Mexico City: Pope Francis urged Mexico`s leaders Saturday to provide "true justice" to citizens hit by drug violence and called on bishops to courageously fight the scourge plaguing the country.
With President Enrique Pena Nieto by his side at the National Palace, Francis invoked the country`s struggles against corruption and crime, one day after arriving on a five-day, cross-country tour that will take him to some of Mexico`s hotspots.
The pope told the assembled officials that social, cultural and political leaders have a duty to help citizens get "real access to the material and spiritual goods which are indispensable: adequate housing, dignified employment, food, true justice, effective security, a healthy and peaceful environment."
"Experience teaches us that each time we seek the path of privileges or benefits for a few to the detriment of the good of all ... society becomes a fertile soil for corruption, drug trade, exclusion of different cultures, violence and also human trafficking, kidnapping and death, bringing suffering and slowing down development," he said.
It was the kind of message that many ordinary Mexicans, fed up with a decade of drug violence that has left more than 100,000 dead or missing, were hoping for.
Mexico was reminded of its troubles on the eve of the pope`s arrival, when 49 inmates were killed in a prison brawl between rival groups in the north of the country.
Thousands of Catholic faithful who stood outside the National Palace in the historic Zocalo square broke into cheers at the Argentine pontiff`s words.
"Bravo! How great that he tells the government the truth," one woman shouted.
"The pope put the government to shame with everything that he said. Let`s see if Pena Nieto does the right thing," said Ramiro Sosa, a 56-year-old shopkeeper from the crime-ridden eastern state of Veracruz.Pena Nieto gave Pope Francis a red-carpet welcome at the ornate palace, a symbolic location as it is the seat of governments that were militantly secular throughout the 20th century.
Previous visiting popes, John Paul II and Benedict XVI, were not invited to the palace, which features a mural of Mexico`s history by communist painter Diego Rivera.
While Mexico is the world`s second most populous Catholic country after Brazil, diplomatic relations with the Vatican were only restored in 1992.
"It`s the first time that a pontiff is greeted at this historic place. This reflects the good relation between the Holy See and Mexico," Pena Nieto said.
"Your presence contributes to the reaffirmation of our collective vocation for peace and brotherhood, for justice and human rights. The pope`s causes are also Mexico`s causes."
Francis then rode the popemobile around the square to wave at well-wishers before entering the capital`s Cathedral, where he urged Mexican bishops to take on the scourge of drug trafficking with "prophetic courage."
"I urge you not to underestimate the moral and antisocial challenge which the drug trade represents for Mexican society as a whole, as well as for the Church," the pope said.
He warned that the "immensity and its scope which devours like a metastasis, and the gravity of the violence which divides with its distorted expressions, do not allow us as pastors of the Church to hide behind anodyne denunciations."After his meeting with Pena Nieto, the pope will make a pilgrimage to the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe, a major Catholic shrine, where thousands of believers already waited for his arrival.
The basilica houses the image of a dark-skinned Virgin Mary that Catholics believe miraculously became imprinted on a piece of fabric after she appeared before an indigenous peasant in 1531.
The pope has asked for time alone to pray quietly in front of the image after the mass.
The following days will take the pope to some of Mexico`s notoriously poor and violent regions.
On Sunday, he will lead a massive outdoor mass in Ecatepec, a Mexico City suburb hit by an epidemic of murders against women.
The next day, he travels to Chiapas, the poorest state in the country, where he will preside over a mass in three indigenous languages and approve a decree allowing native languages at Churches.
On Tuesday, Francis heads to Morelia, the capital of the western state of Michoacan, were farmers formed vigilante forces in 2013 to combat the cult-like Knights Templar drug cartel.
He will cap his trip on Wednesday in Ciudad Juarez, the former murder capital of the world across from Texas, where he will lead a huge cross-border mass.