CIUDAD JUÁREZ, MEXICO — The stage for Pope Francis’ highly anticipated public mass along the U.S.-Mexico border is just a skeleton of its future incarnation. But in a few days Francis will use it to address tens of thousands of people with a long-awaited message: Ciudad Juárez is back.
Francis historic visit starts Friday in Mexico City, beginning a six-day pilgrimage that ends in Juárez on Feb. 17. The daylong stop is planned as a symbol of progress for a city rebuilding itself from a wounded past, the result of drug-related violence that left more than 10,000 dead between 2008 and 2012.
“The Mexico of violence, the Mexico of corruption, the Mexico of drug trafficking, the Mexico of cartels, that isn’t the one our mother wants,” Francis said Wednesday in a video about his trip. “But of course, I don’t want to hide any of that.”
Even Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, “a devout Catholic” who recently endorsed Donald Trump’s campaign, said he’d like to speak with Francis in Juárez.
“It’s very nice that he’s coming to Mexico, which is rather controversial when you deal with drugs, corruption and illegal immigration,” Arpaio said. “He’s coming right there, and I have to give him a lot of credit for that. Maybe something good will come out of his visit. That’s what we’re all hoping for.”
A changed city awaits
Construction crews in Juárez work round the clock, seven days a week to build the open arena just in time for mass.
Miguel Angel Lopez, 51, is a construction worker at the mass site. He has lived in Juárez for 30 years and remembers a time not long ago when it was much harder to find employment.
“When the violence was terrible, many of us could not find work,” Lopez said. “There are still murders here, but not like before.”
Lopez is not Catholic, but part of the 11 percent of the Juárez population that is evangelical or Protestant. Symbols of their faith are seen throughout the city, most prominently on a mountain displaying the message “The Bible is the truth: Read it” in large white letters.
Lopez believes Francis’ reputation as a humble voice of peace could bring those who took part in the bloodshed to change their ways.
“I hope his visit is something real that can lead Juárez to change,” he said. “I hope many people repent and that the violence stays in the past.”
Juárez was once front and center in the bloodshed. In 2010, more than 3,000 people were killed in Juárez, gaining it the reputation of the murder capital of, if not the Americas, the world.
In comparison, there were only 300 reported murders last year. On a recent Friday afternoon, Juárez vibrated with energy. Shoppers and vendors filled downtown.
A small tent is set up in the middle of 16 de Septiembre, the main avenue leading to the Cathedral of Ciudad Juárez. Here, people write greetings and prayers for Pope Francis on a large book and pose with a cardboard cutout of him in his iconic white robe.
Irma Cano, 23, wrote a message asking for Francis to pray for her sick nephew. As a Catholic, having Francis nearby reminds her that God is always with her.
“It was about time someone came to speak with officials so we could have a better reputation,” she said.
Cano grew up in Juárez and is now herself raising a family in a place she once deemed insecure.
“Where I lived, you could hear the gunshots quite often,” she said. “You don’t hear them like you used to anymore.”
Solidarity from border neighbors
Pope Francis’ original border plans included a stop in El Paso, Texas, across Ciudad Juárez. Although he is now staying exclusively in Mexico, El Paso residents still hope to benefit from his presence.
Recently, the Hope Border Institute prepared for Francis’ visit by hosting a panel in St. Mark’s Catholic Church on the east side of the city. Among the attendees, Roberto Gomez, 17, a student at Cathedral High School. He lived in Juárez until he was 7 years old, moving to El Paso because of the outbreak in violence.
“It deeply moved me and it greatly upset me because I had a great life over there,” he said. “For some, there is a very deep connection with the city of Juárez. It’s not just a border town.”
Indeed, the two cities have a distinctive relationship with the border: Take the physical fence away and you have the largest binational metropolitan area in the Western Hemisphere. Families often have relatives on both cities.
But the drug-related violence intensified the differences on each side of the border. While Juárez faced a dangerous reputation during the first years of this decade, El Paso proudly presented itself as the safest city in the United States.
“Four years back, we wouldn’t even go at all,” said Gomez, who wants to be in Juarez for the pope’s visit. “Now I get to go every weekend or so. I can go with the feeling of safety, knowing that it’s not as bad as it used to be.”
Mark J. Seitz, the bishop of the El Paso Catholic Diocese, doesn’t think El Paso turned its back on its neighbor city.
“I think there is a deep sense here in El Paso that what is good for Juárez is good for us,” Seitz said. “We care about them, and I think we’ve had a similar feeling from the people in Juárez.”
Francis’ visit is a chance to show that collaboration between cities, he said.
“One thing I believe that Pope Francis will highlight is the sense of community across borders that can be found here, which I think is somewhat unique among border communities,” Seitz said.
A busy next few days
On his final day in Mexico, Francis will visit a local prison, meet factory workers and then hold a public mass before flying back to Rome that evening. As many as 450,000 people are expected to be in mass, or along the pope route.
In El Paso, the Sun Bowl stadium in the University of Texas at El Paso, with a capacity of more than 50,000 people, will stream the mass.
“I don’t think we’ve ever seen the number of people that will be attempting to cross within a few days as we will see now,” Seitz said. “This will make Christmas (travel) look like a mere trickle.”
Others anticipated the incoming flood from north to south of the border. Teresa Abuyen, 57, lives in San Diego but said she has been in Juárez for about a month awaiting Francis’ arrival.
Abuyen wandered around downtown on that Friday afternoon, posing for a photo with the Francis cutout in the city where she grew up.
“This is more than a symbol,” she said in Spanish. “This is God in physical form.”