ECATEPEC, Mexico (AP) – Hundreds of thousands of people gathered Sunday as Pope Francis began what was expected to be the biggest event of his five-day trip to Mexico: a Mass in the capital's crime-ridden suburb of Ecatepec, where drug violence, gangland-style executions and kidnappings are a daily fact of life.
The Mexican bishops' conference said some 300,000 tickets had been handed out and an estimated 2 million people were expected to line the pope's motorcade route to the huge field where the liturgy was taking place.
Francis was bringing a message of encouragement to residents of an area where the murder rate, particularly of women, was so high that last year the government issued a special alert. With a population of some 1.6 million, Ecatepec is a sprawling carpet of cinderblock slums mixed in with some better-off neighborhoods that is a strategic point for drug gangs that thrive amid poverty, unemployment and impunity.
As a morning chill turned to a brilliant, warm day, pilgrims on foot and clad in white lined the streets leading to the field, throwing flower petals as the pope passed by and waving pom-poms in the yellow and white colors of the Vatican flag. Vendors sold T-shirts, plates with Francis' image on them, pins, bandanas and cardboard-cutout figures of the pope.
"He's coming to Ecatepec because we need him here," said Ignacia Godinez, a 56-year-old homemaker. "Kidnappings, robberies and drugs have all increased, and he brings comfort. His message will reach those who need it so that people know we, the good people, outnumber the bad."
Francis' decision to celebrate his largest Mass in Ecatepec speaks volumes about his priorities and desire to go to the "peripheries" of Mexico. A day after he was feted in the grandeur of the city's historic center, Francis began the part of the trip that is certainly closest to his heart: offering words of hope and encouragement to society's most marginal.
At least 1,554 women have disappeared in Mexico State since 2005, according to the National Observatory on Femicide, and last year the government issued an alert over the killings of women in Ecatepec and 10 other parts of the state.
Conchita Tellez, 65, from the northwest Mexico border city of Mexicali, said she spent 38 hours on a bus to get to Ecatepec and was among the first in line for a spot at the Mass. She expressed hope Francis can help ease the troubled soul of the country, where 100,000 people have been killed and 27,000 disappeared in gangland violence since Pena Nieto's predecessor launched an offensive against drug cartels shortly after taking office in late 2006.
"The pope comes to Mexico at a very ugly moment," Tellez said, "and he comes to pray for us and for all those who lost hope and have submerged the country in blood and violence."
Francis' is visiting Ecatepec a day after his grueling schedule appeared to be already taking a toll. He seemed tired and winded at times Saturday, and he appeared to nod off at an evening Mass and also lost his balance and fell into a chair set up for him to pray.
On Saturday, Francis challenged Mexico's political and ecclesial elites to confront the drug trade and corruption head-on and not hide behind their own privilege and power.
Speaking to the president and other members of government at the National Palace, the pope said public officials must be honest and not be seduced by corruption and privilege that benefits the few to the detriment of the many.
In a subsequent address to his own bishops, he challenged church leaders known for their deference to Mexico's wealthy and powerful to denounce the "insidious threat" of the drug trade and be true pastors instead of career-minded clerics who spew inoffensive denunciations that make them sound like "babbling orphans beside a tomb."
Francis urged bishops to get close to their flock and help Mexicans "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."
Francis ended his public activities Saturday at the Basilica of the Virgin of Guadalupe, which is the largest and most important Marian shrine in the world. He sat in silent prayer before the icon for nearly a half-hour after the Mass ended, fulfilling a wish to pray quietly before Mexico's patron saint.
"Just by looking at (the Virgin), Mexico can be understood completely," Francis said earlier.
The pope's five-day trip to the world's largest Spanish-speaking Catholic country is shining an uncomfortable spotlight on government and church shortcomings in dealing with social ills.
According to government statistics, about 46 percent of Mexicans live in poverty, including 10 percent in extreme poverty. Meanwhile, the homicide rate rose precipitously between 2006 and 2011, before declining somewhat for the next three years and then ticking up again in 2015.
Francis' schedule Sunday includes three popemobile motorcades and a visit to a pediatric hospital.
"The pope is coming to Ecatepec because it needs him and because the faith is reeling," said Petra Arqueta, a 62-year-old from Morelos who nonetheless spent a night waiting in line. "The poor and the working people are here, and this pope prefers to talk to the humble."