Pope Francis To Cap His Pilgrimage Across Mexico In Juárez

By Mónica Ortiz Uribe
February 16, 2016
Mónica Ortiz Uribe
Inmates at the state prison in Ciudad Juárez have been constructing a chapel to receive Pope Francis since January.

Pope Francis’ journey across Mexico will end on Wednesday in Ciudad Juárez, a city with deep wounds that go as far back as the Mexican Revolution.

Today the city of 1.3 million is recovering from a brutal drug war that left more than 10,000 dead. During his visit, Pope Francis will continue calling attention to people on the margins.

His day will start at the state prison in Juárez. In less than ten years this penitentiary has been the site of two deadly riots, sparked by rival gangs that serve as foot soldiers to Mexico's most powerful drug cartels.

Recent government reforms in the state of Chihuahua have started turning things around at the prison. Since January, inmates have been busy reconstructing a chapel where the pope will address 700 prisoners and their families.

Joel Torres has been locked up for 15 years, convicted of a murder he committed while serving in the Mexican military.  

“In my past it was easier to believe in a rifle than it was to believe in God,” he said.

Now Torres has reconnected with his faith and is preparing to recover his freedom in about a year. New programs give prisoners the opportunity to finish school, play sports or get job training.

Mónica Ortiz Uribe
Roberto Jimenez and his wife Rita Reynaldo assemble a message board at a migrant shelter in Ciudad Juárez.

“People on the outside should know that we're capable of reintegrating ourselves into society,” he said.

Torres feels the pope's visit gives him and his cellmates a sense of validation.

“You can be overcome with sadness in this place,” he said, “but now that the pope is coming, we're all overjoyed.”

Across town Blanca Estela Camargo recited a prayer in the house where her son was murdered six years ago. She lives in the neighborhood of Villas de Salvarcar, the site of a now-infamous massacre where gunmen killed 16 people at a teenager's birthday party. It marked the beginning of one of the most violent years in Juárez history.

“Our pain continues, our anger continues, and the injustice continues,” Camargo said.

She's among the countless victims of violence across Mexico that Pope Francis will pay tribute to at mass near the border fence. It's expected to draw 200,000 people.

Mónica Ortiz Uribe
Families pray in an abandoned home where 16 people were massacred at birthday party in 2010.

“We hope the pope's blessing will bring us some consolation,” Camargo said.

She also hopes Pope Francis’ visit will highlight what she believes to be the root of the city's biggest problems.

“It all starts with poverty and hunger,” she said. “Without opportunities, people will continue to turn to crime and easy money.”

At a migrant shelter run by the Juárez dioceses, Roberto Jimenez drilled a new message board onto the wall of the community room. Fourteen years ago he left his native Nicaragua for the United States, only he never reached his destination.

“I stayed at this very shelter and got robbed,” he said.

Unable to pay a smuggler to take him the last ten miles of his trip, Jimenez started doing carpentry work for the diocese. That's when he was struck by cupid's arrow.

Mónica Ortiz Uribe
A construction crew in Ciudad Juárez works on the site along the U.S.-Mexico border where Pope Francis will give a mass before 200,000 people.

“It was love at first sight,” said Rita Reynaldo, Jimenez's wife.

They met at a church where he was working not long after he arrived in Juárez. When she agreed to be his girlfriend, he knew his journey had ended. The couple has since found happiness in Juárez. She's a school teacher and he continues to work as a carpenter.

“I am very proud that my husband is an immigrant,” Reynaldo said.

Immigration has been the overarching theme of Pope Francis' visit to Mexico. It fittingly concludes in Juárez, long recognized as a city of migrants.

The pope is expected to walk to the invisible line that separates Mexico from the U.S. There he'll kneel at the dusty bank of the Rio Grande and pray.