After a long series of half-confirmations and leaks that began with the pope himself, we finally know that Pope Francis is coming to Mexico in February. And if the pope gets his stated wish, he'll not only make the traditional pilgrimage to the Shrine of Guadalupe, but he'll also visit Ciudad Juárez on the Mexico-US border.
Francis is well aware of the challenges facing Mexico. In a leaked private e-mail, he expressed worry about metastasizing drug violence in his home country, terming it the "Mexicanization" of Argentina. He's even wondered out loud whether the devil might not be punishing Mexico with crime and mayhem on account of its deep popular religiosity. And when a year ago the Mexican government was still fiddling and pretending there was nothing to see when 43 students disappeared in the southern state of Guerrero, the pope was one of the first public leaders to call it for what is was, murder.
The wounds from the murder of the 43 are still fresh, and government officials are still nervous that the papal agenda may include a visit to Ayotzinapa, where the students were abducted. One year later, the reverberations from that still fully unexplained carnage -- was it cartel gangsters? was it the state? was it both? -- continue to rack Mexico, shaking political institutions, motivating fed-up grassroots organizations and eroding what little credibility President Enrique Peña Nieto still has. Ayotzinapa tore the already tattered mask off of Mexico's open secret, that a dark nexus unites drug cartels, police, army and politicians; and that a generation of young Mexicans is being sacrificed on the altar of narco-violence, corruption and neoliberal economic policy.
Pope Francis has proven himself a deft deployer of symbols, eschewing the anachronistic trappings of the papal court, putting migrant deaths in the Mediterranean on the world political agenda with a visit to the then-unknown island of Lampedusa, and bestowing the cardinal's hat on pragmatic pastors in touch with the poor rather than on worldly archbishops in important global capitals. A visit to Ciudad Juárez would provide a rich symbolic contrast -- a visit to globalization's so-called "City of the Future" by the world's most credible critic of globalized capitalism and advocate for those on the margins.
Ciudad Juárez is indeed a case study for Pope Francis' critique of the world economy. Its more than 200,000 poorly paid but skilled maquiladora workers have made Juárez a global hotspot for foreign direct investment and one of North America's economic powerhouses, emblematic of contemporary Mexico's growth without equality.
According to the government's own figures, in a country where about half of the population already lived in poverty, two million more Mexicans became poor between 2012 and 2014. The sunny "open for business" image of Juárez that its business and political elite like to project has been tarnished by growing poverty, drug use, the exploitation and murder of women, a bloody war between drug traffickers which resulted in the death of thousands, and the government's militarized response to the unravelling of Juárez' social fabric, the horrific effects of which have fallen on the innocent and guilty alike. Apart from brave the example of local grassroots leaders and journalists, few political leaders on either side of the border have the courage to acknowledge the stark connections between globalized economic exploitation, political corruption, violence and the drug trade in places like Juárez.
Mexico's current economic and political hierarchy, like the powers that be in Ciudad Juárez, is gambling that foreign investment, economic growth predicated on inequality, and a business-like rationalization of the drug trade will somehow usher Mexico into a new age of prosperity. But as Pope Francis said in a critique of the global economic order contained in Evangelii Gaudium, this opinion "expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system." And while the violence in Juárez has been somewhat attenuated, its emergence elsewhere in the interior only proves Francis' point, that "until exclusion and inequality in society and between peoples are reversed, it will be impossible to eliminate violence."
In February, Pope Francis will visit a country reeling from inequality and violence generated by institutionalized corruption and the reigning neoliberal order, where credibility in public figures has been eviscerated. A visit to Mexico, with places like Ayotzinapa and Ciudad Juárez as backdrop, will challenge Pope Francis to re-articulate a vision of the common good dramatically at odds with the reality of contemporary Mexico, and to offer hope to a people weighed down by near hopelessness. While he may find few allies among the country's ruling class, he will find a civil society eager for a word of encouragement, young people ready to sacrifice for their country, and people of faith in search of avenues for change.
In Mexico, only a figure like Pope Francis has the credibility to draw the red line connecting globalized economic exploitation and social disintegration and to inspire alternatives. That is the promise of his pilgrimage.