Pope calls for compassion toward migrants, says they're victims of 'hell of drug trade'

Late Wednesday afternoon in this rugged city across the Rio Grande from El Paso, Pope Francis spoke at an open-air service along the U.S.-Mexico border and delivered an impassioned plea for compassion toward immigrants.

“We cannot deny the human tragedy of human trafficking and the crimes that occur against migrants,” Francis said during his sermon. “This global phenomenon can be measured in numbers, but we want to measure it in names and families.”

His message validated the hopes of numerous immigration and human-rights advocates who flocked to Ciudad Juárez for his visit hoping he could push the agenda on the volatile issue of immigration reform.

Much of the blame for the migrants' misery he placed on cartels and drug gangs.

“[The migrants] are the victims of narcotraffickers and other criminal organizations,“ Francis said, calling them “cannon fodder” who’ve suffered not just poverty, but “the hell of drug trade."

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The pope's message resonated with many of the people who gathered inside and outside the fairgrounds.

Alonso Hernández, 18-year old veterinary student, told Fox News Latino, "It was beautiful, it was what I hoped it would be."

Joel Casas, a 52-year old professor at the Autonomous University of Chihuahua, admitted he had some concerns prior to the event. "I was a bit worried about so many people coming together at one place, but I wasn't disappointed. The pope gave a message of peace. That's very important for our city."

For Lucy Arredonde, a 38-year-old resident of Juárez, the Mass was all about lifting the spirits of the city's inhabitants. "Never before has a pope come to Juárez, and I doubt one will ever come again," she told FNL. "The problems this city has will never end, but a pope praying here gives us some relief."

Across the river in Texas, and in the country beyond, the Argentine-born pope’s appearance was viewed with both a mixture of anticipation and apprehension – by migrants and activists as well as by proponents of maintaining stricter border security like GOP presidential candidate, Donald J. Trump.

Thousands of people from El Paso as well as other parts of the U.S. made the short trip over the bridges that link the cities to attend the outdoor Mass that was expected to be attended by more than 200,000 people, capping Francis' 6-day visit to Mexico.

Tens of thousands more watched a livestream at the University of Texas at El Paso’s Sun Bowl. Although the service was held in Spanish, the feed at the stadium had English subtitles.

Pope Francis gave a shouted out to Catholics in the U.S., saying, “I want to greet from here our brothers on the other side of the border, especially those who have gathered in the stadium … called the Sun Bowl.”

“Thanks to the miracle of technology, we can sing and pray together,” the pontiff added. “Thank you brothers and sisters for making us feel like one Christian community.”

The pope rolled into the fairgrounds late in the afternoon in his signature “Pope-mobile,” which was surrounded by a motorcade of white vehicles.

The open-sided vehicle didn’t make the pontiff much more approachable, however, as phalanxes of black-suited Mexican security agents ran alongside his vehicle, preventing people from breaking through the security cordon the way 5 year old Sofi Cruz did in Washington, D.C., last September in order to make a pro-immigrant plea.

Security was tight throughout the event, causing a number of complaints. Many thousands of people who flocked here were turned away more than an hour before the service began when the gates to the fairgrounds were closed due to overselling of tickets to the event.

Several times, this led to angry people trying to break through the fences and heated discussions with the officers keeping them out. 

"I'm a bit annoyed that I couldn't get in – they handed out too many tickets," Hernández said. "I came here to pray for my family's health, but at least I got to take a picture of the pope."

Many of those waiting to get in showed up early in the morning or the night before. "It's very special that the pope is here. A Mass like this is something you only see once in your lifetime," Manuel Ramos, 30, told FNL. 

He drove through the crowd once and stopped to deliver a wreath at the base of a large black cross commemorating the deaths of thousands of migrants who attempted to cross the border into the United States.

Before he did, an announcer compared migrants to the infant Jesus and his family’s wanderings in search of a home. On the cross were figures that might have been Joseph – wearing a poncho and sombrero – leading a burro bearing Mary.

The service, held at Ciudad Juárez’s fairgrounds, began at 4:30 p.m. local time and lasted a little more than an hour.

Before its closing, Pope Francis thanked the country "for such a warm Mexican welcome. I ask you not to forget to pray for me."

The pope was scheduled to depart for Rome directly from the Juárez airport at 7:15 p.m. local time.

Jan-Albert Hootsen is a freelance writer based in Mexico City. Follow him on Twitter: @Jayhootsen