CHIHUAHUA, MEXICO – Pope Francis urged Mexican convicts on Wednesday to become “prophets” whose experiences through “hell” can help the country break its cycle of violence as he visited a crime-scarred city’s prison.
Francis made his plea at the state penitentiary of Ciudad Juarez, a city once known as the world’s murder capital, days after a riot killed 49 inmates at another Mexican prison.
While his trip to Ciudad Juarez will focus mainly on immigration, which he will address at a huge Mass later Wednesday at the border with the United States, Francis decided to make a stop at the prison first.
The pope often visits prisons during his trips abroad and he chose the 3,000-capacity state prison of Ciudad Juarez for the last day of this five-day visit to Mexico.
He visited its newly painted chapel and addressed hundreds assembled in the prison yard, telling them they should use their experiences to help “put end to this cycle of violence and exclusion.”
“The one who has suffered the greatest pain, and we could say ‘has experienced hell,’ can become a prophet in society. Work so that this society which uses people and discards them will not go on claiming victims,” he said.
The pope argued that a country’s security problem “is not resolved only by incarcerating,” arguing that the structural and cultural causes of crime must be addressed.
On the eve of his arrival last week, a brawl erupted between inmates fighting for control of a prison in the northern city of Monterrey, killing each other with bats and shivs.
The Juarez prison was also the scene of deadly riots a few years ago, with dozens of prisoners killed in recent years, but it has been held up as an example of efforts to improve Mexico’s notoriously overcrowded prisons.
After the prison, the pope headed to a meeting with workers from the city’s key manufacturing industry.
But Francis came to the border to focus on an issue dear to him: The plight of migrants fleeing misery and violence.
A huge stage was set near the border fence for the open-air Mass with more than 200,000 Catholic faithful. A sea of pilgrims had already arrived early Wednesday, waving flags and wearing shirts with the words “I love the pope.”
Francis is expected to salute people watching on the other side of the Rio Grande in El Paso, Texas. The service also will be broadcast on a giant screen at a 51,000-capacity stadium in the U.S. city.
The pope’s decision to make a plea for migrants in an event staged on the United States border coincides with the U.S. presidential election primaries. One candidate wasn’t pleased.
Republican White House hopeful Donald Trump, who wants Mexico to pay to build a wall along the border, called the pope a “very political person.”
“I think that he doesn’t understand the problems our country has. I don’t think he understands the danger of the open border that we have with Mexico,” the billionaire real estate tycoon told Fox Business channel last week.
Armed troops stood guard as thousands streamed to the esplanade hours before the Mass.
Maria Ortega Cruz Bautista, 62, traveled from Chicago to be with her family in Ciudad Juarez, a city she left 14 years ago.
She voiced hope that the pope’s message will prompt authorities “to have more compassion and more consideration for migrants.”
Central Americans have been leaving their poor and gang-infested countries in droves, crossing Mexico’s porous southern border with Guatemala on their way to the United States.
The trek across Mexico is filled with dangers — from gangs that steal, kill or seek to forcibly recruit them to corrupt officials who demand bribes to let them travel.
The Mass will also be attended by families of victims of Mexico’s drug violence, which has left more than 100,000 people dead or missing in 10 years.
Ciudad Juarez stands as a grim symbol of Mexico’s violence, but also of hope.
It became the country’s most dangerous city a few years ago as the Sinaloa and Juarez drug cartels fought for control of drug routes.
Their turf war left as many as 3,000 dead in 2010, but the murderous rampage gradually eased afterward, falling to 300 last year.