On Feb. 12, Pope Francis landed in Mexico City’s international airport. It was the first time that he visited Mexico as the head of the Roman Catholic Church. Mexico had been the only major Latin American country he hadn’t visited since he was elevated to the Throne of St. Peter. Mexican political commentators spent months before his visit speculating on the content of his message. Many assumed that he would be especially bold in a country that has known no end to the violence that started with the so-called war on drugs.
Francis is no foreigner to political struggles of minorities and disadvantaged groups. As pope, he has used the power of his office to elevate issues such inequality and climate change on the global agenda. Thus many in Mexico were expecting him to deliver an especially powerful message, given Mexico’s troubled recent history.
It is no secret to outsiders that since 2006, Mexico has been experiencing a slow-motion human rights crisis. During the last 10 years, more than 160,000 people have died in the war on drugs. More than 20,000 people have disappeared. Heartbreaking testimonies can be found all over the country from survivors and family members of those who have been lost. Free press is under attack, and journalists are killed with impunity.
Meanwhile, the Catholic Church in Mexico has gone through a series of scandals. As in the U.S., there have been allegations throughout Mexico of priests who molested children, and Catholic authorities in Mexico did everything possible to protect the priests and shield them from judicial procedures. It appears from journalistic investigations that Pope John Paul II knew about the abuses and did nothing.
Francis found a country that has steadily become less Catholic. While 50 years ago, virtually every Mexican considered himself or herself a Catholic, nowadays, only 4 in 5 Mexicans do so. Catholics in Mexico are mainly clustered in the center of the country, with the indigenous south shifting toward other forms of Christianity. Islam has been on the rise in Chiapas, a largely indigenous state that Francis visited on Monday.
In this context, his Masses in Mexico were largely anodyne. He focused on one of his main talking points, inequality, while skipping any thorny local political issues. On Sunday he flew to Ecatepec, a gray slum on the outskirts of Mexico City that is a representative sample of the half of Mexico’s population living in poverty.
While in Ecatepec, he addressed the country’s glaring disparities and mourned the deaths of those who make the journey to the U.S. at the hands of what he referred to as “dealers of death.” However, his speech and visit largely avoided addressing any controversial topics. In the months before his trip, the parents of the 43 college students from Ayotzinapa who disappeared a year and a half ago asked him to meet with them. He refused to see them, but they were invited to a Mass he held in Juárez, according to Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi.
The disappearance of the 43 students was one of the turning points of President Enrique Peña Nieto’s presidency. His cumbersome response to their disappearance marked the start of the end of his honeymoon with the public. Their disappearance ushered in historic demonstrations around the country that were galvanized by unprecedented international support.
The students’ disappearance also increased scrutiny, at home and abroad, of Mexico’s grave institutional challenges. The first three years of Peña Nieto’s presidency were marked by the official narrative of change and reform. Since their disappearance, the public has shifted its attention to the country’s never-ending violence. Had Francis met with the parents of the disappeared students, it would have rekindled the issue.
The president might have well sensed the pope’s potentially problematic role in a politically charged environment. Some in Mexico pointed out that Peña Nieto made an extraordinary effort to follow Francis’ steps while in Mexico. When Peña Nieto was unable to accompany the pontiff, close presidential aides reportedly followed the pope and his entourage.
The Mexican government might have had an influence on Francis’ message. While he scheduled symbolic stops on his visit, he largely failed to address the epidemic of violence in Mexico. During his visit to the western state of Michoacán, he barely mentioned the role of drug dealing in the carnage. This is especially disappointing, since Michoacán has been one of the states hardest hit by drug violence. In fact, it was in Michoacán that President Felipe Calderón launched the country’s war on drugs in 2006.
Francis also avoided meeting with victims of sexual abuse — a sharp contrast to his visit to the U.S., where he met with five victims. His incapacity to even raise the issue in public might be a demonstration of anxieties he feels about the shrinking and scandal-worn church in Mexico.
While Francis has been known as a poignant political messenger, he largely failed in Mexico. The Mexican government seems to have created the necessary conditions to avoid embarrassment during the papal visit.
The pope who went to Mexico this week was very different from the progressive pope the world has come to think of. Francis’ message in Mexico largely failed to give the comfort and hope that so many families who have lost so much over the years deserve.