Pope Francis has begun his visit to Mexico by calling on the country’s political leaders to provide “true justice” and security to its citizens hit by drug violence.
Francis told President Enrique Pena Nieto and other politicians on Saturday that they have a duty to help citizens to “have real access to the material and spiritual goods” including “housing, dignified employment, food, true justice, effective security, a healthy and peaceful environment”.
The Argentine pope is the first Catholic pontiff to visit the presidential palace since Mexico and the Vatican restored diplomatic relations in 1992, after years of animosity because of the church’s role in the country’s politics.
In a subsequent hard-hitting speech to his own bishops, Francis challenged church leaders to courageously denounce the “insidious threat” posed by the drug trade and not hide behind their own privilege and careers.
He told them to be true pastors, close to their people, and to develop a coherent pastoral plan to help Mexicans to “finally escape the raging waters that drown so many, either victims of the drug trade or those who stand before God with their hands drenched in blood, though with pockets filled with sordid money and their consciences deadened”.
The speech was met with tepid applause, with only a handful of bishops standing in ovation.
During his week-long trip, he is expected to address the issue of drug violence, migration and corruption in Mexico, the largest Spanish-speaking Catholic country in the world.
Francis arrived in Mexico’s capital on Friday night, welcomed by adoring crowds waving yellow handkerchiefs.
Men in broad sombreros and women in flowing red skirts danced on the tarmac as Francis was greeted by Pena Nieto and his wife.
On Saturday morning, cheers erupted as Francis’s popemobile pulled out of his Mexico City residence. Bundled against the morning chill, tens of thousands of people lined his motorcade route to the city’s colonial heart.
As he flew toward Mexico City, Francis said his “most intimate desire” is to pray before the shrine of Mary, the mother of Jesus, also known in the Americas as the Lady of Guadalupe.
Al Jazeera’s Adam Raney, reporting from Mexico City, said the visit was a welcome distraction for Pena Nieto, who is suffering the lowest approval ratings of a Mexican leader in some 25 years.
“He is an extremely popular pope. It does no harm for Pena Nieto to embrace him,” he said.
But 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.
Francis wraps up his day on Saturday with a Mass at the Basilica of the Virgin of Guadalupe.
The Mexico trip follows a brief but historic meeting in Havana on Friday, when Francis embraced Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill in the first papal meeting with the head of the Russian Orthodox Church in nearly 1,000 years.