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Mexican peasants and mothers of missing say diocese barring them from pope

Juárez residents, who have suffered horrific violence, request audience with Francis during his visit to border

CIUDAD JUÁREZ, Mexico — Mesh wire was hurriedly erected along a half-mile section of a route that Pope Francis will transit when he arrives in the Mexican border city of Juárez on Feb. 17. It’s just a small part of the more than 10 miles the pope intends to cover that day, but it offers a glimpse at the actions undertaken by local officials and businessmen to silence Juárez’s victims of violence, poverty and banishment.

“That was the space we were given by the local diocese to make a human chain to receive the pope. The only place where we could speak out to demonstrate our reality has been taken away from us by the authorities,” said Martin Solis, the leader of El Barzón, a peasant organization that has denounced the exploitation of water and land grabs with the use of terrorist tactics, including murder and kidnapping.

Francis chose this point of the border with Texas to end his first visit to Mexico with an unprecedented Mass on the banks of the Rio Grande. Local authorities estimate that more than 210,000 people will participate in the event, and it is expected that thousands more will do the same on the United States side, where giant television screens will be placed. The Mass will be directed to migrants, the focus of his agenda in Mexico.

After arriving in Mexico City, Francis is scheduled to visit Ecatepec, a troubled municipality of the state of Mexico that not only is a crossing point for migrants but also has one of the highest rates of femicide in the country. He will then travel to San Cristobal de las Casas in Chiapas, the main entry point for Central American migrants seeking to reach the U.S. From there he heads to Morelia, the capital of Michoacán, the second-largest push region for undocumented Mexicans.

But what distinguishes Juárez from other cities on the tour is that here more than anywhere it is possible to see the failures of the contemporary global economic model.

“The relationship between the inequality, precarious rights and high degrees of violence were clearly manifested in the case of Ciudad Juárez,” according to the final statement issued in November 2014 by the Permanent Peoples' Tribunal, which replaced the Russell Tribunal or International War Crimes Tribunal.

Bishop Raul Vera, left, and poet and peace activist Javier Sicilia, center, walking to the start of the March for Peace, in Cuernavaca, Mexico, in 2011.
Gustavo Graf / LatinContent / Getty Images

A copy of that judgment was delivered to Francis by one of the members of the tribunal, Raul Vera, the bishop of Saltillo in northern Mexico, who has twice appeared on the shortlist for the Nobel Peace Prize for his human rights activism.

Vera presented the document during a trip to the Vatican before Christmas and in late January he sent further information about the prevalence of mass murders, disappearances of women, femicides, police operations of federal forces and the existence of paramilitary groups during the years of the drug war, which was most prevalent from 2008 to 2011. He also mentioned the harassment, intimidation and killings of human rights activists.

Vera is one of the three leaders of the Catholic Church in Mexico with whom Francis is most acquainted. Vera, a Dominican friar, became a bishop in 1988 by order of Pope John Paul II, and he started his commission in Altamirano, in Guerrero, a region often known as Tierra Caliente (hot earth). Later he was named the curate bishop under Chiapas Bishop Samuel Ruiz, who defended the claims of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation in favor of the rights of indigenous people. Since then, Bishop Vera has been a staunch defender of human rights and an implacable critic of neoliberalism and government corruption.

Vera is one of the few members of the church to accompany the pope on his tour of the country. He is convinced that Francis will not only bring hope but also leave the Mexican church with the weight of the enormous responsibility that comes with defending justice and social rights.

“The holy father encourages us to leave our temples and has placed us, with his message, at the core of the current national discussion focused on the injustice and the shameful indifference to human suffering. In his message of peace the pope tells us that when indifference becomes rampant in the public sphere, then indifference has become globalized. And that is the situation we are living,” Vera said.

‘With the frankness and simplicity that characterizes the women and men of the country, we ask you for an audience during your next visit to Ciudad Juárez in order to share with you our struggles, dreams and hopes and to hear your word.’

residents of Juárez

That indifference has been reflected in the behavior of the Mexican Catholic Church, which has kept its distance from the violence and brutality to which Mexicans are exposed. The way in which public officials and businessmen have organized to meet Francis is further evidence of this indifference.

For the Mass at the border wall, authorities will provide 20,000 seats. Initially, the local diocese decided these seats would be for politicians and businessmen. But when the local media called them VIP seats, it sparked outrage from victims’ organizations whose requests for seats were ignored by the church. The diocese then reported that a thousand seats would be reserved for the families of missing people throughout the country but that no one would be allowed to make speeches.

Unable to have a private audience with the pope, citizen groups requested to be able to participate in the human chain that will follow his 31-mile tour. The diocese allowed them to participate, with the condition that they not carry banners. But for El Barzón, that space was eliminated when the wire fencing was erected.

Juárez is devoted to its industrial economic model like no U.S. city, said businessman Miguel Fernández Inturriza, who in 1999 founded the Pact for Juárez, an association that seeks to diversify the local economy. However, the multimillion-dollar interests not only concentrate a complex set of phenomena such as migration, poverty and violence in Juárez, but also perpetuate these issues. Some of these entrepreneurs and the workers selected by them are whom the diocese had initially granted 20,000 seats for the meeting with the pope.

The peasants were not so lucky, so they decided to write him a letter.

“As you, Father Francis, we maintain a constant struggle against the economy of waste which discards humanity and Mother Nature just for the sake of the idolatry of money. It is an unwavering struggle for justice. Therefore, with the frankness and simplicity that characterizes the women and men of the country we ask you for an audience during your next visit to Ciudad Juárez in order to share with you our struggles, dreams and hopes and to hear your word,” they wrote, appealing to his message about the sacred right to land, work and housing that Francis gave during his visit to Bolivia.

From 2008 to 2011, the city, with 1.5 million inhabitants, recorded 11,000 homicides, according to statistics from the state attorney. This happened while the city was occupied by 7,000 troops and 5,000 federal agents sent by the administration of then-President Felipe Calderon. The official explanation to such figures — which included shootings, beheadings and massacres of innocent people — was a clash between criminal organizations. In only two of those years, from 2010 to 2011, 495 women were killed; from 2008 to 2011, about 1,300 reports of disappearances of other girls and women were registered.

During those years, a quarter of a million people left the city for safety reasons, and in the adjacent municipality of Guadalupe Distrito Bravos, 9 out of 10 residents fled. Most of them requested an audience with the pope through the diocese, according to the Barzón, Mujeres de Pacto and other groups, but none received an answer.

Jose Luis Castillo´s daughter has been missing since 2009. He is one of the few men involved in activism alongside mothers of other victims of abduction and murder. His activism has prompted the creation of murals and monuments to remember what happened, but neither he nor the immense group of mothers in the movement was chosen for Francis final Mass.

“What I know is that those who are attending are prohibited from taking any protest banners and from talking,” Castillo said.

Other mothers, attached to different organizations, also sought an audience with the pope. No one in the church replied to them.

“We feel that there is no real support from the church toward mothers,” said Gabriela Reyes, the director of Mujeres del Pacto (Women of the Pact), the institution through which Perla Reyes Loya, the mother of a missing daughter, determinedly seeks contact with the pontiff.

In response, Hesiquio Trevizo, a spokesman for the diocese, referred to the spaces opened for some mothers and added that the pope will not deliver a message solely for the parents of the missing, but that the message will be “for all.”

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