MEXICO CITY — Pope Francis launched a broadside against endemic corruption on his first visit to Mexico as pontiff on Saturday, calling on President Enrique Peña Nieto and his government to combat it.
Corruption is deeply ingrained in Mexico, and Peña Nieto, his wife and finance minister have all been embroiled in conflict of interest scandals involving homes purchased from government contractors.
Drug-trafficking gangs have infiltrated police forces across the country and more than 100,000 people have been killed in drug violence over the last decade. Some 26,000 are missing.
"Experience teaches us that each time we seek the path of privilege or benefits for a few to the detriment of the good of all, sooner or later the life of society becomes a fertile soil for corruption, the drug trade, the exclusion of different cultures, violence and also human trafficking, kidnapping and death," the pope said in a speech to Peña Nieto, the government and foreign diplomats.
He said Mexico's leaders have a "particular duty" to move past corruption and violence and work for the collective good.
From the U.S. border to the indigenous south, Francis will visit some of Mexico's poorest and most violent corners on his five-day trip.
Mexico is the world's second most populous Roman Catholic country and hundreds of thousands of people are expected to join the pope on Saturday afternoon in a Mass at Mexico City's basilica for the country's patroness, the Virgin of Guadalupe.
"'Don't be afraid,' that is what she tells me," the Argentine-born pontiff said ahead of his visit, adding that he wanted to reflect silently in front of her image.
Carrying pictures of the pope and the Virgin of Guadalupe, and wrapped up against the winter chill, thousands converged on Mexico City´s historic center as the pope addressed the government at the presidential palace.
"This country needs his blessing. We´re really struggling with corrupt politicians, unemployment and drug gangs, and everyone knows it," said Juanita Lopez, a 58-year-old maid, as she walked to the Zocalo, the capital´s main square, clutching a rosary.
The pope earlier this month urged Mexicans to fight against corruption and brutal drug gang violence. Some Mexicans are looking to him to take that even further while he's here.
"We want him to demand that the president kick out all the corrupt people," said Marbella Vargas, whose son Edgar was one of 43 students abducted and apparently massacred in 2014, a grisly case that hammered the government's reputation.
During his visit, the pope will say Mass with indigenous communities in Mexico's poorest state Chiapas, and speak with young people in Morelia, the capital of Michoacan state that has been plagued by violence between drug gangs and armed vigilante groups.
The pope's trip will end with a prison visit and Mass in the notorious northern border city of Ciudad Juarez, where he will meet relatives of victims of violence.
In a reminder of Mexico's corruption and violence, 49 people were killed in a fight between rival gangs in a prison just days before the pope's arrival.
There has been speculation that the pope might also meet with relatives of the 43 missing students.
Francis, the first pope from Latin America, has won plaudits for his leadership of the Church over the last three years. But in Mexico he may struggle to match the lasting appeal of Pope John Paul II, who made multiple visits to the country.
More than half of those polled by newspaper Reforma last month said they identified most with John Paul II, versus 14 percent for Francis.