Pope to lead mass in rough Mexico crime city

Jennifer Gonzalez Covarrubias, Jean-Louis De La Vaissiere

Ecatepec (Mexico) (AFP) - Pope Francis will celebrate an open-air mass in a crime-plagued Mexico City suburb on Sunday after thousands of pilgrims spent the night outdoors, awaiting his message of peace in the cold.

The Catholic faithful wrapped themselves in blankets, using plastic and cardboard to build makeshift tents on a university's field, where 300,000 were expected for the service.

Ecatepec, a concrete maze of 1.6 million people, is in the state of Mexico, a region that has become infamous for a spate of disappearances of women, whose bodies sometimes turn up in abandoned lots or canals.

Some 600 women have been killed between January 2014 and September 2015 in the state, according to the non-governmental National Citizen Observatory of Feminicides.

Some pilgrims said that despite the city's bad reputation, they were not concerned about spending the night outside. Hundreds of police officers stood guard around the field.

"We know that Ecatepec has a lot of problems like the lack of security and kidnappings," said Rodrigo Perez, a 25-year-old public security student.

But the pope's visit, he said, is a chance to "talk about peace and unity."

- 'Prophetic courage' -

The Argentine-born pontiff made it clear before his arrival in Mexico that he would speak out about the corruption and crime afflicting parts of the country.

He used his visit to the National Palace and the capital's cathedral on Saturday to bluntly tell political and religious leaders to do more to bring peace to the country.

At the palace, with President Enrique Pena Nieto by his side in a patio packed with lawmakers and government officials, Francis told them they had a duty to give "true justice" and "effective security" to Mexicans.

Later, he told bishops at the cathedral to take on the scourge of drug trafficking with "prophetic courage" and avoid hiding "behind anodyne denunciations."

Many Mexicans, fed up with a decade of drug violence that has left 100,000 dead or missing, had hoped to hear such words from the 79-year-old pontiff.

Pope Francis has chosen to visit some of Mexico's most troubled regions during his five-day trip to the world's second most populous Catholic country.

The crimes against women in the state of Mexico, which surrounds the capital, prompted the federal government to declare a "gender violence alert" requiring protective measures in 11 towns, including Ecatepec.

- Faith in God -

"People who kill or who are wicked should think about the fact that we are women and that we should be respected," said Mariana Virginia Hernandez, 45, who came from the neighboring state of Hidalgo for the mass and wore several sweaters and a poncho to resist the cold.

Ana Yeli Perez, legal adviser at the National Citizen Observatory of Feminicides, said the organization is "concerned about the lack of visibility of the issue because the government controls it. We hope the pope speaks about it."

But Karla Paola Romero, a 21-year-old activist who was nearly kidnapped three years ago, said gender violence would not be resolved "with a miracle."

Romero, who will not be at the mass, spoke near a hill where a woman's body was found in December. The victim had been raped and hanged.

The pope will face other tough issues during his trip.

On Monday, Pope Francis will travel to Mexico's poorest and least Catholic region, the southern indigenous state of Chiapas.

He will visit on Tuesday the capital of Michoacan, a western state where farms formed vigilante forces to counter a drug cartel in 2013.

The pope caps the trip in Mexico's former murder capital, Ciudad Juarez, for a mass that will span the US and Mexican borders to highlight the plight of migrants.