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Fri Aug 26 07:08:29 SAST 2016

Pope visits the killing fields of the Knights Templar

Reuters | 17 February, 2016 00:39
The pope is visiting Morelia, Michoacan's picturesque capital, and his tour is expected to be given tight security after the outbursts of violence in recent months. File photo
Image by: ALESSANDRO BIANCHI / REUTERS

Pope Francis took his Mexican tour to the country's gang-infested heartland yesterday to bolster his message of peace and reconciliation in the face of a decade of blood-letting that the government has been unable to stop.

Gang wars over control of the methamphetamine trade have torn the western state of Michoacan apart. Frequent kidnapping and ubiquitous extortion by gangs have sparked an uprising by vigilante groups.

The pope is visiting Morelia, Michoacan's picturesque capital, and his tour is expected to be given tight security after the outbursts of violence in recent months.

On his trip to Mexico, his first as pontiff, Francis is travelling to some of the poorest and most violent corners of the country. He has had sharp words for a privileged elite, whom he accuses of exploiting the poor.

In Mexico City, he chastised bishops for being gossips obsessed with coddling wealthy patrons and failing to denounce the evils of the drugs trade. He shied away from hitting out at the government's legalisation of abortion and gay marriage.

In 2014, Michoacan nearly descended into civil war as vigilante groups took up arms against the powerful Knights Templar drugs gang.

President Enrique Pena Nieto's government sent in the army and forged an uneasy alliance with the vigilantes, offering them jobs in the police force, but progress was muted.

More than 100000 people have been killed in Mexico's drugs wars over the past decade. The abduction and massacre of 43 trainee teachers in 2014 further battered the country's reputation.

Michoacan borders Guerrero state, home to the missing students, whom the government says were killed by one of the gangs responsible for a surge in Mexican heroin production - in league with corrupt police.

Relatives of the students have lobbied for a meeting with the pope but he has held back. His spokesman said he will speak to victims of violence as a whole today.

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