The great multitudes who came to the hill knew that Jesus was near when the news media helicopters appeared overhead and the dust began to swirl, like a curtain that parts for a play.
Rows of municipal police held up their plastic riot shields to keep the crowds from surging forward, for soon the bold Roman soldiers came, marching in leather sandals and on lathered horses, wearing bright tunics and plumed helmets, carrying javelins and swords.
Over the loudspeakers came the crack of a lash and the wailing of a lone woman. In the distance, just beginning the long climb up the hill, a figure dressed in white, dragging a heavy cross.
"He has fallen!" This was Josefina Delgado, who came with her husband and two young daughters to witness the Good Friday drama. "See how the soldiers beat him and how his mother cries!" Delgado held one of her daughters aloft to help her better see over the chain-link fence the scene of a bloody man down on the road, a crown of thorns on his head.
The performance of the Passion play is a revered tradition throughout much of Catholic Latin America, especially in Mexico, where hundreds of communities stage the Easter season reenactment of the Crucifixion. The largest, most raucous event takes place here in Iztapalapa, Mexico City's most populous barrio, which has hosted the performances each year since 1843. Authorities estimate that as many as 2 million visitors come to the processions in Iztapalapa during Holy Week.
'We are poor, and so we suffer'
The ceremonies this year take place against a backdrop of scarcity. There have been protests of the high cost of diesel and fears about the stumbling peso. Because of weak rainfall, water reserves for Mexico City are at a historical low. The elaborate systems of viaducts and pipelines that pump water up into the city, which lies at 7,000 feet, are coming apart. Leaks are a big part of the problem. So municipal officials cut off water in the past week to large swaths of the city, closing the tap on 5 million of the 20 million people who live in the Mexico City valley.
One of the hardest-hit neighborhoods is Iztapalapa, where residents stockpiled water in buckets and drums, and young men were sent out to poach directly from city pipes, risking high fines they could not afford to pay.
"We are poor, and so we suffer -- that's the truth," said Francisco Linares, 19, a street vendor and resident of Iztapalapa who joined the hundreds of other young men accompanying the Good Friday procession by carrying his own heavy wooden cross up the Hill of the Star, the public park where the Crucifixion takes place and the site of a recently discovered earthen pyramid that dates back 1,500 years.
Linares said the lack of water did not bother him much -- "Not today." You can wash in a pail, he said. You can buy a bottle of water to drink for a couple of pesos. "Today is about the Passion," he said.
Linares wore a purple robe and plastic flip-flops -- his best shot at Bible-era sandals -- and his shoulders were bruised from carrying his cross, two huge planks of raw wood that might have weighed 150 pounds.
The Passion play in Iztapalapa is the most elaborate staging in the country. A carnival atmosphere of street vendors, a Ferris wheel and stalls selling Last Supper carpets surround the processional.
About 3,000 police officers keep order, and more than 4,000 locals play the roles of mourners, soldiers, priests. Special parts are highly sought after -- for the characters of the Apostles; for Pontius Pilate, who condemns Jesus to the cross; and even for Judas Iscariot, who betrays Jesus for 30 pieces of silver. In the processional, Judas walks through the streets, and the crowds taunt him and call out, "Traitor," as he throws fake coins from a bag.
The stars of the show, however, are Mary and her son, Jesus, this year played by an 18-year-old local named Diego Zirahuén Villagrán Villalobos, who, according to his biography on the Passion Web site, dreams of being a chemical engineer with the national oil company Pemex.
The Passion play as performed in Iztapalapa is intense and emotional. Jesus is kicked, beaten, whipped and covered in blood, with a cinematic reality. And Mary's cries stir the people in the crowds, who perhaps cannot help but think not only of the suffering of Jesus but also of their own.
As the Jesus character makes his way up the hill, he frequently stumbles, and the throngs moan along with him. When Judas reaches the top of the hill, he skulks away and then is seen hanging from a tree, a re-creation of his suicide out of guilt.
Then comes the sound, over the loudspeakers, of nails being driven into hard wood, and though there are hundreds of thousands of people on the hill, it grows very quiet. Jesus is hoisted aloft, and he looks out over the gathering, over Mexico City, and shouts: "Forgive them, Lord, for they know not what they do!" and many in the audience are weeping.