Pontifical Politics: Mexico Edition


Pope Francis is in Mexico right now, and as is his usual motif, he’s mixing religion and politics. In her column yesterday, Barbara Simpson noted some incongruities:

Pope Francis is there [in Mexico] now and will remain until Feb. 18. He’s visiting cities, talking to politicians, commiserating with the poor and celebrating Mass at shrines and churches.

But the really big deal, the big event, will be the celebration of Mass right at the U. S. border on Tuesday.

Ciudad Juarez is the location, a place with a history of extreme cartel drug violence and murders of men and women.

Hundreds of thousands of people are expected to be on both sides of the border for the Mass, which will be celebrated in a new, multi-million-dollar pavilion and altar. The Mass will be broadcast across the border to the Sun Bowl in El Paso.

Before Mass, there will be a huge parade and following it, a special dinner for invited guests.

Probably not including the people who would most likely be the ones trying to sneak across the border into the United States.

Apparently another group of people not likely to be on the guest list will be the parents of the 43 “disappeared” education students – young people suspected to be victims of Mexican state violence.

Counterpunch.org reported that the pope refused to meet with them and did the same when some of the mothers tried to see him in Philadelphia last September.

There’s also no mention that the Catholic Multimedia Center reports that Mexico is “the most dangerous country in Latin America to be a priest.” At least 36 priests have been murdered in the last 10 years, others live under daily death threats and some are just “disappeared.” In Mexico City alone, some 400 priests have faced extortion and threats.

But the pope focuses with sympathy on people who illegally cross the border into the United States and ignore U.S. law.

If you want to know about Vatican thinking regarding the border, consider the statement by spokesman Federico Lombardi, as reported by Market Watch: “This is one community, despite the fence. I think it will be moving to see this single community even though it is located on two sides of the border.”

In other words, this pope is taking sides against the sovereignty of the United States. He’s declaring that the border means nothing and that anyone who wants to cross should be welcomed with open arms by the U.S.

I wish he would stop this. I wish he would tell people that respecting national sovereignty is virtuous, and that legal emigration is the path to true citizenship, which strengthens nations rather than breaking them down. And I wonder why these families of the missing are being ignored, their stories slipping through the cracks. Aren’t they the poor and the marginalized, too? Aren’t they the people on the peripheries?

I’m also wondering how the ever-present cartels in the Mexican narco-state will take advantage of this border-spanning Mass. So many people right in their turf. So much opportunity. Will some attendees be extorted? Will some disappear? Will the cartels mix in with the huge gathering of the faithful, using this as an opportunity to transport drugs or distribute them? Anything is possible. Ciudad Juarez is a front in a shadow war that has been tallying up bodies in the most gruesome ways for years.

In high school and college, I drove through Mexico fairly extensively. I’ve logged thousands of miles there on multiple trips, explored major cities and tiny, remote villages where the people don’t even speak Spanish, just whatever indigenous dialect they’ve used for centuries. I’ve walked the beaches and driven treacherous mountain roads, and seen the vast diversity of that country’s biosphere, from deserts to rainforests and everything in between. The only parts of the country I haven’t seen are a small sliver of the eastern crescent on the Gulf Coast, and the Yucatan Peninsula. Mexico is beautiful and diverse. Its people are often simply delightful. But it is not a healthy place, and it is in the business of exporting drugs, violence, and criminals.

I’ve made crossings through two of the major border towns  — Laredo and Nogales — but never Ciudad Juarez. I’ve only seen the last from the El Paso side, not long after I heard reports of the bridge being decorated with dead bodies, courtesy of the cartels. These border areas have almost always more dangerous than the interior, even before the roller coaster of corruption in the Mexican government went off the rails, and the country was lost to the brutality of drug traffickers.

To be honest, I don’t think I’d even consider going there now. I’ve had the thought, “Maybe to a resort town. Maybe if I flew in and out, and stayed in the touristy areas.” But I’ve seen pictures of dismembered corpses on the streets of Acapulco. Acapulco, where I ate seafood tacos in an open air cantina, shopped at a Super Wal Mart (of all places), and drank Don Pedro brandy and smoked cigars with friends while looking out from our 20-something-floor balcony at the ocean view. Back when Mexico was the kind of place that only might get you killed.

Francis, to his credit, has taken the opportunity of this trip to condemn the cartels. “You cannot dialogue with the devil,” he said at a Mass in Ecatepec, “because he will always win.” I couldn’t agree more. He also challenged Mexico’s bishops to take a stronger stance:

Speaking on Saturday to an audience of bishops in Mexico City’s Metropolitan Cathedral, Pope Francis urged them to confront drug cartels and organised crime by raising their voices, developing pastoral plans, and “drawing in and embracing the fringes of human existence in the ravaged areas of our cities.”

“I urge you not to underestimate the moral and anti-social challenge, which the drug trade represents for young people and Mexican society as a whole,” Pope Francis said. “The magnitude of this phenomenon … and the gravity of the violence … do not allow us as pastors of the Church to hide behind anodyne denunciations.”

All well and good. The cartels perpetrate horrific evils and deserve condemnation. But does the pope not realize that they also take advantage of the porous border, this so-called “single community” that straddles two nations? After all, America is their biggest customer. What about that?

“As always, this is the problem with a social justice agenda under the guise of religion: it’s not really about faith, but politics. Infallible political prescriptions are not a charism of the Petrine Office, however, and this is a situation far too complex for simplistic solutions.”

America’s border crisis is serious, and the repercussions are long lasting. I’ve lived in Arizona and Texas. I’ve seen it. It’s less like immigration and more like colonization. The poverty in Mexico is real, and it is stunning. That won’t be cured by America importing it here en masse, or we risk dragging America down into its own systemic collapse while leaving Mexico to the scavengers. Then you wind up with two impoverished, crime-ridden countries instead of one. How is that a win?

The disparity between America and our closest neighbor to the South, and the regulation of migration between us, are both things that need to be thoughtfully and prayerfully analyzed and worked on. There is no overnight solution. Platitudes won’t fix this, and neither will spectacles like the one we’re expecting tomorrow. They might even make things worse.

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