Pope Francis conducts landmark mass at the US-Mexico border – Los Angeles Times

Lisa Ayoub Rodriguez, 35, wheeled her father-in-law from Indiana along the barricades toward the site of the papal Mass. It will be her second time seeing a pope in Mexico: she saw John Paul II in Mexico City after he canonized Juan Diego, the Indian credited with a vision of the Virgin of Guadalupe, patron saint of the Americas.

“I know he’s just a man, but he’s also the leader of the church, a humble extension of God’s hand,” Ayoub said as she and her husband took turns with the wheelchair.

They live in El Paso, have followed news of the violence in Juarez; the father-in-law was hesitant to cross the border. But they were reassured by what they saw Wednesday: scores of volunteers greeting them and singing with tambourines, police and security manning the barricades.

“Juarez has been through a lot. For him to be here brings this energy,” she said.

Of the 215,000 tickets distributed for Wednesday’s Mass, at least 10,000 went to residents of El Paso, who will be crossing the border to attend.

An additional 4,000 people were expected to traverse from the U.S. to join a human chain protecting the pope’s 25-mile route from the airport to the border Mass.

Scores of volunteers arrived at 4 a.m. to line the metal barricades. Among them were those who live in this border city, those who relocated to Texas during the past decade of violence, and visitors from the U.S.

Juarez not long ago was the murder capital of Mexico, at a time of skyrocketing homicide rates. It was also infamous for killings that singled out women, usually workers at the thriving maquiladora industries that supply the U.S. with clothing, television sets, snacks and other consumer products.

Much of the killing subsided after deals were struck with drug gangs. But kidnappings and extortion remain rampant.

The pope has not been shy in criticizing government officials and even his own clergy for their failure to look after the poor and downtrodden. It remained to be seen whether Francis would meet with the most iconic victims in Mexico, families of 43 college students kidnapped and presumably killed by corrupt authorities. The families have been invited to the Mass in Juarez but a private meeting was not scheduled.

The issue of drug violence came up even among three altar boys who were waiting to enter the papal Mass in their red-and-white outfits and silver crosses. They came with a church group from Cuauhtemoc, Chihuahua, where they grew up distrusting police.

“The only ones who protect us are the cartel of Juarez, the narcos. They defend us,” said Isai Solano, 14, while eating fried beans and salsa from a plastic bag.

He especially distrusts the federal police who, despite all the public rhetoric about things becoming safer here, he said still act with impunity.

“The federales kill people and leave them and nothing happens,” he said as several Juarez police officers stood nearby.

Daniela Hernandez, 17, was selling drinks and chicharones from a stand outside one of the entrances to the papal Mass. Others were chopping mango and jicama, then sprinkling them with chili and a squirt of lime.

Hernandez’s neighborhood is still plagued by robberies, but things have been peaceful ahead of the pope’s visit; she said she hopes it stays that way afterward.

“I think people will reflect on all that happened and that the Mass will help us,” she said. “The bad will turn to good.”

Jaime Cortez, 59, sat on a street corner near the fairgrounds playing guitar and singing under a banner message for Pope Francis “La familia Cortez Te ama“; the Cortez family loves you.

“Raise your hands! Shake your body! Applaud!” Cortez shouted as he played, and the Cortez family as well as passersby complied, smiling.

“It’s a day of celebration here,” he said.

The family, like many here, lives on both sides of the border. Cortez moved to El Paso 30 years ago to work in a factory making military uniforms. Today, he was wearing a Texas Longhorns cap. But he loves Juarez, visits weekly and would like to see it emerge past the cycle of violence.

“You used to be able to go out in a street corner like this at 2 in the morning and talk like we are,” he said.

In El Paso, just across the border from Juarez, Raul Gallegos, an Uber driver, had about the only vehicle downtown at 7 a. m. Wednesday. He said he’d never seen the city so quiet during a weekday morning.

He passed several parked police vehicles with their lights on during this drive to the Cordova bridge. The security, especially the multiple blockades, seemed a bit much, he said.

“It would have been different if he would’ve come here,” he said of Pope Francis.

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Along the pope’s travel route in Juarez, vendors sold pope caps, flags and bracelets while volunteers distributed packed breakfasts and clutched blankets and jackets, hopping to stay warm in the chilly morning.

Julia Nunez, 49, lives in the nearby Juarez Valley, in Praxedis Guerrero. She works in the maquiladora factories that fuel the local economy. So did her son, Ivan Nunez. In 2011, he was killed, beaten in the street. Now, she keeps to herself.

“I don’t go out, I don’t talk to anyone and I don’t have any problems,” the volunteer said as she stood with other members of the human chain in their white Pope Francis T-shirts near the fairgrounds where the papal Mass will be held Wednesday.

“But that’s living in fear!” Another woman said.

Nunez nodded.

“I hope he brings us peace, that people feel we don’t have to live with violence, with fear, that we have solidarity,” she said.

Her 22-year-old daughter came too, and said the pope gives her hope that things can improve.

“He’s very sincere, he speaks the truth and he speaks with all his heart,” said America Alonso, a stay-at-home mom with a 5-year-old son she hopes to raise here.

Volunteer Carmen Aguirre, 56, returned to Juarez from the Texas panhandle for the event, but said her family abandoned the Juarez Valley during the worst of the violence and won’t be back soon.

“There is a lot of desolation, abandoned houses. They don’t want to return because of their kids,” she said of relatives now in El Paso.

But the pope gives her hope.

“We have this faith that we are going to escape this violence, that the place will be cleansed for our children and grandchildren,” she said as police trucks and buses passed, headed to the fairgrounds.

Times staff writers Hennessy-Fiske reported from Ciudad Juarez, Carcamo from El Paso and Wilkinson from Washington.

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