Pope Francis visits Mexico's drug-trafficking hotbed with message of hope

Antonio Lima, 29, cut a despondent figure on Monday morning, handing out flyers against Pope Francis’ visit to his hometown of Morelia, in Michoacan, western Mexico.

“People are too poor to be good,” said Lima, who brings in 150 pesos [$8] a day in casual labor he picks up by word of mouth. “There’s a lot of demons here. It would be useful for us if the Pope could see this.”

Pope Francis headed into the heart of Mexico's drug-trafficking country Tuesday for meetings with young people, whom he is holding up as the hope for a better future for a country wracked by the violence and gang warfare of the drug trade.

Michoacan has been at the frontline of the country’s war on the drugs since 2006, when then-president Felipe Calderon mobilized troops to crack down on the cartels. Since then, the state has borne the brunt of a war which has left 100,000 Mexicans dead and a further 30,000 missing, as local gangs battle with security forces and their rivals for control of the state’s meth labs and marijuana fields.

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This double whammy of crime and poverty - local government figures indicate that half the state’s population lives below the poverty line – has pushed some 3 million Michoacanos to find a life abroad, mostly in California, but Antonio and his brother Armando have already exhausted that option – they crossed the border illegally and were deported three years later.

“We paid a pollero [human trafficker] $3,000 to cross the border at Mexicali in 2004,” Antonio told Fox News Latino. “We worked in construction in Fresno, making $1,200 per month.”

“Even if I could pay the border crossing - it’s double what it used to be - I’d get four years in a federal prison, because they have all my data on file,” he added.

“Now I just take whatever work falls my way,” said Lima, who has three children and a jobless wife.

The Lima brothers are just two of the estimated 30 million Mexicans forced into the informal economy by low school completion levels and a merciless job market.

Three weeks ago, the World Bank released a report, “Out of School and Out of Work,” which estimated that about 4 million Mexicans between 15 and 24 are not enrolled in school or hold any official employment. Commonly called ninis (from “ni trabajan ni estudian”- “they neither work nor study”), this demographic is heavily stigmatized in the country’s media. The analysis by the World Bank indicated that opinion pieces using the word “nini” are also peppered with words like “lazy,” “drugs” and “violence.”

The number of young male ninis living in Mexico increased steadily between 1992 and 2010 and, according to the World Bank, the higher incidence in Mexico’s border states correlates with a tripling in those states’ murder rates — young men fail to make the cut in education and employment risk becoming cannon-fodder in the cartels' internecine warfare.

Even recent graduates with professional degrees are feeling the pinch. Mexico’s peso has lost 30 percent of its value against the dollar over the past year, while falling oil prices seem likely to stall the country’s economic projections for 2016.

“It’s not so good for my generation,” said Lenny, 24, an accident and emergency nurse at Morelia’s IMSS public hospital. “I graduated with 34 others from my university course. A year later, only eight of us have jobs.”

His friend, Francisco, a 22-year-old law student at the Universidad Michoacana, tells a similar tale.

“There’s very little for us in Morelia,” he told FNL. “If you don’t get to emigrate, you’ll end up working in a market stall or a movie theater - no matter how hard you study.”

For some, however, the market stall is a ladder toward better things. Edgar Villalon, 24, sells coconuts and coconut milk at two street corners in Morelia's historic center.

"I wasn't much use at school," he said bashfully, while his younger colleague Juan - a street vendor since the age of 11, when his parents could no longer afford his school fees - deftly chopped coconuts into rings to garnish with lemon and salt and sell to tourists for 10 pesos [$0.50].

"I dropped out [from school] when I was 14, but my father wouldn't let me sit around doing nothing," said Edgar, the pride in his voice rising audibly. "He taught me all these recipes - and how to sell. I like interacting with people, and I like seeing my plans come together. Every year I'm able to do something new: I bought a small car last year, and this year I started renting an apartment with my girlfriend."

On good days, Edgar earns about 200 pesos [$16] from a 12-day selling in the street. This is less than half of what an entry-level lookout for the local narcos would earn, but he says he is not tempted.

"Why would I work for them?" he said. "You might earn a lot, but at any moment you could lose everything,” he told Fox News Latino.

“I don't need much money to buy beans and tortillas, and my only vice is cigarettes,” he said. “It's better to earn a little money honestly, and learn how to spend it right. If I keep going this way, building and building little by little, I'll have my own business in 10 years."

Contains reporting by the Associated Press.

Tim MacGabhann is an Irish freelance journalist based in Mexico City. Follow him on Twitter: @TimMacGabhann

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