REPORTING FROM LEON, MEXICO — Pope Benedict XVI has met with relatives of Mexicans killed or missing in the country's bloody drug war, a surprise encounter that highlighted the theme of violence's toll on this society.
Benedict spoke briefly with each of eight people presented to him following his meeting with Mexican President Felipe Calderon on Saturday evening in the picturesque city of Guanajuato. The session with the relatives and victims had not been announced and came at Calderon's initiative, his office said.
They included Maria Herrera, four of whose sons went missing in Michoacan, Calderon's home state, during a business trip; Araceli Quintanilla, whose sister, a student, was killed in crossfire between drug gangs and authorities in the wealthy city of Monterrey; Norberto Ortega, who survived a kidnapping; Veronica Cavazos, the widow of a mayor who did not.
More than 50,000 people have been killed since Calderon launched a military-led offensive against powerful drug cartels, and an additional 10,000 are believed missing. While many of the dead are traffickers and their henchmen, a growing number of innocent civilians has been caught up in the violence.
Pope Benedict, who has been criticized for not scheduling a meeting with victims of sexual abuse during his three-day visit to Mexico, decried the "evil" behind the drug trade and said the church had a duty to "unmask the false promises" that traffickers use to lure followers.
He continues to Cuba on Monday, the first time a pope has gone to the communist-ruled island since the late John Paul II's historic visit in 1998.
— Tracy Wilkinson
Photo: Pope Benedict XVI rides through Leon, Mexico, upon his arrival Friday, March 23, 2012. Credit: Michael Robinson Chavez / Los Angeles Times.