Hector Guerrero/AFP/Getty Images
Pope Benedict XVI arrives in his popemobile at Miraflores College in Leon, in the Mexican state of Guanajuato, on Friday.
Pope Benedict XVI arrives in his popemobile at Miraflores College in Leon, in the Mexican state of Guanajuato, on Friday. Hector Guerrero/AFP/Getty Images
Crowds of people dressed in white and waving yellow flags lined the highway outside the Leon airport in the central Mexican state of Guanajuato to welcome Pope Benedict XVI. They cheered wildly when the grinning, 84-year-old pontiff sped past in his glass-sided popemobile.
The pope began his weeklong trip to Latin America on Friday afternoon. He's spending the weekend in Mexico before heading to Cuba.
The throngs of well-wishers stretched for miles along the highway from the airport into the center of Leon. Huge billboards welcomed the pontiff here, but the response elsewhere in Mexico to Benedict's trip has been lukewarm, given the current violence and political climate.
Annabel Rizo and her sister had been standing in the intense late afternoon sun Friday in hopes of catching a glimpse of the pope.
"We were very close," she says. "We could see his face, his eyes."
Her sister Olga says she believes Benedict was sent here at this moment in time by God. "Mexico has so many problems right now," she says.
She hopes the pope's visit will help Catholics come together and improve the country.
"For everything — for all the problems we have," she says, "the poverty, the drug violence, the political problems. Everything."
Pope Benedict XVI listens to a speech during his welcome ceremony in Mexico.
Pope Benedict XVI listens to a speech during his welcome ceremony in Mexico. Gregorio Borgia/AP
Benedict comes during a presidential campaign and amidst a brutal drug war that has terrified and desensitized much of the country.
Bernardo Barranco, a scholar with the Center for Religious Studies in Mexico City, says Benedict's predecessor, Pope John Paul II, was extremely popular in Mexico.
"In 1979, there was a very glamorous, very spectacular encounter between Pope John Paul II and Mexico," he says.
During Paul's first two trips to Mexico in 1979 and 1990, Barranco says, an estimated 25 million people flocked to see him.
Mexico remains one of the most Catholic countries in the world. In the 2010 census, 83 percent of Mexicans identified themselves as Catholic.
Organizers of the trip are expecting up to 300,000 people to attend an open-air Mass by Benedict on Sunday.
But Barranco says Benedict hasn't captured the public's imagination the way Paul did.
"Pope Benedict XVI comes during a very different time. With a country wounded, depressed by the prolonged violence," Barranco says, "a country that doesn't have a clear vision of its own future."
Speaking with reporters on his flight from Rome to Mexico, Benedict denounced the drug violence that's claimed almost 50,000 lives here over the last five years.
This is expected to be one of the leading themes of his visit to Mexico. He's also expected to call for a return to traditional Catholic values.