Pope Francis landed in Mexico on Friday and will celebrate Mass in the capital city on Sunday.
Once he leaves the capital, however, he will encounter a much harsher part of a country that is home to the second-most Catholics in the world.
The pontiff will travel south, to the state of Chiapas, which has become a focal point for the migrant crisis that has challenged the Mexican government and people in recent years.
The wave of migrants that has surged out of the Northern Triangle, which is made up of the countries of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, over the last two years has flowed through Chiapas, as residents of the region flee faltering economies and rampant violence driven by gangs and drugs.
In July 2014, a spike in the number of unaccompanied child migrants arriving at the US border prompted calls to action from US lawmakers.
With US support, Mexico responded, and the number of undocumented Central Americans apprehended in Mexico rose by 71% between July 2014 and June 2015, compared the same period a year prior, according to a report from the Washington Office on Latin America.
Central American migrants detained in Mexico jumped to over 170,000 in 2015, up from about 78,000 in 2013, according to The New York Times. Most of those caught, WOLA notes, are intercepted in Chiapas.
In Mexico, however, many of those migrants find more of the horror that forced them from their homes.
“When you live in Honduras, you quickly learn that anywhere and anything is better,” a 17-year-old migrant told The Dallas Morning News in summer 2014, “but then you get to Mexico and you understand that hell extends beyond Honduras.”
‘A permanent fear’
Pope Francis has spoken before about the plight of migrants fleeing Central America. In July 2014, as child migrants arrived at the US border, the pontiff said, “This humanitarian emergency requires, as a first urgent measure, these children be welcomed and protected.”
But his also zeroed in on a policy response to the migrant crisis. “These measures, however, will not be sufficient, unless they are accompanied by policies that inform people about the dangers of such a journey,” he continued, according to the Huffington Post.
“And, above all, [policies] that promote development in their countries of origin,” he added.
The Catholic Church and related groups have also been involved in Central America, including in San Salvador, the capital of El Salvador, which saw a 72% increase in homicides in 2015.
“There is an urge to flee, because of the very asphyxiation that people feel,” Verónica Reyna, a psychologist with a Catholic Church-linked group in San Salvador, told The Wall Street Journal. “In El Salvador, there is a constant paranoia, a permanent fear.”
Francis returned to the topic during his visit to the US in September last year. “We must not be taken aback by their numbers,” he said, referring to the migrants, “but rather view them view them as persons, seeing their faces and listening to their stories, trying to respond as best we can to their situation.”
While the pope’s trip to Chiapas is sure to address that state’s indigenous community, the poverty that afflicts it (76% of the state lives in poverty, 32% in extreme poverty), and the alienation they feel toward the church, he is also likely to touch on migrant rights.
Amid the Mexican government’s crackdown on the stream of migrants, any comments or gestures he makes about their plight is likely to irk Mexico’s political leadership.
“It will be an uncomfortable visit,” Jesuit father David Velasco, a professor in Guadalajara, told The Guardian in December, before the pope’s itinerary had been announced. “The Mexican government has a strategy of painting a fantasy of a country that doesn’t exist,” he added.
On Saturday, his first full day in the country, Francis addressed those leaders directly.
“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,” the pontiff said, according to the AP, “sooner or later the life of 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.”
Like migrants fleeing Central America, Pope Francis will travel north from Chiapas.
He will stop in Michoacan, a violence-wracked state in Mexico’s southwest, where bloodthirsty gangs have terrorised the population.
His visit there will also likely mention the priests who, along with residents, have stood up to criminals.
Those clergymen have paid the price, as the 40 of them killed over the last decade have made Mexico the most dangerous country for priests in the Americas, according to El Pais.
The pope’s trip will conclude on February 17 in Ciudad Juarez, the northern border city that was, just a few years ago, the most violence city in the world.
His visit is expected to help broadcast the city’s economic and social recovery, but that fact that it’s a border city links it to the broader migrant crisis.
Though Pope Francis’ current plans don’t involve him travelling into the US, the significance of that crossing has not been lost on him.
“To enter the United States from the border with Mexico would be a beautiful gesture of brotherhood and support for immigrants,” he said early last year.
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