TIERRA CALIENTE, Mexico — They came by the thousands and the tens of thousands. The faithful lined the streets in rows 10 deep and crowded the wrought-iron balconies of the colonial-era houses that flank the boulevards in the city of Morelia, in cartel-infested Michoacán state.
The people of this troubled land gathered here last week to see El Papa, Pope Francis, and they would not be denied. They wailed and prayed and prostrated themselves—and at last he appeared: standing upright in an all-white, specially modified, topless Jeep. Waving to the crowd. Blessing them all. A smiling, slightly stooped figure, unprotected by bullet-proof glass or human shields.
For some, the pontiff’s approach, so vulnerable to violence and betrayal, harked back to a certain other holy man’s journey into Jerusalem. And the crowd loved him for it, and they let him know—belting out Ave María like so many pumped-up fans at a rock show.
In the city soccer stadium, amid indigenous dancers and ballerinas dressed as monarch butterflies, the pontiff granted blessings, bestowed hugs, and finally accepted a traditional souvenir sombrero—all white, of course.
“It’s a lie to believe that the only way to live is to give oneself up to drug dealers or others who do nothing but sow destruction and death,” Papa Francisco told the bandana-waving crowd.
“Jesus would never ask us to be assassins—instead, he calls us to be disciples,” said the pope, urging the faithful “not to surrender” to the violence that infests Michoacán in particular, and Mexico in general.
El Papa’s visit came at a time when Mexico is experiencing historic levels of mayhem, as both new and traditional cartels jockey for dominance, and seek to crush the competition. According to a recent study, drug war bloodshed has actually reduced the national average for life expectancy among Mexican males.
“Mexico’s insecurity comes from many factors,” Shannon O’Neil, a senior fellow with the Council of Foreign Relations (CFR), told The Daily Beast by email.
O’Neil listed “demand for drugs from the United States, millions of young people marginalized by the legal economy, and a lack of rule of law—and in particular widespread impunity that limits the costs to a life of crime.”
In other words: Jesus might not want you for a hitman—but circumstances south of the border can make that deadly lifestyle all too appealing.
The western state of Michoacán, where the pope received his immaculate sombrero last week, has been home to some of the fiercest fighting yet seen in Mexico’s drug war—making it, perhaps, the perfect spot to kick off a holy war against the cartels.
The region is home to several mobs with odd-sounding names like the Viagras, H3, and the Knights Templar—and the gangs themselves are known for being particularly bloodthirsty.
In Michoacán “organized criminal groups control not just the movement of drugs but extort all parts of the economy, preying on local citizens,” says O’Neil, who specializes in Latin American issues. “The Mexican state has so far been unable to regain control,” leaving “many towns at the criminals’ mercy.”
One such town is La Ruana, which sits nestled among lime orchards and cattle ranches here in the sweltering valley called Tierra Caliente—also known as “Infiernillo,” or Little Hell—which is just a couple of hours southwest of the pope’s stopover in Morelia.
Conversations with the residents of Little Hell make it clear that the pope’s crusade against violence in places like Michoacán will be an epic battle. Locals say a hodgepodge of competing cartels rule the area, running industrial-scale meth labs, and shaking down business owners.
Just weeks before the pope’s scheduled visit, unknown gunmen massacred 11 people during a teen birthday party near the state’s border with Guerrero. Forty-eight hours before the pope’s appearance, the corpse of a U.S. citizen was found in the same municipality. The victim bore signs of extreme torture, including having his right ear cut off, and being burned alive before he was shot in the spine.
Against all odds, some have tried to fight the cartels on their own terms. Michoacán’s famed vigilante movement—as depicted in the Oscar-contending documentary Cartel Land—first began here in La Ruana, when a group of humble farmers rose against their dark overlords in 2013.
“I’m a Catholic who believes in God and in fighting for what’s right,” Hipólito Mora, who led the uprising in La Ruana, told The Daily Beast.
“My faith is what led me to take up arms against the criminals,” Mora said, brandishing a shotgun in the kitchen of his humble, tin-roofed house, “and it’s also why I’m not afraid to die fighting them.”
