Pope Francis plans to visit Mexico in February 2016 — and the details of his agenda currently leaking out suggest he will be going to states deeply troubled by the country's drug wars, inequality, and the abuse of migrants.
According to the tentative itinerary the pope is preparing to visit Ciudad Juarez, once known as the murder capital of the world; the state of Michoacán, where vigilantes acting with the blessing of some local priests grabbed guns to run off a marauding drug cartel; and Chiapas, home to the 1994 indigenous Zapatista uprising and current entry point for Central American migrants fleeing extreme violence at home.
Although neither the Mexican bishops' conference nor the Vatican has confirmed any details of the papal tour, Foreign Minister Claudia Ruiz Massieu referred to all three locations when talking to reporters about the papal visit last week. VICE News has also confirmed with local church officials that Vatican logistics teams have travelled to Mexico City as well as Ciudad Juarez and Chiapas.
"The agenda itself is sending a message on the pope's priorities," said Ilan Semo, a political historian at the Jesuit-run Iberoamerican University in Mexico City. For analysts like Semo, the itinerary is a challenge to the conservative Mexican church hierarchy — considered close with the country's business and political elites — to address issues such as human rights, poverty, and violence.
"The pope's agenda is critical, very critical of the current state of politics. It's very evident, especially if you compare it with those of other popes," Semo said. During the last papal visit to Mexico in 2012, Benedict XVI went to the conservative Catholic heartland of Guanajuato state and stayed silent on the sticky issues plaguing the country.
"[It's] the agenda of Mexico's dissidents," Semo said of Francis' likely schedule. "It's an agenda that goes to where there have been the biggest violations of human rights … [committed] not so much by organized crime, but by the state itself."
Mexico's bishops have said relatively little on the violence that has killed more than 100,000 people over the last nine years, even though priests themselves have fallen victim to extortion, kidnapping, and even murder.
That's started to change in recent years. In 2013, the then-bishop of Apatzingan in Michoacan state released a pastoral letter calling out the authorities as indolent, incompetent, and at times complicit in the crimes carried out by a drug cartel against ordinary citizens. He also condoned the activities of some self-defense groups.
Bishops in violence-plagued Guerrero state issued their own pastoral letter this month calling for "dialogue" to "transform the reality" of an area now notorious around the world for the disappearance of 43 college students last year.
Archbishop Carlos Garfias Merlos of Acapulco later appeared to suggest that the desired dialogue should include members of cartels. "Words are a privileged instrument for the authorities to engage with citizens," he told reporters, "and the citizenry includes those who are criminals as well."
President Enrique Peña Nieto invited the pope, but the visit could end up causing him discomfort given the criticism he has drawn for seeking to play down the importance of the country's security crisis and human rights troubles in favour of focusing his administration on economic reforms.
It follows outrage from the Mexican government after a personal letter from Francis to an Argentine friend warned that rising violence in Argentina could signal the South American country could become "Mexicanized."
Ciudad Juarez was once the murder capital of the world, with more than 10,000 homicides committed between 2008 and 2012 as rival drug cartels fought over a coveted trafficking corridor on the US border.
Pope Francis previously said he wanted to visit Ciudad Juarez and cross into neighboring El Paso in Texas as a sign of solidarity with migrants, but went to Cuba this year instead.
Violence in Juarez has diminished, though not disappeared, while the murders and disappearance of hundreds of women still haunts the city, says Father Oscar Enriquez, director of a local human rights center.
"It's a way to improve upon what the government has been looking for: that the image of Juarez is changing its profile," Enriquez said of the pope's probable visit in February.
Michoacan, meanwhile, represents a newer face of Mexico's drug wars. To the west of Mexico City, the state is one of the birthplaces of local vigilante groups that have added new fronts to the conflicts.
Pope Francis elevated the archbishop of the state capital Morelia to cardinal in January – a move interpreted as the church showing preoccupation with violence in Mexico. "We will not show the pope a prettied up Mexico," Cardinal Alberto Suarez Inda told Catholic magazine Nueva Vida México.
Relatively peaceful Chiapas, meanwhile, represents other kinds of challenges to both the church and the government.
While 83 percent of Mexicans self-identify as catholics, the numbers are constantly falling thanks to defections to other faiths that are especially acute among indigenous communities in Chiapas.
The state made worldwide headlines for the 1994 Zapatista uprising. Samuel Ruiz, then bishop of the Chiapas diocese of San Cristóbal de las Casas, was close with the indigenous populations and one of the few prominent Mexican members of the liberation theology movement that was associated with left wing demands for social and political justice across Latin America, says Andrew Chestnut, a religious studies professor at Virginia Commonwealth University.
Chiapas is known better in Mexico of late for a young governor marrying a soap opera star and spending $10 million on self-promotion in a state with 74 percent of the population living in poverty.
Chiapas is also an important point of entry into Mexico for Central American migrants fleeing extreme gang violence and poverty whose efforts to transit through the country to the United States have been made more difficult and dangerous by a recent government crackdown.
The Mexican bishops' conference has insisted that the details of the pope's visit will not be announced until December 12. It has not even confirmed the date of his arrival announced as February 12 by Mexico City Cardinal Norberto Rivera, the highest-ranking member of the Mexican church.
But the agenda emerging from government and church sources alike looks set to provide the pope with multiple opportunities to draw attention to issues such as violence, corruption, inequality, and the mistreatment of migrants, even if it upsets public officials.
"If the pope's trip is going to be credible, these [topics] are going to be unavoidable," said Bernardo Barranco, an academic and columnist, who writes on the Mexican Catholic Church. "He's probably going to be subtle when it comes time to criticize or make proposals, but he has to do it in a country like Mexico."
There have, however, been some doubts raised about how dissident a stance the pope really wants to take when he is in Mexico.
Francis recently granted an indulgence to the controversial Legionaries of Christ religious order. The order's founder, Father Marcial Maciel, gained considerable power by courting the country's economic and political elites but eventually fell into disgrace for sexually abusing seminarians.
Politicians of all stripes have also appeared anxious to leverage the pope's popularity, in spite of Mexico's previous anti-clerical ethos in politics and risks that Francis might say something unfavorable to Mexico's political classes.
Governors and mayors across the country have extended invitations for Francis to visit, while both houses of Mexico's Congress have asked him to speak in a solemn session.
"The visit will be used politically," Barranco said, recalling how Peña Nieto traveled to the Vatican in 2009 and used a papal audience to make his wedding plans known. "This is the political reason at the bottom of why [Francis] hasn't visited sooner."
Follow David Agren on Twitter: @el_reportero