Pope Francis' trip to Mexico - his first as pontiff - is packed with events that will underscore the endemic violence and corruption found across the country.

His itinerary reads like a trip to combat zones - Ecatepec, a gritty violent sprawling suburb of Mexico City; Michoacan, the state where drug cartel violence spawned a vigilante movement; and Ciudad Juarez, once known as the most violent city in the hemisphere.

To top it off, he'll also reach out to indigenous Catholics in Chiapas, leading prayers in their native languages. This is a group former Vatican officials and popes have kept at arm's length.

It is all part of a wider point. Francis wants to stand in solidarity with the millions of Mexicans touched by corruption, violence and organised crime. 

By holding a Mass on Sunday in Ecatepec, he is shining a light on a community that for many is a microcosm of Mexico. Femicides, extortion, kidnapping and killings are daily occurrences there. There are reports of lynchings too, by mobs fed up with violence and government neglect.


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When interviewing an anti-crime activist, Osmar León, we asked him his title. Confused that we were asking for a title for the news story he said "The Hell of Living in Ecatepec."

Just one man's opinion, but it shows how bad the situation is for those who live on the violent periphery of Mexico City.

Many who attend Francis’ Mass on Sunday will likely either be victims of violent crime, family members of murder victims or relatives of someone who’s gone missing or disappeared. 

Ecatepec also highlights the possibility of Mexico. It is home to about 1.7 million people - many of whom just want to work hard to get ahead. I met one such woman, Pilar, who cleans houses in Mexico City. She built a house in Ecatepec with her husband more than 20 years ago. They still keep fixing it. One of their five children is an engineer, another is a doctor and one more is in university. She and her family carry on despite regular run-ins with armed robbers on buses and criminal gangs in their neighbourhood.

By visiting Michoacan state, Francis is trying to show his defence of priests who have stood up to cartels there. Some of those priests were kidnapped and killed.

Michoacán was so thoroughly controlled by La Familia Michoacana and its offshoot, the Knights Templar, that vigilantes took up arms to fight back - with mixed and complicated results.

Francis will wrap up his trip on February 17, with a visit to a prison that used to be run by drug gangs in Ciudad Juarez. He will then say Mass at the border with participants on both the U.S. and Mexican sides. He will say a prayer for all the migrants who have died on their journey to the U.S..

Each of these visits to areas better known for past or present conflicts will allow Francis to draw attention to the suffering and pain wrought by corruption, drug trafficking and criminal gangs.

Pope's calls for stability

It also makes for some uncomfortable moments for the government of President Enrique Peña Nieto.

When Pope Benedict XVI came to Mexico in 2012, he visited typical holy sites in Mexico City and the conservative centre of the country.

Francis will do that, too. He says his greatest desire is to stand in front of the cloth with the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe - the holiest shrine in Mexico and the most visited Marian shrine in the world. But after he fulfils his personal goal to pray and look on the most potent religious and cultural symbol in Mexico, the trip becomes more controversial and politically loaded.

Still, if the president and his administration artfully manage the trip and back some of Francis' calls for a more secure, less corrupt Mexico, they could even boost their capital with voters.

As the first Latin American pope, Francis is extremely popular here. The president and other politicians are hoping some of his shine rubs off on them.

Source: Al Jazeera