Mora’s decision to fight back inspired other vigilante groups—which in Mexico are known as autodefensas—across Michoacán. Thousands of ordinary citizens banded together and, armed with everything from hunting rifles to AK47s, won some important victories against the cartel called the Knights Templar, which was the dominant crime group in the state at that time.
Unfortunately, a devastating combination of government repression and cartel infiltration undermined Mora’s militia movement, and eventually led to its collapse. Mora himself was jailed twice—although the government later apologized, and now oversees his security.
“Mexico should enjoy El Papa’s visit, and I’m proud he’s here,” says Mora, 60, whose oldest son was killed during a two-hour firefight with a cartel-corrupted autodefensa group in 2014.
But anti-cartel warrior Mora worries that even God’s representative on earth might have met his match in Mexico: “As a realist, I just don’t believe the pope can do anything about the cartels, or keep them from committing evil.”
The “evil” that Mora speaks of is not merely the by-product of mobster power struggles in Mexico. Cartel operatives and their followers don’t just commit random acts of wickedness—many of them actively worship at the altar of destruction in so-called narcosectas, meaning, literally, narco sects.
For example, Nazario Moreno, the founder of the Knights Templar cartel—Mora’s arch nemesis—commissioned hundreds of saint-like statues of himself in medieval garb and ordered them placed in shrines around the state.
“[Moreno’s] followers, and many other people, actually prayed to these statuettes,” says Father José Luis Segura, who heads up the diocese in La Ruana.
Segura, 60, describes the Knights cartel as a full-fledged “cult.”
“They practiced the black mass and other satanic rituals at their meetings, and even killed women and children and ate their flesh,” says Segura, who arrived to head up the Ruana parish just as the autodefensa offensive was getting underway in 2013.
The Knights’ leader, Moreno—AKA: El Mas Loco, or “The Craziest One”—was finally killed in March of 2014, although the details of his death are still disputed.
While the Mexican marines claim credit for taking down Moreno with two bullets to the chest, the official version clashes with the autopsy photos, which clearly show Moreno suffered blunt-force trauma to the face and head.
Sources within the autodefensa movement tell The Daily Beast that vigilantes had brokered a deal with El Mas Loco’s own bodyguards, who then beat him to death during his birthday fiesta—the first blow apparently being struck by his top lieutenant, as Moreno was climbing aboard a mule—and turned the body over to authorities in exchange for all charges against themselves being dropped.
But that wasn’t the end of the narcosecta. Although they’ve lost their crazed leader, cells of the bizarre Templar sect continue to operate in Michoacán and neighboring states.
The Knights aren’t the only drug-related death cult posing a challenge to Pope Francis’s vision for a reformed and more Christ-like Mexico.
The skeletal, female figure of Santa Muerte, the Saint of Death, is also wildly popular here—especially among criminals and economically marginalized parts of the population.
The Grim-Reaper-like death saint has about 12 million followers in Mexico, where she’s often invoked by gangster gunsels who ask her blessing before going out on hits.
“Many of her followers seek spiritual protection from a source who doesn’t demand any moral restraint,” Father Segura says, by way of explaining Santa Muerte’s popularity in the underworld. “They can offer tributes to her, and invoke her as a guardian—all without having to worry about their own behavior.”
According to Segura, criminal acts committed in Santa Muerte’s name include ritual human sacrifice and even the harvesting of organs from children.
Meanwhile, “La Muerte” seems to be gaining power across Mexico—apparently in lockstep with the rising tide of violence.
“The ultimate enemy of Christ is death,” says Segura, who classifies Santa Muerte as a satanic sect. He also admits to being exasperated by her growing influence.
“We [the clergy] just don’t know how to attack the death saint,” he sighs.
During his stop in Michoacán’s capital of Morelia last week, the Holy Father also singled out government “corruption” as a problem he wanted to see his priests and nuns going after full force. The pope told them to resist temptation and “resignation,” which he referred to as Beelzebub’s “favorite weapon.”
Much of the corruption the pope wants to target involves the endemic problem of politicians and police being on gangsters’ payrolls—at times even acting in collusion with the criminals, as was the case when municipal police were implicated in the disappearance of 43 students in Michoacán’s neighboring state of Guerrero in 2014.
