inhabitants still identify themselves as Catholic.
More than thirty Mexican human rights organizations have signed a petition asking Francis to emphasize the countless abuses suffered by migrants, women, children, and others in a country where 150,000 have died in various forms of violence since 2007.
“He will be diplomatic, of course, because that’s his role,” said David Velasco. “But I think he is sending a message by visiting these places, which are emblematic of the many problems facing Mexico, and it may certainly have an effect on the political debate.”