LEÓN, Mexico — The city of León is buzzing with activity as Pope Benedict XVI flies to Mexico today. Workers yesterday were putting the finishing touches on the city’s monuments and planting flowers along the road that the Pope will travel in his popemobile. León is bracing for an influx of more than 300,000 pilgrims.
Security forces are also ready for the Pope’s arrival. When the Holy Father touches down in the Guanajuato airport in León at 4:30pm local time, he will be greeted by a total of 3,500 faithful, civil and religious dignitaries. During his visit, more than 13,000 federal, state and local police officers and soldiers will be standing guard.
The army will be present at all of the events to reinforce security measures, with the cities of León and Guanajuato under tight control. The Pope’s every move will be guarded by an elite corps of 1,891 soldiers of the army, air force, navy and civil specialists, who will watch over the security of Mexican President Felipe Calderón and current Mexican political leaders, as well as candidates for this year’s presidential election. Approximately 100,000 volunteers will manage the crowds during the Pope’s trips in the popemobile from one place to another, serving as a human barrier along 40-plus miles of streets.
As an additional measure, Mexican authorities have restricted the sale of alcoholic beverages in commercial establishments located along the roads the Pope will travel.
The Associated Press reported March 22 that the hacker group Anonymous crashed at least two of the websites dedicated to the Holy Father’s visit. The cyber terrorists, who briefly shut down Vatican websites earlier this month, claim the money spent on the Pope’s visit would be better spent on the poor. They also claim that the Pope’s visit is politically motivated.
“We have been aware of the threat that has been making the rounds on social networks that was brought to fruition today,” said Samuel Najera, spokesman for the Mexican Episcopal Conference. “For the moment, this does damage to the logistics” of the papal visit.
In the weeks preceding the Pope’s visit, there was speculation about a possible outbreak of violence by drug cartels, since turf wars have also entered into play in the state of Guanajuato. But at least one cartel has taken it upon itself to be guardians of the peace and to welcome the Pope to Mexico. On March 17, the “Knights Templar,” a powerful cartel from the state of Michoacán, draped more than 11 banners in seven different places in the state of Guanajuato, declaring that they welcomed Pope Benedict with open arms and were committed to preserving the peace during the days of his visit.
In the nearby city of Silao, the message read: “The Knights Templar remove themselves from all violent action. We are not murderers. We welcome the Pope.”
Weeks before, the archbishop of León, Archbishop Jose Guadalupe Martín Rábago, had urged the warring cartels to respect the Pope’s visit to Mexico and to desist from violence not just for the three days of his visit, but permanently.
Merely asking for a truce, said the archbishop, “would be like telling all those who dedicate themselves to doing evil to stop doing it for three days and then continue to do it again. Obviously, that is not what we want to say.”
It is estimated that drug-related violence has claimed the lives of more than 60,000 people since 2006, and that is one of the issues the Pope will address in his visit as a messenger of peace and reconciliation.
In a press conference held yesterday at the International Press Center in the Hotsson Hotel in León, Archbishop Martín Rábago emphasized once again that the Pope is coming to bring good news to a country and a world weighed down by constant bad news.
“He will speak words that invite us to put our trust in Christ. This world is full of news that causes sadness. The Pope will speak words of hope and encouragement,” he said.
In preparation for the Masses, the religious order of the Capuchin Claretian Sisters of St. Isidore is making 150,000 Communion hosts.
In a press conference on March 20, the governor of León, Ricardo Sheffield Padilla, urged the citizens of the city and the nation to come out to welcome the Pope, stating that hotel rooms are still available, that the streets will still be passable, and that arrangements have been made for those who wish to camp out on city grounds.
The major event of the Pope’s visit in terms of sheer numbers will be the open-air Mass at the bicentennial park of León, where the Pope will celebrate a Mass alongside the bishops of Mexico and all of the presidents of the 22 episcopal conferences of Latin America and the Caribbean, bishops from the entire Latin American continent and almost 3,000 priests. Over 300,000 pilgrims are expected at the park, which has a capacity for 350,000.
Pope Benedict has several reasons for this journey. One is to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the independence from Spain of many Latin American countries. Mexico marks her independence on Sept. 16, the date on which, in 1810, a priest named Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla issued a call from the village of Dolores, Guanajuato.
During his stay in Mexico, he will meet with President Calderón and celebrate vespers with the bishops of Latin America.
The other reason that will take him to Cuba on Monday: the 400th anniversary of the discovery of the statue of our Lady of Charity, the island’s patron saint.
Register correspondent Trish Bailey de Arceo filed this report from León, Mexico. The Register will have live streaming from the papal voyage to Mexico and Cuba on NCRegister.com