As the line between authorities and organized crime becomes increasingly blurred, “human rights have been forgotten or completely ignored,” says Rogelio García, an investigator with the State Office for Human Rights in Apatzingán, the largest city in the valley called Little Hell.
“Even when authorities try to make advances against the cartels, they can wind up torturing innocent people by mistake, in an effort to extract confessions or information leading to other suspects,” says García, whose office receives dozens of complaints of abuse by police and soldiers each month.
Common torture tactics include hard blows to the stomach, or electric shocks to the genitals with a cattle prod—methods the officers prefer because they don’t leave telltale marks on the victims.
Psychological torture is also a favorite go-to move by authorities, García explains, as victims are locked in solitary confinement for days at a time, while being threatened with death or the killing of their families.
One of García’s main concerns is the propensity for police officers to strip away all name, rank, and unit insignias from their uniforms, while also wearing masks.
“For us, that’s a clear human rights violation, because the people can’t identify the officers who operate in their communities—or who might be torturing them.”
The practice of police units running anonymous operations also makes it easier for cartel hitmen to disguise themselves as officers, in order to carry out abductions and attack police bases.
“If you see a caravan [of men in police uniforms] passing right now in the street—there’s no way to tell if they’re cops or criminals,” says García, who worries that such an endemic lack of transparency “undermines all public trust in our officials.”
The fundamental lack of trust and security at the heart of Mexican society also fuels mass emigration to the U.S., as does “the lack of legal economic opportunity for many of Mexico’s youth,” according to CFR fellow O’Neil.
Pope Francis, like other prominent Catholic clergy, has openly criticized U.S. immigration policy. He included a public prayer for migrants during his visit to Ciudad Juárez on the border, the day after his stop at Michoacán.
The pontiff’s implicit call for a more open frontier even drew fire from Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump—who accused the Holy Father of being a “political” dupe of the Mexican government.
“I think Mexico got him to do it [the visit] because they want to keep the border just the way it is. They’re making a fortune, and we’re losing,” Trump told Fox News, on the eve of the pope’s arrival in Mexico.
O’Neil disagrees with the Donald on this one—and in fact believes it’s Mexico that’s the real loser in the immigration crisis:
“As the U.S. has hardened its border to drugs and migrants, criminal groups have turned on their own populations, moving from running drugs north to kidnapping Mexicans, extorting local businesses, and retailing drugs domestically,” says O’Neil.
“At a time when migrants and refugees are moving around the world in historic numbers, the pope’s focus on the U.S.-Mexico border (as well as European borders) highlights the human side. These people aren’t just numbers,” says O’Neil, adding that she thinks Trump’s attempted takedown of the pontiff might actually backfire:
“The pope’s words won’t change Donald Trump’s view, but some Republican voters may identify with [the pontiff’s] religious message,” she says.
Near the end of his stop in Morelia, as the pope leaned over to a young boy in a wheelchair, several others in the crowd grabbed onto the loose sleeves of his robe, crying out in supplication. But the weight of the zealous was too much, and the pope toppled forward, falling face-first upon the lame child.
And, for just an instant, the light of righteous anger flashed in the old man’s eyes. Pushing himself up from the wheelchair the pope rose to rebuke those who had seized him.
“No seas egoísta,” the pope chided them for their jealousy of the disabled boy he’d been attending to. “Don’t be selfish.”
This was at the core of the message the pontiff brought to Mexico, repeatedly calling on clergy and politicians here to break their tradition of catering to the rich, and to focus more on the poor and downtrodden—who often turn to a life of crime because they lack education and opportunity.
Despite El Papa’s best intentions—and the public respect doled out to the pope in front of TV cameras by politicians like embattled President Enrique Peña Nieto—many in Mexico remain skeptical that the government is serious about cleaning up its act.
“We have no illusions that we can easily defeat the crime and corruption,” Father Segura says. “Our government always betrays the people with its lies—nothing is clean here.”
Vigilante leader Mora agrees with the padre’s sentiments:
“It’s excellent that the pope came to visit, and there is much talk now of change in Mexico because he’s here,” Mora says. “But nothing will change. The powerful are never interested in the poor who are starving.”
Mora stows his shotgun back in the closet.
“Two weeks after the pope is gone—all of this will be forgotten,” he says.